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Opera - <strong>Patrick O'Connor</strong> on the extraordinary career of Leos Janacek

What could be more up to date, in terms of the 1920s, than opera based on a newspaper cartoon character? That was the starting point for Leos Janacek's most accessible work, The Cunning Little Vixen. This month, Opera North is mounting a new production of it, and the Royal Opera has a staging, imported from Hamburg, of Janacek's first great success, Jenufa.

Half a century ago, Janacek's name was unknown to the majority of concert- and opera-goers, and he was regularly dismissed as being difficult, obscure or, in the words of Ernest Newman, the doyen of English music critics, "only a cut above the amateur". So much for critical awareness. The change began slowly enough, with the first British performance of any of his works, Katya Kabanova, at Sadler's Wells in 1951, conducted by Charles Mackerras. It took another 33 years for all Janacek's major works to get a hearing in Britain - Osud finally reached the Coliseum in 1984 - but now he stands secure as one of the half-dozen most important opera composers of the past 50 years. There's a curious, though not exact, parallel with Mozart - it was nearly 20 years after Mozart's death before any of his operas were staged in London.

It takes two generations, perhaps, for listeners to adjust their ears and their taste in music. What is more significant is that the increasing public awareness and popularity of Janacek's work have coincided with the reassessment, if not rejection, of the atonal, principally Germanic school that grew up precisely at the time Janacek was composing his major works.

Although he was a man of the 19th century (he was born in 1854), Janacek belongs totally to the 20th. Jenufa dates from 1904, Osud from 1907, but it was the last ten years of his life (he died in 1928) that brought the great outpouring of work upon which his reputation rests.

The Excursions of Mr Broucek, The Diary of One Who Disappeared, Katya Kabanova, The Cunning Little Vixen, The Makropulos Case and From the House of the Dead make up the most extraordinary sequence of operas ever to have been composed by a man in his sixties and seventies. Desmond Shawe Taylor, erstwhile music critic of the New Statesman, championed Janacek's work almost before anyone else. In 1956, he wrote: "The final impression [of Vixen] is of an almost pantheistic absorption in the eternal self-renewal of nature surprisingly combined with a sharply humorous eye for human and animal peculiarities."

Janacek's music is inextricably bound up with the sound of the Czech language, its rhythm and inflections, leading Mackerras to describe "the absolutely unique contours" of Janacek's personal style. His orchestral sound, today as easily recognisable as that of, for instance, Wagner or Mahler, derives on the one hand from his absorption in Czech and Moravian folk music, on the other from his natural place as one of the early 20th-century romantics, alongside Puccini, Strauss and Debussy. That Janacek's music sounds nothing like theirs shouldn't come as a surprise, but what was remarkable about the late flowering of his genius was that he strove to reduce the size of his orchestra, to make the sounds sparer, to avoid what he called "over-varnishing" the score.

Annabel Arden, who is producing Vixen for Opera North, maintains: "You don't do anything to Vixen, you just do it. That's the challenge." Janacek rejects any sentimentality in the depiction of his forest and farmyard characters. The cast list includes cricket, grasshopper, gnat, frog, badger, owl and dragonfly, as well as the vixen, her fox and cubs. Rudolf Tesnohlidek, the author of the texts that accompanied Stanislav Lolek's drawings which were Janacek's inspiration, was at first astonished at the idea of an opera based on his work. He was adamant that cuteness should play no part in his opera. It ends with one of Janacek's most original and magic touches, as the forest gamekeeper lies in the woods, surrounded by the sounds of nature, and comes to terms with the notion of survival and age.

By contrast, Jenufa can seem melodramatic. It's a classic love triangle, complicated by the interjection of a religious fanatic, the Kostelnicka (to be sung at Covent Garden by the extraordinary Anja Silja). The Hamburg production by Oliver Tambosi has been praised for its austerity. In avoiding folksiness, he has striven to show not the conventional happy ending, but the continuation of strife, when there is no easy way out. Jenufa marked the beginning of Janacek's quest for what he called "speech melody". Although he moved further way from the format of conventional opera, with arias and duets, he developed one of the most personal and subtle melodic signatures in all music. He studied the speech patterns of mental patients, the noises of animals and birds, and he listened as carefully to traditional folk music as he did to the emerging contemporary school from western Europe. He wrote: "The spirit that infuses all life can be found near at hand, in ourselves, among people perfectly familiar to us, enchanting and piquant, arresting melodies and amazing scenes." That's why his music speaks more directly to modern audiences than any composer of his time.

The Cunning Little Vixen is in repertory at Opera North (0113 222 6222) from 14 September. Jenufa is at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London (020 7304 4000), from 28 September

This article first appeared in the 17 September 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The end of the open society?