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Janáček,The 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 everywhere.

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 overture ended.

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 happen.

 



Anne Ozorio

 

 



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Contributors: Contributors: Marc Bridle, Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling,  Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, John Leeman, Sue Loder,Jean Martin, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas,Alex Verney-Elliott,Raymond J Walker, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)