The Circle of Life: Příhody Lišky Bystroušky at the Bayerische Staatsoper

Janáček – The Cunning Little Vixen (Příhody Lišky Bystroušky)

Vixen Sharp-Ears – Elena Tsallagova
Fox – Angela Brower
Forester’s Wife / Owl – Lindsay Ammann
Schoolmaster / Mosquito – Jonas Hacker
The Forester – Wolfgang Koch
Sharp-Ears’ Child – Sylvia Langenhein
Chocholka the Hen – Eliza Boom
Cricket – Lara-Marie Haber
Frantík – Ferdinand Wabnitz
Frog – Julia Bastian
Grasshopper – Sarah Malki
Mrs Páskova – Mirjam Mesak
Pepík – Joséphine Chanson
Cock – Andrés Agudelo
Lapák the Dog / Woodpecker – Zhang Yajie
Pásek – Caspar Singh
šta the Poacher – Milan Siljanov
Priest / Badger – Martin Snell

Kinderchor der Bayerischen Staatsoper, Bayerischer Staatsopernchor, Bayerisches Staatsorchester / Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla.
Stage director – Barrie Kosky.

Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich, Germany.  Sunday, February 6th, 2022.

It was a gusty and cloudy day in Munich this afternoon for this matinee performance at the Nationaltheater of Barrie Kosky’s new production of Příhody Lišky Bystroušky, usually rendered into English as The Cunning Little Vixen, this most life-enhancing of operas.  For this staging, Kosky’s frst here since his Rosenkavalier was premiered in streaming last year, the house invited the exciting conductor, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, alongside a cast of Staatsoper regulars.  It was performed without intermission and in the original language.

Photo: © Wilfried Hösl/Bayerische Staatsoper

Kosky starts his staging not with a view of nature, but with a bare stage accompanied by the sound of ringing bells and a small crowd standing over a grave.  In Kosky’s universe, the Forester appears not to work the forest but instead to tend to graves, all while still carrying a gun.  This was the first of several incongruous touches throughout the evening.  Indeed, Kosky gives us no animals at all – the Vixen and Fox are visibly young women, and the other animals are clearly human.  There is a case to be made for a reading such as this, to explore the proximity of human and animal, but I’m not sure Kosky makes it.  Rather, one wonders why the Vixen woman was tied up outside the Forester’s house – was this a sign of abuse or something else?  I’m not convinced we were given an answer or indeed pointed to a considered theme. 

Photo: © Wilfried Hösl/Bayerische Staatsoper

Visually, his staging is rather monotone.  The humans wear black, while the animals tend to wear colours.  The stage furniture was provided for the most part by a set of glittery curtains, although occasionally these turned into red, when the Vixen and Fox spent the night together or after the Vixen was shot.  Janáček’s score abounds in orchestral and vocal colour, yet despite the glitter, the gloominess of Kosky’s staging negates the wealth of colour emerging from the pit.  In the passage where the Vixen dreamt of herself as a young girl, that glorious orchestral soaring was accompanied initially by some shadowy figures from behind the drapes who appeared and then were never seen again, and then by the hens screaming loudly while the orchestra bloomed resplendently, thereby ruining the spell of that wonderful passage.  Similarly, in Act 2, as the off-stage forest voices rang out setting the woodland scene, they were accompanied by the Vixen yawning loudly, again reducing the spell of the music.  After the Vixen and Fox got married, we saw countless sets of legs emerge through the drapes, apparently copulating, the point pushed home by two cannons ejaculating white glitter on stage once the music stopped.  This received muted chuckles from a few audience members.  Perhaps Kosky wanted to make a point about the differences between humans and animals, about how humans are prone to melancholy and animals to fun – but again, this felt underdeveloped.  In the final tableau, as the Forester reflected on life reborn, he walked into the distance alone on a dark stage.  Again, here, and so often during the evening, Kosky’s visuals felt at odds with both the music and the text.  Long-time readers will know that I like nothing more than being challenged about a work, to be made to think and feel.  Instead, here the spell of those magnificent final pages was lost, no sense of life reborn or abundant nature surrounding us, Kosky’s vision instead literally sucked the life from the work rather than giving it. 

Photo: © Wilfried Hösl/Bayerische Staatsoper

This was even more regrettable because musically this was a superb performance on every level.  Gražinytė-Tyla’s conducting was sensational.  Her tempi were swift, the opening catching the house strings a touch off guard, but they quickly rallied.  She seemed fully alive to that uniquely Janáčekian combination of soaring lyricism and rhythmic incisiveness.  Indeed, some of her tempi were really swift – the scene with the fox cubs in Act 3, for instance – yet once past the opening pages, she obtained playing of astounding precision from an orchestra on top form.  There was just one moment that left me slightly unconvinced, and that was in the very final scene in the dialogue between the Forester and the frog, the transition to that big closing peroration was a slightly jerky gear change.  The string tone was wonderfully translucent, the all-important oboe and clarinet soloists added wonderful luminance to the textures, while the brass played with virtuosic accuracy.     The off-stage chorus also sang with immaculate ensemble, despite the swift tempi, and the children’s chorus had clearly been exceptionally well-prepared.

Photo: © Wilfried Hösl/Bayerische Staatsoper

Elena Tsallagova sang the Vixen in a bright soprano that had an attractively warm middle.  There was a beguiling smile to the tone that felt ideally matched to the free-spirited nature of the music.  Tsallagova was an extremely energetic stage presence, running around on stage tirelessly.  The voice did tend to take on a little shallowness in the upper reaches.  That said, the way that she gave so generously of herself was most impressive, as was the beauty of tone she brought to the role.  Angela Brower coped heroically with the extremely high and declamatory tessitura for the Fox.  Indeed, the role sits well for her lyrical, soprano-ish mezzo, pealing out on high with uninhibited ease.  She had also clearly worked hard on the text. 

Photo: © Wilfried Hösl/Bayerische Staatsoper

Wolfgang Koch sang the Forester with a profound sense of humanity emerging through the rock-solid core of his firm baritone.  He had also worked hard on the text, using it as the starting point to articulate the line, while the higher reaches of the tessitura held no terrors for him.  He found a world-weariness to the final scene that made for an interesting reading.  In the remainder of the extensive cast, Jonas Hacker sang the Schoolmaster with a focused, easily-produced tenor.  Milan Siljanov sang Harašta with an impressively resonant bass-baritone.  Eliza Boom sang the Hen with confidence in an attractive soprano, while Andrés Agudelo sang the Cock in a handsome, golden-toned tenor.  The remaining roles reflected fully the standards expected at this fabled address.

Photo: © Wilfried Hösl/Bayerische Staatsoper

Musically, this Vixen was superb.  The singing was at the highest level and it was thrillingly conducted and played.  And yet, I must admit to have been left utterly cold by Kosky’s staging.  While I admire and appreciate his willingness to think differently about the work and to create a new interpretation of it, it felt that rather than illustrating and bringing this miraculous score to life, instead he removed the life from it, making what is a piece about life reborn, about contact with nature and the world around us, into something (literally) much darker.  Yes, of course there are moments of introspection and melancholy in the score, but these are balanced by the joyfulness of the foxy wedding, of the joy of living in the moment, and of seeing the circle of life carry on.  The evening was received with an extremely warm ovation for the singers, conductor and orchestra. 

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