A Janáček Rarity – Time Traveling with Mr. Brouček

Czech RepublicCzech Republic Janáček, The Excursions of Mr. Brouček: Soloists, National Theatre Ballet, Chorus and Orchestra / Jaroslav Kyzlink (conductor), The National Theatre, Prague, 20.5.2018. (RP)

Matěj Brouček (Jaroslav Březina) on the Moon © Patrik Borecký
Matěj Brouček (Jaroslav Březina) on the Moon © Patrik Borecký

Matěj Brouček – Jaroslav Březina
Málinka, Etherea, Kunka – Alžběta Poláčková
Mazal, Blankytný, Petřík – Martin Šrejma
Sacristan, Lunigrove, Domšik of the Bell – Vladimír Chmelo
Würfl, Wonderglitter, Councillor – Miloš Horák
Svatopluk Čech, Cloudy, Vacek the Bearded – Roman Janál
Leoš Janáček, Harper, Miroslav the Goldsmith – Petr Levíček
Alfons Mucha, Glorious Rainbow, Vojta of the Peacocks – Josef Moravec
Young Waiter, Child Prodigy, Student – Doubravka Součková
Kedutra – Jana Horáková Levicová

Stage Director – Sláva Daubnerová
Set Designer – Pavel Borák
Costume Designer – Simona Vachálková
Lighting Designer – Daniel Tesař
Video – Erik Bartoš
Chorus Master – Martin Buchta
Dramaturgy – Ondřej Hučín

The Excursions of Mr. Brouček is the fifth of Janáček’s nine operas and the only one to receive its premiere at Prague’s National Theatre. (The others were first heard in Brno, where Janáček lived most of his life and is buried.) Situated on the banks of the Moldau, this imposing structure is untouched by time and in immaculate condition. The interior is full of busts, paintings and rich decorations embellished with gold; there are ornate cast-iron music stands in the pit. Seemingly, little has changed since the opera premiered here on 23 April 1920.

Janáček burned through seven librettists in the nine years (1908-1917) it took him to convert two novels by Svatopluk Čech into an opera, the first time he had turned to literature for inspiration. Matěj Brouček (whose last name means ‘beetle’ in Czech) is a self-satisfied, self-serving embodiment of the common folk, whose interests lean more towards beer, dumplings and sausages than the arts and philosophy. It came as somewhat of a surprise to Janáček that rather than his becoming a subject of ridicule, audiences embraced Brouček and his tastes, as well as his foibles.

In the opera, Brouček is swept away in his alcohol-fueled dreams to far-off places, first to the moon and then back in time to fifteenth-century Prague during the Hussite Wars. He finds it disconcerting that both locales are populated by people with striking resemblances to his real-life acquaintances. The moon is home to effete artistic types who dine on the scent of flowers and are aghast when Brouček pulls a sausage out of his pocket and begins to chew on it. He then finds himself in the Hussite camp preparing to do battle with the forces of the Holy Roman Empire, where in spite of his cowardice, he manages to survive.

Sláva Daubnerová and her team impose unity and cohesion on the complicated plot, made more so by the triple casting of most roles. The images are bold and simple, with the scenes dominated by large architectural elements and fragments of sculptures. (My hunch is that they are taken from the allegorical figures on the exterior of the building.) Bowlers are suspended from above when Brouček is on firm ground in real time, certainly a comment on the conformity of the middle classes.

Video projections of the lunar landscape and outer space create an atmosphere that teeters between reality and fantasy. Etherea’s triga (a three-horse quadriga) is a copy of one of the pair that sits atop the opera house. Pegasus in comparison is a large rocking horse.

The moon is host to a rarified civilization, whose inhabitants dress much like their earthly counterparts. Etherea, however, is straight out of Greek mythology. The four naked ladies who pose and dance wearing only high heels generate no erotic heat. Even Brouček appears oblivious to their presence.

In the fifteenth century, the past is evoked by a bronze-like patina that covers everything, including the four ladies who again grace the action. The chorus wears costumes of the period in russet browns and thrust fearsome weapons above their heads. Brouček boasts of his heroism in battle, but witnesses tell a different story. As punishment, he faces a fiery death in a wooden barrel.

The final scene finds him stuffed in a barrel, coming out of his drunken stupor with his landlord standing over him holding a torch. Relieved to be safely back in the real world, he brags of his heroic exploits in battle.

Perhaps audiences didn’t take Janáček’s implied criticism of the middle class seriously because he also takes aim at the conceits of the cultural elites. His music for the first act is waltz-like, full of bright, light melodies suffused with humor more than grace and elegance. Short staccato outbursts of laughter in double time pepper the score. It’s all a bit surreal and ironic, while Brouček is the real thing.

The music for the second act is completely different. It opens with the sounds of strife and rebellion, followed by stirring choruses and hymns. For the latter, the chorus and orchestra were joined by the theater’s organ, whose pipes are perched high above the stage. It was a grand sound.

Jaroslav Březina was perfectly at ease in the skin of Brouček: portly, proud and proper. (Exactly as Janáček and his publishers envisioned him, judging from the cover of the first edition of the published score that I saw in Brno.) Březina wasn’t so much a comedian as a straight man with great timing. It’s his reaction to the fantastic sights and scenes and not his antics that make him so funny. His singing was cut from the same cloth, straightforward and bold.

In any of her three guises, Alžběta Poláčková was a glamorous presence physically and vocally. Her dashing counterpart was tenor Martin Šrejma. As Málinka and Mazal, they could have graced any operetta with their stylish singing as Act I drew to a close. Doubravka Součková was a bright, eager presence on stage, especially when in the guise of a young man. She has the makings of a fine Cherubino or Octavian.

Of all the many other fine singers, Roman Janál as the author Svatopluk Čech was particularly memorable. He delivered an ode to the glory of the Czech people, more spoken then sung, in a raspy, threadbare voice, but it was from the heart.

As for the orchestra and chorus, just how much more authentic can you get? In the first act, there were moments when Jaroslav Kyzlink could have put the reins on the orchestra, but those imbalances were fleeting. The choral singing in Act II was particularly fine, especially the men of the chorus singing a capella. The brass were brilliant throughout.

It was an absolutely gorgeous spring evening in Prague. The views from the theater’s balconies over the Moldau were spectacular as the sun set. Perfect weather for time travel, especially with a companion the likes of Matěj Brouček.

Rick Perdian

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