Leos Janacek wrote in a letter, ‘I have begun writing The Cunning Little Vixen. A merry thing with a sad end: and I am taking up a place at that sad end myself’.
There is no doubt that in many ways the opera is a ‘merry thing’. It is by far his sunniest stage work and its inbuilt anthropomorphic joke of animals behaving like humans leads to many moments of pure comedy. On a first hearing, the ‘sad end’ might be taken to be the death of the Vixen. However, this incident in the opera’s second last scene, is treated with considerable musical restraint. Instead we must look elsewhere for the ‘sad end’. The clue lies in Janacek’s suggestive self-identification with the ending of his opera, and with the sadness of ageing and old age, for Janacek was approaching seventy when he completed the work. The opera is imbued with a sende of time passing and of the cyclical nature of life, which is movingly achieved in the opera’s final moments by a dream sequence, which returns to the location and animals of the opening scene. The ending, with a vision of the Vixen’s daughter, the spitting image of her mother, enables us to view the Vixen’s death as a contribution to a larger, infinitely continuing life-cycle.
In many ways regarded as Janacek’s most accessible opera, The Cunning Little Vixen is not a complacent work. The dramatic modes with which the composer experiments – the unique blend of dance and song, the strange mixing of animal and human worlds, the cinematic succession of tiny scenes – were advanced for their time and the opera had to wait many decades to win over audiences and critics.