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Leoš JANÁČEK (1854-1928)
The Cunning Little Vixen - opera in three acts (1924) [103:00]
Quinn Kesley - Gamekeeper; Judith Christin - Gamekeeper's Wife and Owl; Dennis Petersen - Schoolmaster and Mosquito; Kevin Langan - Parson and Badger; Gustáv Belácek - Harašta; Federico Lepre - Pásek the innkeeper; Isabel Bayrakdarian - Bystrouška the vixen; Marcella Polidor - innkeeper's wife; Lauren Curnow - fox
Chorus and Orchestra of the Maggio Musicale Florence/Seiji Ozawa
rec. Teatro del Maggio Musicale, Florence, Italy, 8 November 2009
Sound Format: PCM Stereo, DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 Surround
Picture Format: 16:9, 1080i
Region Worldwide
Subtitles: English, German, French, Italian, Korean, Spanish
Reviewed in surround
ARTHAUS MUSIK 108 094 [103:00]

I have felt for many years that introducing young people to opera needs the right choice of work. The challenge lies in an attractive staging of the story and has nothing whatever to do with the difficulty or popularity of the music. Thus all three of my children started opera with Janáček's The Cunning Little Vixen in David Pountney's gorgeous realisation at the Welsh National Opera. Had they seen this present production at the Maggio Musicale in Florence they would have been equally enchanted, and that is praise indeed, for Pountney defined the appearance of this opera for many people in the UK. The Maggio Musicale's director Laurent Pelly has gone for less subtle wit and more 'realism'. Clearly this story is not realistic so what we have on stage is a cross between children's cartoon and pantomime. It looks wonderful from first to last. The costumes, the staging, the dancing insects, everything is well nigh perfect.
Am I suggesting that this is a children's opera? No. Janacek's great masterpiece is a timeless tale of the cycle of life, love and death with music so beautiful that one can only wonder at how he does it. Suitable for all ages from 9 to 90 but understood better the older you get. The cast sing with phenomenal accuracy and, yes, beauty. Isabel Bayrakdarian's Vixen is wonderfully clear and firm-toned, as are Quinn Kesley's Gamekeeper and Lauren Curnow's Fox. All the shorter roles - none could be called 'minor' in this most subtly constructed score - are done with insight and accuracy. Ozawa's orchestra rises to the occasion with the most transparent sounds and singing tone. He understands this music completely and delineates Janáček's complex rhythms to perfection. The score is radiant from the opening in the forest, right through to the sad final scene between the Schoolmaster and the Gamekeeper. The glowing ending where the frog points out that he is "... not the same one! That was my grandpa", and thus makes the final link in the circle of life.
Arthaus continue to put music over the menus and, in the case of the Blu-ray disc, continue to restrict access to the sound and subtitles unless one uses the player controls. If one selects 'play opera' rather than 'trailers' from the only menu choice available, one gets a stereo replay of an opera without subtitles unexpectedly called La piccola volpe astuta, which is fine if one's Italian and Czech are up to it and one lacks surround replay. However, the sound and picture are excellent, though the camerawork is sometimes a bit too detailed and close-up when a more full view of the stage is called for. Given the costumes it is understandable that the video director might want to show them off. The booklet notes by Steffen Georgi are excellent.
Dave Billinge