opera in three acts

libretto by Leoš Janáček on a story by Rudolf Těsnohlídek


premiere 6. 11. 1924 Brno

first edition Universal Edition, Vienna 1924 (piano-vocal score), 1961 (full score), Editio Peters, Leipzig 1984 (ed. Miroslav Barvík and Reiner Zimmermann), Universal Edition, Vienna 2010 (piano-vocal score, full score, ed. Jiří Zahrádka, critical edition)

  • Janáček was inspired to write the opera by the cartoons about the adventures of the vixen Bystrouška, which were serialized in the Lidové noviny newspaper. The poetic work combines the worlds of animals and people and is testament to the composer's love of nature and a celebration of life.

The stories about the pet vixen Bystrouška were serialized in 1920 in the Lidové noviny newspaper. The author - the writer and journalist Rudolf Těsnohlídek - wrote them based on the charming drawings by the artist Stanislav Lolek. They were great hits with the readers, and one fan was the Janáčeks' servant, Marie Stejskalová, who later recalled, "..One time I was reading it and there was that picture of Bystrouška getting married to Zlatohřbítek and carrying a bouquet. I found it terribly funny how they were strutting along like that. I didn't think that anyone could hear me laughing - the mistress wasn't at home and the master was in his study. But then suddenly he appeared at the kitchen door:

- Woman, what are you laughing at?

- At this Bystrouška, sir.

- What Bystrouška?

- You mean to say you haven't read it? It's written by Mr Těsnohlídek from the Lidové noviny.

I handed him the newspaper, he looked at the picture, read it, and began to smile, and I said to him:

- Sir, you know just how animals talk to one another, you are always noting down the voices of birds - well, this would make quite an opera!

He didn't react, but from then on he kept an eye out for every instalment of Bystrouška."

Due to other commitments, Janáček did not begin work on the opera until 1922. "I'm now working on a girl's novel, 'The Vixen Bystrouška'. I no longer have any time to think about myself. I've never worked so hard in my life as this year," wrote the composer to his muse, Kamila Stösslová. First of all he had to adapt Těsnohlídek's story for an opera libretto. He reduced the number of characters and concentrated on the main sections of the plot which emphasize the connection between the human world and nature. He then started work on his seventh opera. The National Theatre in Brno asked if they could give the world premiere and Janáček happily agreed, as he had had only positive experiences with the Brno opera ensemble, led by the conductor František Neumann. The premiere on 6. 11. 1924 at the Theatre on the Balustrades (today's Mahen Theatre) was a great success, part of which was due to the wonderful conducting by František Neumann, the witty directing by Ota Zítek and Eduard Milén's imaginative scenery. The premiere at Prague's National Theatre was only six months later as part of the festival programme organized by the International Society for Contemporary Music.

Opera synopsis

Act 1

One hot summer afternoon a gamekeeper is walking through his forests. He lays down to rest for a while and soon falls asleep. The forest is full of life: flies circle above, a cricket and a grasshopper play a waltz, a mosquito staggers around, drunk on human blood, and is chased by a young frog. The young Bystrouška observes all of this in fascination. She is particularly taken by the frog, but when she tries to take a closer look the frog, terrified, leaps onto the gamekeeper's nose. The startled gamekeeper sees Bystrouška and before the fox can gather its wits, he is already taking her to his lakeside lodge.

Scene change

Bystrouška lives locked up in the courtyard of the lodge along with a dog, Lapák, and a brood of hens. The gamekeeper's grandson boasts to a friend about the new addition and teases Bystrouška with a stick. As a result the vixen bites his leg and the gamekeeper ties her up as punishment. Bystrouška moans and dreams all night about living free in the forest. In the morning she thinks up a new strategy. First on the receiving end are the rooster and its hens, who boast about their exemplary work-rate. Bystrouška easily dupes the fickle creatures and the rooster and the majority of his retinue pay with their lives. The angry gamekeeper goes after the vixen with a club, but she bites through her rope and disappears into the forest.

Act 2

Bystrouška is enjoying her new-found freedom. She ejects the old badger from its set and settles there herself.

Scene change

At the Pásek Inn, the gamekeeper is seated with this friends the schoolmaster and the priest, playing cards and enjoying their drink. They all leave the inn unsteadily on their feet. This drunken night-time walk is observed by a hidden Bystrouška. She is hiding between the sunflowers which the drunken schoolmaster soon approaches - he mistakes the shaking flowers for the face of Terinka, a woman he is in love with. The priest remembers his love from his student days, but his reminiscences are also interrupted by Bystrouška. The gamekeeper shoots at her and both men run away in terror.

Scene change

In the light of a summer night, Bystrouška meets the fox Zlatohřbítek. An initial fondness grows into love, which is consummated in the foxes' den. The forest creatures indignantly follow Bystrouška's immoral life, though they are placated by a hastily arranged wedding.

Act 3

Summer passes and in autumn the gamekeeper comes across Harašta, a poultry dealer, in the forest. Harašta boasts about his forthcoming marriage to Terinka, but the gamekeeper is more interested in whether Harašta hasn't been poaching in his forest. Bystrouška and Zlatohřbítek appear with a litter of fox cubs and when Bystrouška smells Harašta and his bag full of poultry, she decides to have some fun. She pretends that she is unable to walk on all fours, but when Harašta aims at her, she nimbly disappears. However, the game goes wrong - Harašta shoots and Bystrouška falls down dead.

Scene change

At Pásek's Inn, the gamekeeper discovers that Harašta's Terinka was given a new fox-fur muff for her wedding. The schoolmaster takes the news of Terinka's wedding very hard, but the gamekeeper soothes him by telling him that she wasn't the woman for him. Everyone starts to feel nostalgic and the gamekeeper decides it is better to go home. On his way through the forest he remembers his youth, he admires the beauty of the forest and realizes that life repeats itself. The forest looks as it did when he caught Bystrouška. And then he sees her...the spitting image of her mother! He wants to catch her again but he is prevented by a small frog, the grandson of the one from before. The circle of life is eternal.