Excursions of Mr Brouček: Jiří Bělohlávek (conductor), BBC Symphony
Orchestra, BBC Singers, Stephen Betteridge (chorusmaster), Kenneth Richardson
(stage director) Barbican Hall, London 25.02.2007(AO)
Jan Vack: Mr Brouček
Peter Stracka : Mazal/Blankytný/Pertřík
Maria Haan : Malinka/Etherea/Kunka
Roman Janál : Sacristan/Lunabor/Domšik from the Bell
Zdeněk Plech : Würfl/Čaroskvoucí/Councillor
Ivan Kusjner : The apparition of Svatopluk Čech/Second Taborite
Lenka Šmidová : Housekeeper/Kedruta
Martina Bauerová : Young Waiter/Child prodigy/Student
Jaroslav Březina : Painter/Duhoslav/Voijta /Voice of the Professor
Aleš Briscein : Composer/Harfoboj/Miroslav the goldsmith
Václav Sibera : Poet/Oblačný/Vaček Bradatý
The Excursions of Mr Brouček has a reputation for being unexportable
because of the references to Czech history and Prague art circles in the
composer’s time. The Study Afternoon which preceded the performance provided
much background information about the political sub text and its implications.
It’s important, and certainly enhances an appreciation of the opera. Here,
though, it worked as a more universal satire – frauds, boors and cowards exist
Since the opera is so rarely presented, it’s assumed that it’s hard to stage.
Again, this semi-staged production proved otherwise. Kenneth Richardson, who
staged the recent South Bank Death in Venice, bathed the stage in mysterious
half-light. The cast shift-shapes from “reality”, to the moon and to the 15th
century by simply changing headgear. It’s a simple, elegant solution which works
by sparking the audience’s imagination. Imagination is one thing Mr Brouček
doesn’t have. His bowler hat and three piece suit sum up his pretensions,
undaunted even when he’s spent the night in a waterlogged barrel. This simple,
effective staging enhanced the entire interpretation, on several levels.
Janáček was so determined that the opening overture should evoke the image of
Prague at nightfall, that he climbed the highest tower in the city to observe
the way the skies and the city transformed as dusk encroached. The short,
hurried clusters of notes eventually melt into an expansive swathe of sound,
gradually darkening in timbre. It’s like a panorama in a film, where details get
gradually absorbed in a wider whole. Themes Janáček was fascinated by echo
throughout. The “enchantment” music in The Diary of One Who Disappeared is
particularly relevant, because it was written while the composer was working on
the first Excursion. There’s something magical about Brouček’s being spirited
away, even it’s only a result of his being blind drunk. There are themes what
will surface in the ten fertile years to come in the composer’s career, but
Brouček is singular in many ways. It’s Janáček’s own “Midsummer’s Night’s Dream”
complete with Bottom in the form of Brouček.
Bělohlávek emphasised the drama in the music, bringing out rich, dark colours.
The orchestral interludes in this opera are so lovely in themselves, that they
are effective too, as a suite. Bělohlávek has recorded the suite with the Prague
Philharmonic. Indeed, one of my reasons for attending was to hear him conduct
this, since his affinity for Janáček is so strong. I was thrilled, because he
inspired the orchestra to play with great animation and feeling, as if their
instruments were “singing”, in a kind of chorus of their own. Individual parts
were distinctive, yet beautifully blended into the textures of the whole. In
fact, I eagerly anticipated the next orchestral interlude, hardly had the
The first Excursion has Brouček transported to the Moon where people live on
scents, not on food. Needless to say his obsession with alcohol, and “minced pig
flesh stuffed in an intestine” disgusts the ultra-aesthetes on the moon. The
land on the moon is supposed to be a veiled satire on cultural snobbery, but
Brouček is such a boor that he’s hardly sympathetic. Maybe having Etherea fall
in love with him is an indication of her bad taste, rather than just a reference
to Titania. Janáček resolves the piece by ending with a “Dawn Duet” balancing
the right night music of the overture. Etherea is Malinka again, reunited with
her lover Mazal, their music so beautiful it dazzles, driving the events of the
night back into the shadows.
Janáček wrote the second excursion in a mood of patriotic fervour, so it’s more
focussed than the first. Stumbling into a tunnel, Brouček wakes up in 1420 on
the eve of the most important battle in Czech history. In an imaginative
plot-within-a plot, the author of the original stage play adapted for this opera
appears as an apparition. He says that the heroism of the past has been replaced
by the stupidity and crassness Brouček symbolises. Janáček is signalling as
loudly and clearly as he can, that he’s concurring with Svatopluk Čzech’s views
on “modern” venality. Like the denizens of the Moon, the Hussite rebels may have
their blind spots, but both accept strangers (and, by implication, new ideas).
This was the crucial turning point in Czech history, and the rebels are prepared
to die for their beliefs. Musically, this Excursion inhabits a different world
to the first. It’s more strident and discordant, the pace more urgent, the
undertones darker. Hussite hymns are incorporated into the blazing anthem
Janáček writes for the chorus, amplified resoundingly by full orchestra. The
choral writing is particularly interesting, because the style changes just as
the solo parts transform. Just as the overture is a panorama, the choruses here
depict massed forces.
Brouček repays the Hussites’ hospitality by refusing point blank to help.
Brouček describes his home, and his status as a prosperous landlord. “Oh”, says
the brave Hussite maiden Kunka, “those houses were burned to the ground”.
Brouček can’t and won’t make the connection. At last, he gets exposed, when
witnesses tell how he denounced the Hussites so the Germans would let him go.
People like him, as Čech said, were traitors. The Hussites throw Brouček into a
barrel, but of course, fellows like him always survive. He’s soon back in
Würfl’s beer cellar, claiming it was he, who single-handedly routed the Germans.
Under Bělohlávek’s direction, the orchestral playing was particularly dynamic,
but the soloists were certainly not overwhelmed. They are leading stars in the
Czech Republic, and Janáček specialists. They were all impressive, clearly
enjoying an opportunity to show London what Prague can do. Their singing was
vivid and animated, so you could follow the meaning, without having to slavishly
follow the surtitles.
Maria Haan, as Malinka/Etherea/Kunka impressed with her firm, steady tone. Her
forceful, but attractive singing added strength of character to her parts – a
necessary counterpoint to the feckless Brouček. In Czech, “Brouček” means
“beetle”, so Jan Vacík’s squirming and scuttling brought another level of
meaning to the part. Ivan Kusjner role may have been relatively small, but he
brought to it great weight. Březina’s clear tenor balanced Haan well, in their
duet. Janál created Domšík so vividly that reports of his “death” were quite
moving. Zdeněk Plech is relatively young, but he might be one to watch, as bass
voices with this much flexibility are always interesting.
After the performance, I was driving through the tunnel near the Barbican, and
there walking on the pavement were Haan and Lenka Smídová, who’d sung Kedruta,
the Hussite maidservant to such effect.
They were both carrying the huge bouquets they’d been presented with earlier. It
was a surreal sight – yet another “transformation” in a world where anything can