Janáček in Sovietland

The Argumentative Old Git writes about two opera performances he’s been to recently. One of them was a semi-staged performance of The Cunning Little Vixen by Leoš Janáček at the Barbican, with Simon Rattle conducting the LSO and Lucy Crowe and Gerard Finley singing the principal parts. We had an interesting discussion in the comments over the opera’s title: why is the vixen called little in most translations – not only into English but also into French, German and Russian – while in the Czech original, it’s simply a female fox, literally a “vixen called Sharp Ears”? Too much cuteness.

A more interesting question, perhaps, is why Janáček’s operas were seldom staged outside of Czechoslovakia between WWII and the 1980s. In the post-war Soviet Union, Jenůfa was produced once as far as I know – in 1958 at the Bolshoi, with Zdeněk Chalabala conducting and Irina Arkhipova singing Kostelnička. It was considered an extremely difficult work for the Russian singers.

Was Janáček ideologically unacceptable? Perhaps he was harshly critical of the Bolshevik regime, but I don’t know if that’s true. We do know that Janáček was a Russophile and composed three operas based on works by Dostoevsky, Gogol and Ostrovsky. Moreover, Káťa Kabanová is an operatic retelling of The Thunderstorm, the play by Alexander Ostrovsky that was part of the secondary school curriculum under the communists and has remained there since.

However, the Soviet opera-going public, especially the Bolshoi crowd, was for the most part conservative and would always prefer Puccini to Janáček. That could have been a factor. In addition, despite Charles Mackerras’s early efforts, Janáček didn’t go into fashion in the West until the 1980s or the 1990s, and Soviet audiences always looked west – sometimes to Poland but more often beyond the Warsaw block – for cultural guidance.

The most serious obstacle, I suspect, was the need for back-translation. Up to the late 1980s, Soviet opera companies performed non-Russian works in a Russian translation. By itself, it wasn’t remarkable – even today, Janáček is sometimes sung in English in the UK – but the reverse-translated libretto was bound to differ from the Russian original. In the case of Káťa Kabanová, it would be impossible to use Ostrovsky’s text, some of which was all too familiar to Russian audiences. Translating the libretto would create a Russian double of the original text – no big deal by itself but almost guaranteed to drive the Soviet cultural authorities into a fit of demented rage.

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