The Excursions of Mr Brouček
Mr Brouček Jan Vacík
Mazal / Blankytny / Petřík Peter Straka
Málinka / Etherea / Kunka Maria Haan
Sacristan / Lunobar / Domik Roman Janál
Würfl / Čaroskvoucí / Councillor Zdenĕk Plech
Apparition of Svatopluk Čech / Second Taborite Ivan Kusnjer
Housekeeper / Kedruta Lenka mídová
Young Waiter / Child Prodigy / Student Martina Bauerová
Painter / Duhoslav / Vojta / Voice of the Professor Jaroslav Březina
Composer / Harfaboj / Oblačny / Vaček Bradaty Václav Sibera
First Poet Edward Goater
Second Poet Christopher Bowen
First Taborite Charles Gibbs
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Kenneth Richardson Concert staging
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 25 February, 2007
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
Although its significance within Janáček’s output has often been acknowledged, “The Excursions of Mr Brouček” receives relatively few productions compared to either “Jenůfa” or the four operas of his headily prolific final decade. Comic-operas tend not to ‘travel’ in any case but in the case of ‘Brouček’, there is also its falling into two highly-individuated parts – linked only by the presence of the main character – as well as the issue of whether the opera can be judged a ‘comic’ one in the first place.
‘Brouček’ was last staged in London (at English National Opera) 14 years ago. This performance was a concert staging, directed by Kenneth Richardson, that featured simple but effective props to underline the main character’s generally beer-sodden disposition and also his untimely cowardice. It was certainly preferable to that cluttered and overbearing ENO production (by David Pountney), but this is still an opera that needs to be seen as well as heard for its essence fully to be experienced.
Especially the first part, ‘The Excursion of Brouček to the Moon’. Hard to believe that its 65 minutes occupied Janáček for about the same length of time (nine years) as he took him to create his four final operas. This is likely evident in the fact that, though the music never sounds laboured or contrived, it does have a certain exploratory quality as if to suggest Janáček consciously working towards his mature idiom and utilising this project as the means to achieve it. The word-setting is as idiomatic as anything in the operas that followed – a factor common to both parts being the corrupt (Germanised) nature of Mr Brouček’s speech as representative of the Czech bourgeoisie – but in no other Janáček stage-work do harmonic dislocation and interlocking rhythmic ostinatos so dominate the content. This draws attention away from the scenario, to the extent that the text often seems divorced from music – extraordinary given that the work involved seven librettists other than the composer.
Which does not make this ‘excursion’ more or less comic in its treatment of the uncouth Mr Brouček as he finds himself transported to the moon, encountering those he knew on earth transformed into lunar artistes and rarefied aesthetes who are astonished and appalled by his boorishness. No Falstaff when it comes to its dominating action or music, the role responded well to Jan Vacík’s assumption – neither souping-up the humour unnecessarily or aiming to bring out ‘hidden depths’ that are not there.
He was given excellent support by Peter Straka and Maria Haan, the hapless tenant and his girlfriend whose brief love-duet closes the first excursion on a note of rapture that is the more intense for the often-passive quality of the music that precedes it. There was also a telling contribution from Zdenĕk Plech as Würfl, the landlord temporarily transformed into a patron of the lunar arts, while Jiří Bělohlávek conducted with a comprehensive grasp of the music’s strangely distanced intensity.
The second part, ‘The Excursion of Mr Brouček to the Fifteenth Century’, occupied Janáček for a fraction of the time (nine months) spent on its predecessor, but is more cohesive and more involving as music-drama. Whereas the first part belongs – with the semi-autobiographical opera “Osud” – to the composer’s ‘wilderness years’, the second reflects new-found confidence after the Prague premiere of “Jenůfa” and his belief in the imminence of an autonomous Czech republic. There is humour here – even of a slapstick nature – but the prevailing tone stems from the heroism of the Hussite freedom-fighters whose taking on the might of the Holy Roman Empire is made an object lesson to ‘present-day’ audiences. Not that Janáček is blind to the religious antagonism dividing the Hussites (which provokes some of the most pertinent lines in the whole libretto), but the music has a loftiness of purpose and also an ecstatic fervour that makes it the harbinger of the composer’s full maturity.
Qualities that were to the fore in this performance, in which Vacík developed (one hesitates to say ‘refined’!) his portrayal of Mr Brouček – caught between conflicting armies and doctrines so that his vacillation is seen as heresy, yet with a compensating reasonableness to makes him seem the more sympathetic. Roman Janál gave a noble account of the Sacristan, with Maria Haan appealingly plaintive as his daughter Kunka, and there was an authoritative cameo from Ivan Kusnjer as the despairing shade of nationalist writer Svatopluk Čech.
Orchestrally, this part makes a proportionately greater impact, and Bělohlávek was mindful to give the BBC Symphony Orchestra its collective head in those passages where Janáček’s idealistic nationalism surges through – brass, timpani and organ cutting through the texture in a way recalling Taras Bulba and anticipating the “Glagolitic Mass”. Spirited singing from the BBC Singers helped to make this second part the culmination of the whole opera in every sense.
If “The Excursions of Mr Brouček” will probably remain an ‘occasional’ opera in terms of staging, this should not detract from the considerable fascination of its twin dramas or the undoubted quality of their music. And, other than Sir Charles Mackerras, there could be no greater advocate than Jiří Bělohlávek, his handling of the opera’s unique humour and pathos leaving no doubt as to his belief in the work.
His finest achievement with the BBCSO thus far, its preservation on disc would be very worthwhile.
- Recorded for future broadcast on BBC Radio 3