Whether it’s prisoners being brutalised in a gulag, a case of infanticide after a young woman is jilted by her fiancé, or the suicide of another young woman driven to despair by her tyrannical mother-in-law, there are no happy endings in a Janáček opera, beyond the lesser one of accepting life as it is. So when Grange Park Opera opened this year’s Festival with the composer’s rarely performed 1920 satire The Excursions of Mr Brouček it was an event not to be missed.
The full title of the opera is “The excursions of Mr Brouček to the Moon, and to the Fifteenth Century.” Brouček is the Czech word for beetle and the opera was based on the poet Svatopluk Čech’s popular novellas about the permanently sozzled anti-hero. Director David Pountney turns for inspiration to the 1920s surrealism that swept Europe, splendidly realised in Leslie Travers’s set – a jumble of souvenirs and desk objects overshadowed by a huge Delft blue plate of imperial Prague.
Peter Hoare, wearing pork pie hat and red bowtie, is gloriously coarse as the bourgeois landlord Brouček, a sort of Czech Everyman, whose main interests in life are food, beer, and sex. We first see Brouček trying to find his way home after his customary fifteen beers. Falling insensible, he wakes up to find himself on the moon, where he is assailed by other annoyances, such as an artistic avant-garde band that has arrived from Prague. Similarly to Gilbert and Sullivan’s send up of Oscar Wilde’s aesthetic movement in Patience, Janáček has Brouček latching on to the flower-sniffing Moon-beings as objects for derision, rather as today’s right-wing commentators enjoy having a crack at Woke culture.
Among the cast are Mark le Brocq, Andrew Shore, and Adrian Thompson in a variety of quick change parts, with Clive Bayley as the Sacristan of Prague and Fflur Wynn as the Sacristan’s wayward daughter Malinka. Wynn re-appears on the moon as feisty feminist Etherea, who gets the hots for Brouček and rejects her moony admirer Bounzinček (Pountney is responsible for the translation). After adventures with a girl band and a huge chrome frankfurter, Brouček is submerged in a tankard of beer and lands back in Prague “completely blotto.” Act Two sees Brouček lost in the underground tunnels of medieval Prague where he encounters figures from 1420, gets involved in an uprising of the Hussites, and is denounced as a German spy. Once again he escapes disaster, turning up in the pub landlord’s cellar, convinced that he has liberated Prague.
There’s a lesson to be learnt from the satire, according to Janáček: we must each fight our inner Brouček, and not drown our life in a glass of beer. A lesson beautifully conveyed by the BBC Concert Orchestra under conductor George Jackson in capturing the gossamer web of the dream and the harsher notes of reality.
Conductor: George Jackson.
Director: David Pountney.
Designer: :eslie Travers.
Costume Designs: Marie-Jean Lecca.
Lighting Design: Tim Mitchell.
Production photographs: Marc Brenner.
BBC Concert Orchestra: leader Nathaniel Anderson-Frank.