Janáček, The Excursions of Mr Brouček
Thursday 9th June, 2022, Grange Park Opera, The Theatre in the Woods, West Horsley Place Surrey, directed by David Pountney, reviewed by David Truslove
With certain exceptions, Janáček’s operas are not often chosen for country house presentation. In the twenty-five years of Grange Park Opera’s endeavours, only two of the Czech composer’s stage works, namely Jenufa and The Cunning Little Vixen, have been staged. This year, festival director Wasfi Kani opened her season with the satirical and eccentric romp that is The Excursions of Mr. Brouček – a Cinderella amongst Janáček’s operas. First heard in the UK at Edinburgh in 1970 and later presented by English National Opera in the 1980s and 90s, its madcap invention makes ideal summer entertainment, even if its absurd lunacies defy comprehension and fail to make a satisfying narrative sequence. If you’re not a fan of its surreal, Pythonesque fantasy, you may be won over by strong performances and not least by Marie-Jeanne Lecca’s costumes and Leslie Travers’s super-size toytown sets (superbly lit by Tim Mitchell) which will surely engage your inner child.
Inspired by the novels of Svatopluk Čech, this up-to-date English translation by director David Pountney contains sardonic attacks on artistic philanthropy, lockdown parties and the latest “Boris balls-up”. Even music critics get a derisory mention. Brouček (its central character taken by the excellent Peter Hoare) is Janáček’s most uneven work. Conceived over nearly 10 years and completed in 1918, no fewer than eight writers were involved in the libretto which the composer fashions into two, hour-long single acts linked only by the presence of the time-travelling Mr Brouček.
This Czech Falstaff is a pub landlord with a fondness for beer, sausages and womanising, as well as an overripe imagination. His drunken dreams take him first to a colony of flower-sniffing aesthetes on the Moon, then back in time to 15th century Prague, via an episode in a toilet (all very Benny Hill), to get caught up in the Hussite rebellion of 1420. Even if you’re unfamiliar with the historical overlay, there’s a universality in the work’s jibes at artistic pretension and moral decline. Cultural philistinism and nationhood aside, the work lampoons the Czech national psyche, all riotously conveyed in Pountney’s production and Janáček’s vintage music.
But the opera only really takes wing in its more cohesive second half, where assertive brass, soaring string lines and rousing patriotic choruses denote a more mature musical voice, in which Janáček’s musical thumbprint is indelible. Despite longueurs in Act One, there are some intensely lyrical passages. Mazal, Brouček’s painter tenant (Marc le Brocq) profits from these moments and the act closes in an ecstatic love duet with his girlfriend Malinka (Fflur Wyn).
Pountney’s tireless imagination bamboozles you The set contains a plethora of detail. Roofed by a vast delft dinner plate, there are silver-suited space travellers, a pair of transvestites, a girl band, a giant chrome saveloy and scenes reminding us of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the jailed writer Vaclav Havel. No opportunity is missed to point up Brouček’s permanently sozzled state. Amongst all the souvenirs evoking imperial Prague, beer features prominently with a foaming tankard the size of Brouček, who himself flies to the moon on a supersized beer can. In Act Two he’s immersed in a barrel and Hussite leaders are wheeled onto the stage on raised platforms of beer crates.
Tenor Peter Hoare brings Brouček to life, his declamatory lines sung with a bravura to match his “blotto” role. Supporting him are persuasive performances from Marc Le Brocq and Adrian Thompson. Baritones Clive Bayley (sacristan) and Andrew Shore (the tavern keeper who morphs into a patron of the lunar arts) impress, as does the well-projected soprano of Fflur Wyn, whose Lord’s Prayer was beautifully shaped. Praise too for Anne-Marie Owens, in her cameo role as Kedruta. Other characters, including the humorously named Postdatedček, Spotček and Farty, are well performed, and both chorus and orchestra rise to the challenge of Janáček’s richly veined score and George Jackson’s direction from the pit. If the whole is musically lop-sided, it’s worth seeing for its boisterous entertainment. This is something of an operatic collector’s item – it ends on 7th July.
David Truslove is an opera critic