3/07/10, Opera de la Bastille, Paris
2 hrs. La Petite Renarde Rusee, in French. We'd never seen it before, in English, French or Czech, and I'm in two minds about it. Like Janacek's other operas, and unlike the classics of the 19th century repertoire, the words seem to take precedence: set with great care, the music supporting but not often overwhelming them. Fine if you speak Czech; less happy if you're relying on surtitles; less happy still if those surtitles are in exceedingly idiomatic French.
Structurally there's a problem too. The work started life (literally) as a comic strip, a narrative by a local newspaper journalist alongside some fetching drawings. So you have a number of (very) short scenes involving a multitude of characters, animal and human. The result is infuriatingly episodic, full of action which seems arbitrary (because not properly prepared dramatically), with little opportunity for character development. Even La Petite Renarde herself, who is on stage more or less throughout, is no more than sketched in as a naughty little thing.
The first two acts are all derived from the comic strip and culminate in our heroine's wedding to a handsome young fox. The best bit was the love duet for the fox and vixen in act two. The third act was apparently written by Janacek himself. In it the vixen has a brood of little ones, but has not lost her teasing habits. She teases the poultry man... and he shoots her, bang! Suddenly she's dead. This is striking and plausible. It was also curiously moving, not so much because of the death but because of the scene that follows in which the animals (children dressed in silly costumes as birds, insects and a hopping green frog) return to mourn. In scene one the frog leapt onto the gamekeeper as he slept and woke him, leading to his capture of the vixen; in the final scene the gamekeeper returns and spots the frog and says he knows him... only to be told by the frog that that was his grandfather. For some reason it made us both cry.
The vixen was sung by Adriana Kucerova, who looks the part and is Czech (I think). But I had serious reservations about the production and in particular the design: a field of enormous comic book sunflowers, out of which the animals emerged in the first scene; a gigantic modern farm in which the vixen is imprisoned among people dressed as comic book cows and chickens; worst of all a railway line running left to right across the stage, in every scene (though exact positioning varied from scene to scene). It made walking across the stage a trial; the point I suppose was to highlight the presence of man and the things of man everywhere, but it just got in the way.
Lots of kids in the audience. Dunno what they made of it. They might have found the gaily coloured set and costumes and the rather arbitrary plotting appealing; they may have found it baffling or frustrating (as I did).
We had to change seats. We'd been booked in the front row of the vertiginous second balcony of the Bastille; I felt deeply uncomfortable. Luckily it wasn't full and a couple just away to our left, three or four rows back, agreed to swap for our better seats.