Performances of Janáček and Szokolay in Central Europe

Two shortish operas from Central Europe seen in Central Europe: Janáček’s Cunning Little Vixen at the Staatsoper Vienna and (less familiar to Western Europeans) Szokolay’s Blood Wedding in Budapest. Both were played without an interval, so we were out of the theatre by 9 p.m. Both have powerful, expressive scores with, in the case of Janáček, lyrical passages; and musically both were given satisfying performances, with strong casts and with experienced conductors who were compatriots of the composers, János Kovács in Budapest and Tomáš Netopil in Vienna.

But there the similarity ends. The Hungarian work closely follows the famous Lorca play, a dark study of passion and revenge; the Czech is one of love of, and with, nature and, while it is not free from death and disappointment, it is a glorious affirmation of the continuity of life. Scenically the two presentations were very different. In the hands of director Balázs Kovalik and designer Péter Horgas, the Szokolay was partly stylized with prominent symbolic effects, partly expressionist. The set was predominantly constructivist, the stage being dominated by a metallic structure resembling a curved skating board platform up or against which the characters run in anger or frustration. The darkness of the piece was also reflected in the costumes: all black except for a little white, for innocence,  and a little red, for blood and death. The theatrical experience was total.

In comparison the Janáček at the Staatsoper was dramatically limp. The veteran director Otto Schenk, known for his conservative  productions, with the aid of designer Amra Buchbinder, had, in a naturalistic mode, filled the stage with a forest and hordes of cute animals. Initially impressive, this soon became over-cluttered and distracting. Too busy admiring, or in my case not admiring, the pretty pictures and sprightly activity, the audience must have found it difficult to engage in the central drama of animals and humans coming to terms with nature. We needed something sharper, with more left to the imagination. Might I be allowed to conclude that this staging of the Vixen was insufficiently cunning, insufficiently little?