Artillery Row On Opera The Critics

Joyous adventures in the absurd

A new performance of a Janacek opera takes one to the moon and back

Leos Janacek’s accepted status as a great composer outside his native Czech lands owes a huge debt to two stalwarts of the English-speaking opera world.

Seventy years ago, a young Charles Mackerras came back to London, from studying Janacek and other Czech composers as the emerging Communist regime pulled down the shutters on cultural contacts with the west. Mackerras had studied with the great Czech exponent of Janacek’s music, Vaclav Tallich , as well as with many musicians and performers who had worked with him in the extraordinary outpouring of music from Janacek in the last decade of his life after the First World War.

Mackerras was the conductor whose recording of Janacek’s Sinfonietta and opera preludes at the end of the 1950s brought the music to British ears in particular. He went on to record almost all of Janacek’s operatic output with the Vienna Philharmonic — but not The Excursions of Mr Broucek.

Poutney’s scatter-gun targets contemporary rivals to high art

The director who brought Janacek to the stage in Britain was David Poutney. In fact, his debut as an opera producer was fifty years ago at Wexford with Janacek’s Katya Kabanova. Through the decades, especially with Scottish Opera and WNO, Poutney built up a repertoire of Janacek productions reflecting a deep sympathy for what Janacek was trying to do in words as well as music. Poutney’s Janacek on stage was Janacek to a couple of generations of British opera-goers, along with many around the world. Now he brings the long neglected Excursions of Mr Broucek for a very rare outing on a British stage.

Poutney shares with Janacek a belief that opera should be intelligible. A veteran proponent of opera in English, with an alleged aversion to surtitles as a distraction from the other half of opera — the action on stage — Poutney provides his own version of the text. He updates the jokes and jibes to our own times. Grange Park’s serried ranks of bankers and sponsors could afford to smile indulgently at what Habsburg censors might have cut out, if the piece had been ready for performance before the dynasty’s downfall in 1918.

Poutney’s scatter-gun targets contemporary rivals to high art (like synthesised music performed by a son) and even the lamb-like music critics. Because Poutney is a musical showman his text is in the spirit of Janacek’s conglomerated original, but his musicality shines through like that of his late and frequent collaborator, Amanda Holden, who also combined extraordinary musicality with a gift for getting the English syntax to fit the music.

The importance of language for Janacek was a social and political issues as well as an aesthetic one. What necessarily gets lost in a modern version is the satire specifically against the German-dominated Habsburg Empire, and the Catholic Church’s role as an accessory to imperial efforts to squash the Czechs since the early 1400s.

Poutney’s version misses the Czech nationalist (or in contemporary terms “Brexit”) undercurrent in Janacek’s libretto but also in his life. He jibbed at German domination even though he married one. However, like many another genius, in his personal life Janacek could be small-minded: he forbade his wife to speak her native language. Small nationalisms can be petty if big nationalisms can be deadly.

First performed in Prague in 1920, though written by 1917, part of what makes Broucek incomprehensible to modern English audiences is not only its specifically Central European form of vaudeville opera, but also the historical allusions to Hussites mixed in with buffoonery worthy of Hasek’s roughly contemporaneous Good Soldier Sveijk.

In the first half, the bibulous small-time landlord Broucek (as well acted as it was sung by Peter Hoare) finds himself on the moon. To an affluent and planet-conscious modern audience, sympathy probably lies with the moon dwellers’ vegetarian diet and their horror at Broucek’s cross-species cannibalism, but it is difficult to imagine too many Czechs, a century ago or now, condemning the sausage-gobbling Broucek or preferring a meat-free banger.

The opera had a difficult gestation. Janacek involved as many as eight different script-writers before he had a libretto which he could approve. Unlike his other operas which reflect Janacek’s emphasis on fitting the music to the natural pattern of speech, especially dialects of Czech, he composed much of the music for Broucek before a text was even sketched out. The waltz and the mazurka underpin the work.

An audience gets the joke even when it cannot explain why

We know Janacek was impressed by Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier. Strauss’s use of the waltz as a bitter-sweet leitmotif perhaps sensed the impending doom of the Habsburg Empire. That would be mourned by Strauss but it appealed to Janacek. But it was probably also the zany comedy-tragedy two-parter, Ariadne auf Naxos, which led him to compose what seems to be a satirical tribute at the end of the first half of Broucek. The heldentenor and multi-parted Mark le Broque, as the painter Mazal, joins Fflur Wyn’s Malinka in a duet parodying Bacchus and Ariadne from the climax of Ariadne auf Naxos — parts waiting for them?

As with Shakespeare’s comedy, Poutney’s skilful use of situation in Broucek means that an audience gets the joke even when it cannot explain why it is funny, given the language barrier from sixteenth century English to today’s or with Czech references from a century ago.

The cast and chorus perform skilfully and energetically what bizarre tasks they’re set. The BBC Concert Orchestra played well, if a little low volume, under the baton of George Jackson, who certainly let the singers and their songs shine out.

Confusing, bizarre as it is, and certainly a one-off in Janacek’s operas of love and death (even among the animals in his Cunning Little Vixen), David Pourtney’s Broucek is definitely a great night out.

The Excursions of Mr. Broucek is running at Grange Park Opera, West Horsley until 7 July.

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