The Cunning Little Vixen – Janáček´s enchanting opera with Rattle´s Berlin Philharmonic

Leoš Janáček

In spite of the fact that I don’t write about them very often, I do very much like Czech composers. I just checked: so far two entries on Dvorak (none of them dedicated to him), another short mention of Martinu as part of a concert review. No entries for Smetana, same for Janacek.

Why is that? I really don’t know. Janacek in a way really flew under my radar screen. I had a couple of his string quartets which I liked, but not much beyond this.

So how do I end up seeing an opera he wrote?

Very simply: I was in Berlin, hadn’t been to see the Berlin Philharmonic for a while, and was able to spontaneously secure last minute tickets. Typically, the BPO with Rattle is booked out, prohibiting spontaneous trips to the amazing Sharoun concert hall.

Luckily, like me, the Berlin audience wasn’t familiar with this opera (original title: Příhody lišky Bystroušky) by Janacek at all.

I’m very glad I went, it was a fantastic evening.

The Cunning Little Vixen – Simon Rattle – Berlin Philharmonic – October 12, 2017

To be fair, my curiosity was helped by the fact that there were some amazing lead singers, with Gerald Finley and Lucy Crowe in the main roles, of Forester and Vixen respectively.

Furthermore, the always interesting Peter Sellars was responsible for the staging of the play, which was performaned not at one of Berlin many opera houses, but instead the traditional Berlin Philharmonic concert hall.

The opera itself has been only very rarely performed, you will find only a handful of recordings on your regular streaming service.

I hope this new performance will make it onto a formal recording, but I´ll make sure to check out the Digital Concert Hall of the Berlin philharmonic, where I hope this recording appears soon.

 

Berlin Philharmonic - Simon Rattle - Janacek - Cunning Little Vixen
Rattle during the opening of Janacek´s Cunning Little Vixen

 

The Berlin philharmonic and Rattle really shined, this outstanding music, that changes from sentimental to funny to very introvert by the minute.

The story (sung in Czech, but translated in real time on the displays) is full of double double-entendres and little nuances, and really goes beyond the animal fairy tale nature one could immediately expect looking at the title.

 

IMG_5484
Gerald Finley, Lucy Crowe, and Paulina Malefane

 

As mentioned above, Finley and Crowe were outstanding soloists, but the remaining cast was also very good, only some of the choirs and children roles were not fully up to the same standards, but this didn’t hurt the overall impact.

Peter Sellars didn’t have a lot to work with, there was basically one small stage with only the occasional table and chairs added, and large LCD screens with videos to illustrate the scenery (from a creek in the woods to moving images of chicken).

Sellars also used the entire space, with the chorus occasional singing from above you, and with some of the lead singers freely roaming the entire building.

 

Petter Sellars staging of the Cunning Little Vixen, Berlin Philharmonic
Peter Sllars creative use of space: note the choir on the upper balcony

 

The Berlin public in the nearly sold out hall was as enchanted and enthusiastic as I was, we got more than 10 minutes of standing ovations and cheering.

 

Berlin Philharmonic, Cunning Little Vixen, Janacek, Rattle
An enthusiastic Berlin audience after the performance

A truly memorable evening.

My rating: 5 stars

Let Me Weep – Rinaldo, Händel’s First Major Opera

In my post some time ago on The Top 10 Music That Gives Me Goose Bumps, I mentioned the famous aria “Lascia ch’io pianga” (Let me weep).

Georg Friedrich Händel

I still haven’t written about this piece, or actually about Georg Friedrich Händel  (I still prefer his German spelling, although in later years he became one of the first “expats” of all times in London and the English spelling of George Frideric may be more familiar to you) in general

Rinaldo, as its HWV number of 7 indicates, is one of the earlier Händel works, but in spite of this, Lascia is what we’d call recycling today, as it has been used twice before in other works, once without words in his op. 1, the opera Almira (rarely played these days), and also in the oratorio Il Trionfo Del Tempo E Del Disinganno (which in spite of its HWV number of 71 is also really early, but was reworked).

This kind of recycling in the baroque area was very common, even Bach used it all over the place, by the way. Many cantatas all over sudden will remind you of the Christmas Oratorio, or have a piece of the Brandenburg concertos.

Rinaldo HWV7

But back to Rinaldo. This was probably the first of his London operas. The story, is based during the first crusade near Jerusalem, and based on an epic by Torquato Tasso.

In spite of the great success of Lascia, the entire opera hasn’t been recorded that often. These days you basically have the choice between three versions (plus some DVD editions).

The oldest one is Jean-Claude Malgoires 1977 recording on Sony, still quite nice.

The to more recent ones are René Jacobs that I haven’t written about a lot yet, and Christopher Hogwood, both from the first decade of this century. Between the two I have a preference for Hogwood, thanks to its outstanding cast, in spite of the fact that Cecilia Bartoli sometimes is a bit heavy in terms of vibrato (I prefer the cleaner singing of the modern “historically informed performance” style).

This recording should be on every collectors shelf (or these days more likely, hard drive).

My rating: 4 stars (as beautiful as it is, I still think this can be bettered in a future version).

Handel Rinaldo Christopher Hogwood Cecilia Bartoli Decca

Recitals or “Best Of Compilations”

When I was younger, I was very snobby towards Best Of or “Highlight” versions of operas, I always wanted to get the full opera. With operas of the classical period, I’m still that way, however, for baroque opera, that are usually very long, have rather complex and/or weird stories I must admit I don’t always have the patience for 3h plus of Opera seria. Luckily you’ll find the most popular (and outstandingly beautiful) arias of Händel et al quite often on recital albums by individual soloist.

Let me recommend two very beautiful ones here that feature Lascia, by Patricia Petibon and Simone Kermes, respectively called Rosso and Drama, and both highly recommended. They offer an excellent entry into baroque opera.

Patricia Petitbon Rosso Andrea Marcon Venice Baroque Orchestra Deutsche Grammophon

Simone Kermes Dramma Sony

And finally, let me mention another beautiful version of Lascia, in a Jazz version this time, by the amazing trumpet player Paolo Fresu, on the album Kosmopolites:

Download Sources:

Hogwood’s Rinaldo: here (Qobuz)

Patricia Petitbon: Rosso: here (Qobuz)

Simone Kermes: here (Qobuz)

Paolo Fresu: Kosmopolites: here (Qobuz)