The Adventures of Mr Brouček

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Rating: ★★★★☆
It is not difficult to see why performances of The Adventures of Mr Brouček are something of a rarity. The eponymous Brouček is whisked through time, space and circumstance in an opera whose score is at once challenging and beguiling. Scottish Opera’s collaboration with Opera North makes the best possible case for the inclusion of the piece in the modern canon yet this formidable production still leaves one unsurprised that this is only the second time the opera has been seen in Scotland. Indeed, it has been a long time since it was last seen, in an Edinburgh Festival performance in 1970, the premiere of the work in the UK.

Structurally, The Adventures of Mr Brouček barely hang together. In the first half, the consequences of Brouček’s boozing are a trip to the moon and a series of encounters with characters whom he remembers from his bar. In the second, his drinking takes him back in time to 1420 and the Hussite rising in Prague. Again, the characters of Brouček’s alcohol induced fantasy are based on those who inhabit his local. Though he (and we) recognise them, they deny all knowledge of him. Whether on the moon or fifteenth century Prague, Brouček is an outsider, a loner and a stranger.

It is perhaps this sense of alienation that has led John Fulljames to set the bar scenes not in the early twentieth century but in 1968. That clever choice of date is a clear attempt to link the two disparate stories together. The setting takes us to a time just before the moon landings and just at the time of the Russian intervention in what was then Czechoslovakia. The lunar fantasy of Act I can only make what sense it does, if it takes place before anyone on earth had the images of the moon landings fixed for good in the imagination. Meanwhile, we were encouraged to see the Hussite rebellion of Act II within the context of the ongoing struggle of the Czech nation which reached such a defining point in 1968.

All these changes in scene give much for a creative team to work on. Particularly striking throughout the evening was the use of both the projected video work of Finn Ross and the accomplished and striking lighting design of Lucy Carter. The video located the work in the 1960s and was by turn whimsical and unexpectedly beautiful.

Outstanding amongst the principals was Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts who brought a clarity and sense of narrative purpose to bear on his various roles throughout the evening. As Starry Sky-Blue, he brought out an unexpected gentleness whilst on the moon which was matched by passionate vocal declarations as Petřík, the Hussite later on. The love duet between Lloyd-Roberts as Mazal and Anne Sophie Duprels as Málinka which ended Act 1 achieved a moment of elegant tenderness and peace.

Centre-stage for much of the action on the moon, was Donald Maxwell. Notwithstanding the considerable visual treats of the production, it was difficult to take one’s eyes from him as he paraded about in only a pair of white skimpies as the lunar patron, Shining Radiance. Fortunately, his vocal production was more than a match for the visual distraction of all that flesh.

Almost all of the singing from the principals was confident and clear. Only Jonathan Best as Lunabor (and other parts) needed to work a little harder than he did to reach over the top of the orchestra.

Brouček himself is not a character whom we are supposed to warm to. John Graham-Hall managed to convey the fact that we are supposed to feel a little sneer towards this drunken everyman. The clarity of diction and the precision of his singing fitted well with Janáček’s particular ways of setting speech rhythms to music and allowed a controlled rage to bubble beneath the surface. Where rage fell silent, it gave way several times throughout the evening to a puzzled and even distracted bewilderment.

That sense of bewilderment was certainly shared by members of the audience. It is far from certain how a modern audience is supposed either to react. The satire was apparent in frequent humorous incidents, but how should we comprehend the broad sweep of the dramatic action? This is a complex piece which saw off seven librettists before its first performance and there are times when that shows.

Perhaps the only way to engage fully with this opera is to enter into a willing suspension of bewilderment and simply to enjoy the extravagant score. Martin André managed to inspire an energetic sound from the Orchestra of Scottish Opera, particularly in Act I. The brass section shone particularly brightly through the evening, seemingly confirming every hunch that Janáček wrote music just to let brass players show off. However the evening was not the sole preserve of the brass section. The ethereal, shimmering notes from the strings brought a haunting beauty to the space travel sections. As Brouček headed moonwards, he (or at least his projected digital avatar) was accompanied aloft by a glorious rising string section, playing at least as well as in any of Scottish Opera’s recent productions.

The only sour notes from the pit throughout the whole evening came from the organ. Though well played, the instrument itself was not adequate for the task. There is no point spending all that money on up to date digital projection system for the dramatic action and not to hire a similarly up to date digital instrument for the music in the pit. Janáček was an organist himself and his music deserves a better instrument than we heard.

There was a strong sense of discovery to be had about this production. Not only the discoveries represented on stage of space exploration and the mining of a part of European history with which many will be unfamiliar. This is also a relatively unknown opera. The score makes its own case for inclusion within the modern operatic repertoire. The dramatic action is much more difficult and it would be easy to see why a director might be shy of making an attempt to bring it to life. Ultimately John Fulljames is to be applauded not only for making such an attempt but also for pulling it off so well and making a compelling case for a tricky piece.

In this case, a great deal of the work in overcoming dramatic difficulty was achieved by new technical techniques (notably the use of video) which were previously unavailable to directors. The use of such work in this production was so convincing that it made it almost impossible to imagine the opera without it. It is to be hoped that such a confident technical production as this encourages others to look for other apparently unstageable works and to think the previously unthinkable.

Scottish Opera and Opera North have worked together to produce and exciting, innovative, beautiful and well sung production to stages across the North of England and Scotland. The Adventures of Mr Brouček deserves to be widely seen – not only for the sheer joy of seeing a company tackling a hard work and doing so well but also to delight in two Opera companies collaborating to produce exactly the kind of high quality work that they were formed for.

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