Opera North at Theatre Royal, Nottingham – The Adventures of Mr Brouček

The Adventures of Mr Brouček – Opera in two parts (four acts) to a libretto by the composer with František Gellner, Viktor Dyk, F. S. Procházka and others after the novel Výlet pana Broučka domesíce by Svatopluk Čech (part one) and F. S. Procházka after the novel Výlet pana Broučka do XV. stoleti by Svatopluk Čech (part two) [sung in the English translation by Martin André]

Matěj Brouček – John Graham Hall
Mazal / Starry Blue Sky / Petřik – Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts
Sacristan /Lunabor / Domšik of the Bell – Jonathan Best
Málinka / Etherea / Kunka – Anne Sophie Dupries
Würfl / Shining Radiance / Town Councillor – Donald Maxwell
Apprentice Waiter /Child Prodigy / Scholar – Claire Wild
Mr Brouček’s Housekeeper / Housekeeper / Domšik’s Housekeeper – Frances McCafferty
Student (poet) / Brilliant Cloud / Vacek the Beard – Richard Burkhard
Student (painter) / Rainbow Glory / Vojta of the Peacocks – Philip O’Brien
Student (musician) /Stormy Harper / Miroslav the Goldsmith – Adrian Dwyer
Svatopluk Čech – Grant Doyle

Opera North Chorus & Orchestra

Martin André

John Fulljames – Director
Alex Lowde – Designer
Lucy Carter – Lighting
Ben Wright – Choreographer
Finn Ross – Video Design

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 5 November, 2009
Venue: Theatre Royal, Nottingham

If “Così fan tutte” and “Werther” are operas about love – its Opera North bedfellows this season – Janáček’s “Výlety páně Broučkovy” (The Adventures of Mr Brouček) is about food and drink, or more specifically sausages and beer.

The titular landlord is so drunk (as usual) that the sausages he ordered have to be sent after him as he staggers home, although he ends up asleep on the street, where he dreams of his first adventure, on the Moon. There, as they feed delicately on flowers, the aesthetic debate of the moon-beings (with such glorious names as Starry Blue Sky, Lunabor, Shining Radiance, Brilliant Cloud, Rainbow Glory and, slightly odder, Stormy Harper) is first debased by Brouček’s thoughts of roast pork and then his eating of those sausages.

In his second adventure (back in time to the 15th-century) Brouček is branded a coward as he finds himself missing out on breakfast, drinking again during the patriotic debate, and shying away from fighting as the Hussites defend Prague against the Holy Roman Empire.

Not a great hero, then, and Janáček does not try to disguise the fact. He is the figure of fun, even more so as John Graham-Hall is so gangly and hapless, clutching his briefcase and always at a tipsy angle. Even though the plots of both parts are convoluted, Janáček’s music is so beguiling that, together with director John Fulljames’s enjoyable direction and Alex Lowde’s witty designs, audiences can enjoy the madcap nature of the action, if not the intricacies of either exotic Part. Fulljames’s and Martin André’s English translation is admirably clear and the cast’s diction superb.

Fulljames has updated the opening to the late-1960s. Of course, 1968 was a momentous year for Prague (facing Russian oppression, highlighting notions of patriotism akin to the 15th-century Hussite uprising), while 1969 had its own lunar focus; not that Neil Armstrong would recognise the Moon here. In the second half, Lowde’s costumes cleverly evoke old-dress-sense through 1960s leather-jackets. A lot of imagination has gone into making this production work so well.

And that goes for the musical preparation as well. This least-staged of Janáček’s operas – not seen outside London until now – seems firmly under Opera North’s players’ and singers’ fingertips, inspired by Martin André’s persuasive conducting. They rise to the occasion and revel in the way Janáček can melt from idiosyncratic rhythmic pulses into the most luxuriant of melodies – the first one of which insidiously returns throughout the work and stays with one long after.

Grant Doyle sings lyrically in the unusual role of Brouček’s original author Svatopluk Čech who, near the start of the second half, pleads for the Czech nation to rise again to greatness, so that great stories can be told of it. It may have given Janáček problems in composition (the ‘Lunar Excursion’ took the best part of ten years, but the trip back to the 15th-century was written in less than one), and its curious form and stories make it more difficult to stage than perhaps any of his other works, but John Fulljames has proved that “The Adventures of Mr Brouček” is eminently worth it.

  • Other performances, in Salford (12 November) & Newcastle (19 November)

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