The Excursions of Mr Brouček

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Janáček
The Excursions of Mr Brouček [Výlety Pánĕ Broučkovy] – Opera in Two Parts: ‘The Excursion of Mr Brouček to the Moon’; The Excursion of Mr Brouček to the 15th Century’ [Librettos by the composer and others after Svatopluk Čech; sung in Czech]

Mr Brouček – Jan Vacík
Mazal / Blankytny / Petřík – Peter Straka
Málinka / Etherea / Kunka – Maria Haan
Sacristan / Lunobar / Domšik – Roman Janál
Würfl / Čaroskvoucí / Councillor – Zdenĕk Plech
Apparition of Svatopluk Čech / Second Taborite – Ivan Kusnjer
Housekeeper / Kedruta – Lenka Šmídová
Young Waiter / Child Prodigy / Student – Martina Bauerová
Painter / Duhoslav / Vojta / Voice of the Professor – Jaroslav Březina
Composer / Harfaboj / Oblačný / Vaček Bradaty – Aleš Briscein
First Poet – Edward Goater
Second Poet – Christopher Bowen
First Taborite – Charles Gibbs

BBC Singers

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Jiří Bělohlávek

Recorded February 2007 in the Barbican Hall, London


Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: April 2008
CD No: DG 477 7387 (2 CDs)
Duration: 2 hours 3 minutes

Filling the last remaining gap in Universal’s Janáček opera catalogue, Deutsche Grammophon joins Sir Charles Mackerras’s Vienna Philharmonic recordings on Decca in adding “The Excursions of Mr Brouček” to Universal’s books. It is taken from the performance given by Jiří Bĕlohlávek and the BBC Symphony Orchestra in the Barbican Hall on 25 February 2007, although the date of the recording is only given as the month, which might imply that the final result includes rehearsals and post-concert patches. Be that as it may, what is most important is that it is an amazingly vivid recording.

Nicely packaged, the set also has a very likeable cartoon cover, even if DG would have us believe that Brouček is, in fact, none other than Mr Ben, albeit with a trilby rather than a bowler hat. And, as far as I remember, Mr Ben never did get on a flying white horse! A closer view is afforded on the first of the two booklets, including track-listings, essays and Act One libretto and translations, with the second booklet (picturing the back of the flying white horse), containing Act Two. I applaud the thought that has gone in to the design; splitting the two parts in this opera is perfectly sensible as they are two separate stories.

But – as the maxim goes – one shouldn’t just go by the cover; and I only mention it as it seems indicative of the care that has gone into both recording and release. The edition used is new to recording, made by Jiří Zahrádka, under Sir Charles Mackerras’s supervision, and this DG recording has only one rival in the catalogue (of an earlier edition of course); that of František Jílek on Supraphon, recorded in 1980 and issued on compact disc in 1994.

Something of a Cinderella amidst Janáček’s operatic output, ‘Brouček’ here shines like the composer’s other operatic comedy, “The Cunning Little Vixen”. Unlike all his other operas, based on serious plays or novels, ‘Brouček’ is like ‘Vixen’ in being inspired by a satire, although in novel form (as opposed to the newspaper cartoon that inspired ‘Vixen’). It took Janáček 20 years to get the rights for “Brouček’s Excursion to the Moon” from the author Svatopluk Čech – and started composing as soon as he did so in 1908, even though he soon found out that there was a rival project (that appeared as an operetta in 1910). As it happened, partly because of finding a suitable librettist (of which, ultimately there were seven), the operatic setting wasn’t finished until March 1917. Then Janáček decided to set another of the ‘Brouček’ satires, the one in which he wakes from his usual drunken stupor in the 15th-century. Thankfully, with one librettist, composition followed much more quickly, with the score complete by the following mid-December. It received its première at Prague’s National Theatre on 23 April 1920.

Those with long memories may recall David Pountney’s English National Opera production, with Graham Clark in the title role; though otherwise ‘Brouček’ seems to have been the exception to the rule in Britain’s discovery of Janáček over the last 30 years or so. That might be starting to change. On the continent, Geneva Opera has just (early 2008) mounted a new production and John Fulljames will be directing the work for both Scottish Opera and Opera North over the next two seasons; in which case this new recording should find an eager audience.

Although the plot is not as easily assimilated as ‘Vixen’ – here the aesthetic arguments of the moon-folk and the political machinations of 15th-century Czech history are not as universally recognisable as the cycle of life in the woodland and farmyard story that Janáček started a year after the première of ‘Brouček’ – the style of music will be immediately recognisable. Janáček’s musical thumbprint is as indelible as it is magical, and his sure comic touch – especially in Brouček’s drunken moments – works particularly well as a recording.

With Jiří Bĕlohlávak a touch faster than Jílek (129’20”), with never any feeling of haste, the new recording has greater presence and warmer string tone; the glorious second theme, a slow waltz that rises quickly after the initial jaunty bassoon, clarinet then horn repartee, and then alternates, just the first case in point. The cast is warm and idiomatic too – Bĕlohlávak importing a largely Czech cast, singing multiple parts, well caught by the recording, in a more natural balance that Jílek’s recording (where the voices are rather forward), and the BBC Singers cope well with the Czech language.

Perhaps at last, ‘Brouček’ can take his place, holding his (albeit sozzled) head up high. Very recommendable.

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