Inspired by a local newspaper strip about the scheming vixen "sharp-ears", Janácek's extraordinary opera turned convention on its head and created music of heart-stopping beauty* You can watch the opera live on the Guardian on Sunday 10 June at 6.30pm (BST). It will also be available to view on demand until 22 June. Details here
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The most extraordinary and unconventional of Janácek's stage works also had the most unconventional of beginnings. The story of how he came across the story of The Cunning Little Vixen and rewrote it as a libretto may have been considerably embroidered over the years, but its bare bones are undisputed: Rudolf Tesnohlídek's novel about the scheming vixen Bystrouška was serialised in Janácek's local Brno newspaper in 1920, complete with line-drawings by the artist Stanislav Lolek; Janácek was clearly captivated by the story and the illustrations, and his original newspaper cuttings, together with the story as published in book form the following year, still exist today, complete with his copious annotations.
But that peculiar starting point provided Janácek with much more than just the narrative thread for Vixen. The episodic nature of the story, together with the vignettes that illustrated it, carried over into the structure of the opera itself, in which short scenes follow each other with almost cinematic conciseness; the transitions are so seamless that within each of the opera's three acts Janácek does not bother to number individual scenes but simply outlines what is happening at each point, so that there are sections of the score that are labelled How Bystrouška was Caught; Bystrouška in the Farmyard; Bystrouška Escapes, and so on.
The result is a work of almost improvised fluidity in which set pieces such as arias and ensembles hardly exist at all, and in which the orchestra takes much more than a supporting or merely illustrative role. When he was planning the opera, Janácek considered creating an "opera-ballet", "an opera as well as a pantomime" as he termed it in an early interview, and elements of that concept survive in the final work, especially in the purely orchestral sections that depict in such magical musical detail the life of the forest where the Vixen lives – sounds that he had often transcribed from nature during his walks through the Moravian forest around his home. That was one of the means through which the two worlds of the opera – the human and the animal – are differentiated, for while the village scenes involving the schoolmaster, the innkeeper and the forester are recognisably the work of the same composer as Janácek's earlier operas Jenufa and Kátya Kabanová, the scenes in the forest have an utterly different, almost phantasmagoric feel.
Yet there's nothing cosy about Janácek's depictions of either world. In Tesnohlídek's original story everything ends as it always must in good comedies, with the Vixen outwitting the humans and she and the Fox settling down to live happily ever after. But Janácek knew that neither human nor animal life was like that – he has the Vixen killed by a poacher, so that the uneasy sense of something provisional that's been present in the music ever since the opening bars of the orchestral prelude is confirmed.
Yet typically the Vixen's death also prepares the way for the opera's radiant, heart-stopping finale, in which human and animal worlds come together; the forester's hymn to creation and to his acceptance of the cyclic nature of life and of the constant renewal of the forest around him is one of the most glorious moments in opera that I know.
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