A decade ago our Viennese friends Tommi and Martha indulged us on a whistlestop driving tour of Moravia, embracing Janáček territory from Brno via Luhačovice all the way to his birthplace in Hukvaldy as well as architect T's interest in Mies van der Rohe's Villa Tugendhat and the Bata development in Zlin. We stopped in Brno only for an afternoon, so I didn't have time then to take in its full wonders. Nor did it seem as pulsing and vital as it does now, with its thriving art, theatre and music scene and new artisan coffee bars all over the city. On that first visit I managed to visit the garden house in the grounds of the Organ School where the composer and his wife lived in later life, this time other crucial locations including the Augustinian monastery where Janáček was a lonely boarding chorister and music-maker
and the grave in the city cemetery pictured up top (the white chrysanthemums on the left are my offering, bought from one of the flower sellers at the gate). The quotation is from Janáček's setting of Tagore's The Wandering Scholar, with the selective words 'With his strength gone, his heart in the dust, like a tree uprooted'. Quite different from the life-goes-on optimism of his operatic epilogues, most radiant of all that in The Cunning Little Vixen after the heroine's death. where the Forester sings of forest summer magic, adding that 'men and women will walk with heads bowed, and realise that a more than earthly joy has passed this way'. No wonder Janáček wanted this played and sung at his funeral. And how he loved animals - there are photos of him with a number of pet dogs at his home in Brno. I like this one featuring miniature poodle Cert ('Devil').
The pretext this year was the stunning Sixth International Opera and Music Festival known simply as Janáček Brno, and featuring all the operas for the second time. I'll be writing about my slice of the experience on The Arts Desk on Saturday. But the main point here is to highlight a production I didn't see, by Jiří Heřman, Artistic Director of the Janáček Opera Company. He's the same superb director whose very moving view of Smetana's Libuše, looking from Masaryk's founding of the Czech state 100 years ago backwards to the foundation myth and forwards to a second liberation, was the highlight among the five events I witnessed.
The Cunning Little Vixen was premiered in Brno's beautiful National Theatre (now the Mahen Theatre, pictured above), on 6 November 1924, opened the Janáček Theatre in 1965 and inaugurated the renovated building at the start of this year's festival. Although I didn't get to see an opera there, I was given a tour around the stage, auditorium and newly redesigned foyers.
Heřman's production, screened via Opera Vision and thus, miraculously, available on YouTube indefinitely, offers such a sensitive and profoundly moving interpretation, so detailed and yet doing no fundamental violence to anything in the work's scenario. Its starting point is a historical fact which not many of us outside Czechia knew about: that Rudolf Těsnohlídek, creator of the Vixen stories in his Brno newspaper Lidové noviny, found an abandoned baby girl in the woods near where he lived, in Bílovice nad Svitavou not far from Brno (I intended to take a short train journey there, but still had too much to see in town, so as the Vixen and her Fox sing, 'wait until next May comes'). His discovery led to the founding of the Dagmar Children's Home, designed for free by master architect Bohuslav Fuchs, many of whose buildings I explored thanks to the Tourist Information Centre's excellent little book on Functionalism in Brno. I'll be writing anon on here about my itinerary, which included the Stadion Sokol where the premiere of the Glagolitic Mass took place.
So Dagmar is the setting for the opening scene, illustrated in the first of three production photos by Marek Olbrzymek above, where the children all take delight in their wooden toys (this was genuine, says Herman, from a generation all too used to computer games). Eventually the eggshell walls
crack open to reveal the natural world beyond.
Never in my experience - which so far totals six productions - have the adult and children's worlds been so perfectly in balance, or so beautifully and touchingly united in the final scene. Heřman's many ideas are as thoughtful as those of the (over) intellectual Stefan Herheim, sidestepping or postponing the obvious, but he's far more tender and human with the personenregie, which makes us warm so much to Forester and Vixen. Do set aside time to watch and shed a tear or two.