There is much to admire in Scottish Opera's Adventures of Mr Broucek (mounted in collaboration with Opera North), a new production which completes a cycle of Janácek operas begun thirty years ago.
Intelligently paired with Puccini's La Boheme, Mr Broucek (the name translates as 'beetle') finds a bourgeois, astray among bohemians, sent into drunken hallucinations that take him first to the moon and then to the 15th century Hussite wars—the first a spatial displacement, the second temporal. Naturally the characters Broucek meets are strangely familiar, resembling as they do the bohemian crowd he's been drinking with; it is a brief with rich satiric possibilities. Indeed the text is based on a pair of Swiftian novels by Svatopluk Cech, which director John Fulljames has chosen to pull into focus by setting the production in the Prague of 1968.
One has to say, immediately, that there is a reason why this is the last of Janácek’s operas in the Scottish Opera cycle. Obviously one of them had to be last, but Broucek is a challenging work to realize on stage. In short, the second act is the product of a mature, confident master; the first of a harassed, frustrated… genie, I suppose—in need of someone to come and rub his lamp.
It falls to the central character to bear the brunt of the composer's frustration, as Mr Broucek is teased, tormented and humiliated. But—a bit like Brecht's Mother Courage—the antihero wins the audience's sympathies despite the author's best efforts. Thanks no doubt, on this occasion, to John Graham-Hall in the title role, whose permanently befuddled air masked an immaculate command as he tumbled through the often bewildering narrative.
You can argue that a drunkenly hallucinated trip to the moon has no need of coherence. If the audience's interpretive powers are sent into overdrive, perhaps that can be counted a good thing. One of the strengths of Fulljames' production is that it helps that process of interpretation along without attempting to be too deterministic about its 'message'. He makes attractive use of bang-up-to-date projection technology (video design credited to Finn Ross), but doesn't let it get in the way of traditional theatrical action.
One consequence of setting the production in 1968 is that the hallucinatory engages with idealism, both on the political plane and regarding the more elusive appetites that drove space exploration. Accordingly, Fulljames' moonscape is not at all realistic, but Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts as Starry Sky-Blue ('a poet famed throughout the universe') is splendidly clad in a blue space suit—subtly underscoring that his earth persona—the poet Mazal—carries the core thread of 'reality' through the opera.
Apart from Claire Wild's yellow Child Prodigy, everyone else is dressed in white—some of the chorus are miniskirted '60s it-girls, some are abattoir workers; others contribute to an elliptical sense that the setting is in fact conceived as a lunatic asylum. And then there is Donald Maxwell on superb form as Shining Radiance, stripped to his speedos and wearing little else other than a huge moustache and a huge grin. Fulljames obviously had something similar in mind for Ann Sophie Duprels, judging by her flesh-toned top—though her item of netherwear (an old-fashioned girdle) yielded an anachronistic echo of the '50s 'Sarongster at the Palladium' advert. On earth, her Málinka is Mazal's girl; the big joke of act one is that her moon-character, Etherea, falls madly in love with Broucek.
The trouble is that Janácek doesn’t have a clear line of argument through all of this, and accordingly his psychological characterizations are somewhat shallow. One aspect of the production is unhelpful in this respect, I feel: the sound of language is so intimate a part of Janácek's aesthetic that translating the text is—to put it baldly—a solecism. An English text performed with English surtitles is an absurdity of the wrong kind.
True, some of the comedy in the second act revolves around a linguistic reprise of the space/time displacement issue. Even so, the Scots and the northern English share a linguistic distance from the southern English that the libretto is translated into, and one would have thought that some play might have been made of that. Just what a 'Turkish' accent meant in central Europe in terms of an atavistic dread of the Ottoman Empire simply cannot be translated, however. (As an aside on this topic, it is instructive to listen to Philip Glass's collaboration with Allen Ginsberg, Hydrogen Jukebox. When Ginsberg reads, he sounds like Ginsberg—obviously—but when his texts are sung, they morph strangely into what we Brits would call 'received pronunciation', which maybe says something about a homogenizing tendency when singing in English.)
Language issues aside, act two is much more successful musically and theatrically, because it homes in viscerally on crucial issues of group identity and solidarity. It doesn't matter that the Hussite context is as cheerfully garbled as the lunar, because the human dynamics are universal and easily recognized: Broucek is pressed, unwillingly, to serve on the front line and is exposed as a coward—which frankly is a bit unfair given that he's there by accident. The way in which oral accounts of heroic deeds are made and modified is mordantly analysed as Broucek is forced to account for losing his pike. His audience disbelieves his heroic self-representation and he edits on the fly, ending up with as flattering an account of his performance as can be reconciled with evidence available from his comrades.
Kunka (Málinka's Hussite persona) finds herself in a classic choice between father (Jonathan Best, as Sacristan/Domšík of the Bell) and lover (Mazal/Petrík). Kunka, by contrast with the unheroic Broucek, is ready to defy her father and stand by her lover (Mazal/Petrík) on the front line, giving Duprels, Lloyd-Roberts and Best full rein to excel as Janácek characterizes this orthodox operatic relationship in an altogether more satisfying manner.
Also catching the ear and eye in strikingly different ways, Frances McCafferty (housekeeper/housekeeper/housekeeper) bears a visual resemblance to the traditional idea of a Wagnerian soprano. Her hair plaited to resemble horns in act two, she whirls a pike in a neat, feminist echo of Odin's spear Gungnir. Claire Wild (Apprentice waiter/Child prodigy/Scholar) is quite the opposite: so physically small that her first, full-throated utterance was startlingly unexpected, what really caught my attention was an extraordinary talent for movement. It is the kind of combination that the traditional repertoire offers little scope for, and for which (I imagine) contemporary composers will want to write for. Presiding over all, though, was Donald Maxwell. As his Würfl is the publican responsible for distributing the hallucinogenic liquor, the fabric of the opera hangs about his character—and he carries it off magnificently.
Photos by Alastair Muir
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