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Leoš JANÁČEK (1854–1928)
The Excursions of Mr Brouček (1918)
CD 1
PART 1: The Excursion of Mr. Brouček to the Moon [65:01]

CD 2
PART 2: The Excursion of Mr. Brouček to the 15th Century [57:59]
Matěj Brouček – Jan Vaník

Mazal/ Blankytný – Peter Straka
Sacristan/Lunobor – Roman Janál
Málinka/Etherea/Kunka – Maria Haan
Würfl/Councillor – Zdeněk Plech
BBC Singers, BBC Symphony Orchestra/Jiří Bĕlohlávek

rec. London, Barbican Centre, February 2007
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 477 7387 [65.01 + 57:59]
Experience Classicsonline



Janáček’s only comic opera is based on a satirical novel by Svatopluk Čech, The True Excursion of Mr Brouček to the Moon. MusicWeb-International has a marvellous resource on the operas of Janáček, and lots of juicy analysis and background details can be found here on the The Excursions of Mr Brouček, including the bizarre background to the libretto for this opera. A version of such details can also be found in the booklet notes for this delightfully presented new release, as well as the entire libretto in French, German and English, alongside the original Czech. My only complaint is that the track-listings against the libretto texts are tiny, and hidden in the spine of the pages, making finding your place a real task sometimes. Each part is on separate discs, but the libretto of the second part is spread over two booklets. Any mad scramble for the box or dash for the pause button can however be tempered, as there at least two minutes of orchestral interlude at the changeover, which occurs at the opening of Part II Act II.

The opera is symmetrical, in two parts, each divided into two acts. The first part, The Excursion of Mr. Brouček to the Moon, involves the drunken Brouček in a dream in which he escapes earthly commitments by going to live on the moon. This turns out to be a disaster, involving the dissipated Brouček in even more complicated relationships and social quandaries amongst artistically sensitive lunar luvvies. The second part, The Excursion of Mr. Brouček to the 15th Century, has our alcoholic hero hallucinating that he is transported back in time, and into the middle of a Prague which is under siege from the German armies of the Holy Roman Empire. The cowardly Brouček, expected to participate in the defence of the city, runs and hides at the earliest opportunity. Later found, he is accused of treason and sentenced to death in a beer barrel. Back in the 19th century, landlord Würfl hears groans and whining from the cellar, and finds Brouček there inside a barrel. Brouček, relieved to be home at last, boasts that he liberated Prague single-handed.

A sticker on the box proudly announces this as being the ‘World-premiere recording of the new edition’ of this opera, but the booklet notes elaborate no further on the subject. The Leoš Janáček website at www.leosjanacek.co.uk tells us that this is from Universal Edition, and edited by Jiří Zahrádka, also providing some useful extra illustrations and notes on the work. In fact, with a dearth of outings for this opera the present release is also reported to be its first digital recording. This recording was made in association with the BBC and broadcast in 2007 as a live performance – something UK readers may remember, but which this ex-pat unfortunately missed. A trawl of available versions on CD only turned up one on Supraphon conducted by Frantisek Jílek, and one from Bavaria with Joseph Keilberth on the Orfeo d’or label.

This is one instance in which you won’t hear me complain about the acoustic in the Barbican Centre. The rather dry sounding space can mean sudden death for orchestral recordings, but here it makes for an ideal opera-house-like environment, with plenty of stage width for the characters to move around in the stereo spread, and the orchestra in the most salubrious pit in Europe.

The combination of native Czech soloists and the forces of the BBC Singers and Symphony Orchestra under Jiří Bĕlohlávek is very strong indeed. A case might be argued for a Czech orchestra if one is seeking to be really perfectionist, as even now there are still differences in character between those bands and your BBC ensemble. The BBC Symphony Orchestra does very well with the material however, and this is a virtuoso effort with a highly demanding score, especially for an orchestra which doesn’t normally specialise in the dramatic twists and turns and the flexibility demanded of opera performing: true, it is not always perfect, but the energy and emotional commitment is all there in full measure. The orchestral colours are typical Janáček, but more so – the score being one of the most extended and opulently scored of any by this composer. The booklet mentions the surprise addition of bagpipes and an organ, the latter of which appears at the triumphant end to Part II act II. I listened in vain for the bagpipes. The chorus sounds convincingly gruff and energetic, commenting, cajoling and becoming a threatening crowd by turns.

The soloists are all equally strong, with Maria Haan’s silvery tones rising imperiously, elegantly or playfully over the orchestra like a bird in flight. The buffo performances of the leading men are all highly entertaining, and this whole production is a magical experience in every way. One might imagine that the use of multiple parts per voice might make for a confusing listen, but the characters are distinctive enough through the score, and some subtle shuffling with stage placements helps as well. I am normally a little sceptical about opera on CD, but even without any visual clues this one is so well written and so programmatically clear that there is plenty of imagery to be going on with, even if like me, your Czech is limited to only a few words. In this way it is like reading a good book, one that you don’t want to put down, but also one you want to last longer so that you can inhabit that world for as long as possible.

Whatever your likes and dislikes, this is a marvellous and forward-looking score by any standards. There are the marvellous little Janáček moments, characteristic fingerprints of colour, and rhythms which sometimes ape the speech patterns of the singers. The final scene has a descending string figure which could have been straight out of something by Lutosławski, and there are surprises all over the place. I defy anyone to come away from this without an extra dance step or two in their feet, or whistling some miniature melodic fragment or other. True, there are no really big tunes to speak of, but every interval is pure Janáček: there is no escaping his alchemy with melodic and harmonic shape, and his influence on the imagination. The first opera I ever saw in the flesh was The Makropoulos Case, and even though I was hardly of an age to understand much of it at the time I became an huge fan of this composer’s operas, and have been ever since.

Brouček has all of the anarchic qualities of something like The Good Soldier Švejk, and as a tale could only ever really be Czech in origin. As other commentators have noted, The Excursions have been seen rarely enough on both stage and record. After hearing this new recording I suspect you will find this state of affairs as inexplicable as I do.

Dominy Clements

Seen and Heard concert review


 


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