The Adventures of Mr. Broucek, as Opera North’s General Director Richard Mantle points out in the programme book, is “two quite separate operas, composed at different times”. Despite a stunningly intelligent and imaginative production, it remains such. Even though the cunningly thought through designs achieve a large measure of integration, the differences in style and subject remain.
Mr. Broucek, a character in stories by the 19th century Czech writer, Svatopluk Cech, is a drunk who, falling out of the Vikarka Inn at closing time, embarks on fantasy adventures. In Leos Janacek’s opera, the first half takes in his journey to the Moon where the inhabitants are filled with an excessive artistic sensibility. Relationships and characters there parallel the Vikarka crowd with its sexual tension between Mazal the artist, Broucek and Malinka the Sacristan’s daughter. The second act takes us to Prague in 1420 with Broucek trying not to be involved in the Hussite wars of religion.
Not only is the subject different, but the style of libretto and music changes between acts. The Moon episodes are expressionist, absurd and loosely satirical, not wholly coherent. The 15th century scenes have a strong story-line, with real drama and little satire, and include Hussite hymns and patriotic songs in a more confidently integrated musical package.
Director John Fulljames and designer Alex Lowde almost achieve the impossible in unifying the disparate elements. A particular inspiration is the realisation that the Prague Spring and the first Moon landing occurred in successive years, so the period of the production is moved to the late 1960s when Moon travel and the heroic Czech past are on the minds of the drinkers in the Vikarka. Lowde’s designs make superb use of scrims and screens, projections, shadows and silhouettes, creating beautiful and bizarre images while allowing the action to flow seamlessly.
Vocally strong throughout the cast, the production is even more notable for the quality of the acting. Such accomplished visual comedians as Claire Wild, Frances McCafferty and Richard Burkhard make much of small roles. Donald Maxwell moves from a near-naked aesthetic trend-setter on the Moon (the spirit of Patience seems to lurk behind these scenes) to a Hans Sachs figure in the Hussite wars, while Jonathan Best’s perpetually perplexed father figure attains a certain heroic stature as a doomed Hussite leader.
Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts and Anne Sophie Duprels, as an unlikely pair of young lovers (Duprels admirably selfless in her unflattering Act 1 image), produce wonderfully committed and passionate singing throughout and John Graham-Hall negotiates Broucek’s challenging music with aplomb. Though he is convincingly cowardly in Act 2 and delightfully insouciant at the end, he never seems quite gross enough as the drunken boor planted among the Flowers of Progress in Act 1.
With the orchestra as assured and as dramatically aware as ever, conductor Martin Andre leads a sure-footed account of the opera. Though Act 1 remains intractable at times, this production makes the best possible case for Janacek’s problematic and seldom-staged opera.