The Excursions of Mr Brouček
Music by Leoš Janáček, libretto by Leoš Janáček, F S Procházka, František Gellner & Viktor Dyk
Grange Park Opera
This is more David Pountney’s than Janáček’s opera, but he does him proud. I imagine Pountney had a ball fashioning his version—and so do we watching it. There are only two more shows remaining (I’m late to the Czech beer and sausages), so if you can afford it, get down there pronto. It’s an opera that’s rarely done, and I can’t imagine why not, because it’s a hoot.
It’s sung in English in Pountney’s very free modern translation (did he have a literal translation to work from or does he know Czech, the linguist in me wants to know) with masses of references to all sorts of things, all pretty much spelled out. The glorious music is a distraction... or is it his verbal gymnastics… I jest, but it’s like patting the head and rubbing the tum. Who knew that Janáček could be so droll? It is wonderful satire against the Czech ‘philistine’ bourgeoisie and its “tragic shallow land”… Pountney runs with that and just about everything de nos jours is lampooned. Corporate sponsors—biting the hand that feeds, eh?
The two-part opera (full title being 1.The excursion of Mr Brouček to the moon. 2. The excursion of Mr Brouček to the XV century) is based on stories by nineteenth century satirist Svatopluk Čech, who avoided giving Janáček permission to use them. It was only after his death that Janáček managed to get going and then it took him nearly ten years and several librettists to compose the first half of this two-part opera, and just under a year for the second part. It premièred in 1908–18, was revised in 1920 and 1926.
Pan Brouček (Mr Beetle)—was Janáček thinking of Kafka’s Gregor Samsa?—is a late nineteenth century bourgeois landlord who is constantly besoffen, pissed, and Pountney takes the piss verbally, visually, literally—we find Brouček drunk inside an outsize beer stein, a beer barrel, in a grotty public urinal, flat on his back and pissing up a wall. And in this inebriated state, he goes to the moon, where he meets the hypersensitive effete artistic elite ‘Elois’ who live on air and the scent of flowers. Vegans and vegetarians take a hit. Gravity is rhymed with depravity; Dante with in flagrante. And there are strobes (lighting design Tim Mitchell).
Pountney has a great time ridiculing conceptual and performance artists. Does he have his guns set on David Shrigley, Damien Hirst, Michael Craig-Martin or Claes Oldenburg with the silver fork in a sausage creation? You might think of others. And very willing independent ladies with upright vacuum cleaners... Málinka (Fflur Wyn) the Sacristan’s daughter in love with painter Mazal (Mark Le Brocq) is transformed—as are they all on this ethereal planet. Here she is called Etherea. Her father (Clive Bayley) becomes Dudcek; Mazal becomes Bounzincek. Are they all wrapped in “bacon foil” wonders Brouček.
Later there are Paycek (Würfel the bartender), Spotcek, Raincek, Postdatedcek, Farty and Arty. There are drag queens, precious gender-free performers. The chorus take on many roles. A quartet of young men in beards and big earphones take a hit—“with a synthesiser any fool can write music”. And critics with their poison pens (“Grange Park apologises”). What would Janáček make of it?
Set designer Leslie Travers and costume designer Marie-Jean Lecca have let their imaginations have a field day. The opening tableau with its Prague tourist bric-a-brac, including a red Lenin candle, sets up the concept (can’t get away from that) and scene admirably.
The trip to 1420 (“not 2020”) to fight a religious war against the Holy Roman Empire is in a similar vein. Pegasus is still a beer can on legs, the fifteenth century “death or glory” dignitaries are wheeled around on beer crate trolleys and Brouček is dressed as a jester. It is the time of the Hussite wars. Into their midst, Pountney puts Vaclav Havel in a prison cage and the fall of the Berlin Wall. And the author Svatopluk has a small role. All absolutely fascinating, parallels with our troubled present are plain to see.
Cowardly Brouček, about to be put to death for treason, escapes in a beer barrel through medieval tunnels under the Castle near the Vikárka Inn. And all ends well. Cheers all round for the inebriated rascal. Peter Hoare gives the performance of a lifetime, in fabulous voice and physical goonery. He dances well, too, even does a shoulder lift pas de deux. Who the comic tipsy waitress is I’m not sure—there are eight dancers (movement is by Lynne Hockney) who are all marvellous.
Wyn and Le Brocq’s voices blending beautifully as the lovers, her powerful soprano and his soft tenor (Heldentenors are mocked—who isn’t—all in good fun). Most of the lead singers have three or four roles each—well it is a time travel scenario, think H G Wells's 1895 Time Machine, think Protazanov’s 1924 Soviet Aelita. Bayley, a Grange Park regular, Ivan the Terrible in Pountney’s production last year, is perfect in his roles, as are Anne-Marie Owens (Kedruta), Andrew Shore (Würfl) and the versatile Adrian Thompson (four roles).
The BBC Concert Orchestra, under the baton of the young up-and-come George Jackson, rises to the challenging cinematic lush score with amazing verve and panache. The hopeful bucolic musical interludes are delicious. Please can we see this production again, please don't put it in mothballs.
Janáček is a constant surprise: “Brouček gripes at the whole world and drowns his life in a glass of beer. I expose him as a warning, a laughing stock. In the orchestra is the gossamer web of a dream, the mystery of a lunar landscape and gloominess of long-past ages. I hope I have plucked out a smile of agreement from the audience”. Smiles all round. And beer images on everything… “Drink is our scared duty”.
Its UK première was in 1970 in Edinburgh and it was last performed in UK in 2009. Janáček composed with the modulations of language very much in his ear, and Moravian folk music, which is evident in this diptych opera, but I guess Pountney saw the potential of playful satire in the English translation. He has done operas in the original Russian, why not in the original bouncy Czech? He forestalls criticism with an “original language and subtitles” parody, and some poems recited in Czech for good measure. Pountney has covered all bases.
My singer companion is elated. There is much to mull over on the way home, but above all that, I must say all have done a great job. Not a long opera, first half one hour forty, second one hour, the time flies by—time travel always does… we are all puppets in the hands of history.
Reviewer: Vera Liber