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The Adventures of Mr Broucek

Leoš Janácek
Opera North
Theatre Royal, Newcastle
(2009)

Production photo

To slightly misquote one of the most famous sporting clichés of the twentieth century, The Adventures of Mr Broucek is an opera of two halves - not so surprising really, as it is a combination of two novels by Svatopluk Cech, The True Excursion of Mr Broucek to the Moon (1888) and The Epoch-making Excursion of Mr Broucek, This Time to the 15th Century (1891).

Mr Broucek is a kind of Czech Everyman - indeed a very unattractive Everyman, being grey, boring but arrogant, a drunkard and a dreamer. His first half drunken reverie takes him on a journey to the moon (in the Vikára Inn he has been holding forth on the subject of life on the moon), where he finds a society which reflects the ideals of the Aesthetic Movement, living for art and beauty and feeding, not on food but on the scent of flowers - which means that Broucek's predilection for sausage brands him as a cannibal.

His second half drunken reverie takes him to Prague in 1420 on the day when the people of that city defeated the army of the Holy Roman Empire under Sigismund. Needless to say, he proves a coward and the dream ends with him about to be burnt in a barrel.

The two halves were created in very different time frames: the first took Janácek from 1908 to 1917 to write, whereas the second took a mere ten months from his first mention of it to its completion. The first is pure satire, the second a celebration of Czech patriotism, and they are linked only by the character Matej Broucek whose name, appropriately, translates as Matthew Beetle of whom Janácek was later to say, "I want us to be disgusted with such people, to stamp on them and strangle them when we meet them."

All of that said, The Adventures of Mr Broucek provides an enjoyable evening. The performances are excellent. John Graham-Hall makes a beautifully unlikeable Broucek whilst Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts (who was a wonderful Peter Grimes three years ago) is hugely impressive as the artist Mazal, Starry Sky-Blue on the moon and Petrik in the 15th century. Jonathan Best, too, delights with his portrayals of the Sacristan, Lunabor (camp as a row of tents in nothing more than a jock-strap at one point) and Domšic.

However it was Anne Sophie Dupreis who gained most (well deserved) approval and sympathy from the audience, not just for her performances as Málinka, Etherea and Kunka but for the fact that she struggled gamely on - including a dance routine in the Moon sequence - despite a badly strained ankle which she had suffered falling down some stairs. Not that she needed that extra sympathy: the quality of her singing would have won the audience over anyway.

It is invidious, in fact, to single out individuals for thsi is a fine ensemble performance - and I include in that the always excellent Opera North Chorus who, until Broucek, have had little to do in this Newcastle season.

And what a season! This has been the best balanced Opera North season for some years, with Così, Werther and Broucek being so different and yet so complementary. I look forward to their return next March with a single performance of Così, accompanied by La Bohème and Ruddigore.

Reviewer: Peter Lathan