No opera has been successful in so many guises as The Cunning Little Vixen. Inspired by a newspaper serial strip cartoon series, it has come home in an animated cartoon video for TV, now on DVD. Geoff Dunbar's The Cunning Little Vixen does not purport to be a film of the opera and should not be confused with the Hytner/MacKerras Paris production at Le Chatelet. It had to be shortened to about one hour for TV and is at once both naive and subtle. Its wide appeal will join adults who know and love the opera, and children for whom opera is a world apart, as we have proved with grandchildren.
In Kent Nagano's effective reduced version of the score, the emphasis is primarily on the animals and these are characterised by Dunbar with drawn cartoon characters of a deceptive simplicity which fits well with the entire conception. Some of the voice-over text for the cartoon characters is more sprechgesang than true singing; a little shock at first but one quickly warms to this approach, which ensures word clarity without any need for English subtitles.
There is a fascinating additional documentary by the director, with demonstration of the stages of animation and an interactive story-board. Altogether one not to be missed. It is a great success and should not be spurned even by collectors who have other versions.
For a more conventional approach (though happily there is no set convention, and hopefully never will be one) we have Sir Charles MacKerras taking to Paris his unsurpassed knowledge of the composer and of The Cunning Little Vixen opera . In Nicholas Hytner's production of the complete opera the foxes are defiantly human, with no sentimentality in their characterisation. The DVD cover picture of foxy domesticity, with Eva Jenis knitting and her husband Hana Minutillo contentedly smoking a pipe, sets the scene in which humans are a disgruntled lot, full of regrets for life having passed them by. Some of the animals are doubled with the small cast of disgruntled people, with Sarah Connolly notable as the Innkeeper's wife, the Jay and the Cock, who unwittingly leads all his wives to slaughter, falling for the Vixen's trickery. The forester, Thomas Allen, whose gun is a more trusted friend than his wife, retains delight in the renewal of nature with the passing seasons, which is the opera's central theme, alongside "the melancholy of growing old", a balance between them achieved in the important orchestral interludes between the scenes. The Paris Orchestra responds well to an idiom which may not be their regular fare, and for those who like their home entertainment to have a visual component this is a full-length account of the life and death of Sharp-Ears Bystrouka which is well worth acquiring.
Peter Grahame Woolf