Magazine article The Spectator

Pyrotechnic Display

Magazine article The Spectator

Pyrotechnic Display

Article excerpt

The Excursions of Mr Broucek Barbican Sunday evening at the Barbican was a revelation, no less gushy word will do.

Janacek's comic opera The Excursions of Mr Broucek is the Cinderella in his operatic output, if you don't count the very early works, whole or fragmentary; even the weird but kind of wonderful Osud is more likely to turn up these days. Broucek didn't make it into Decca's much-lauded Janacek series under Mackerras, though it is he who has supervised the new edition which was used at the Barbican. After the intense exhilaration of this performance, it is difficult to remember what the problem was supposed to be. Admittedly, if you stress 'comic' you have to admit that Broucek isn't very funny, but neither are most comic operas. What is more problematic, perhaps, is the ramshackle nature of the action and the text, Janacek's own, but with innumerable collaborators -- no wonder he phased them out in all his later operas. That reflects, I suspect, Janacek's own ambivalence towards the central character. Mr Broucek, according to the composer, initially seems harmless, but he is exposed as a drunkard, coward and parasite. And Janacek asked, 'Is this biting satire enough to make us whip ourselves and the whole nation, or will it lull our conscience rather than awaken it?' The trouble is that Janacek hadn't the temperament to write a bitter satire on anything or anyone, certainly not on a lazy philistine who is confronted, when he dreams he has arrived on the moon, with a collection of aesthetes, whose meals consist of sniffing flowers, and who have ludicrous fashions in lunar art: clearly, if Janacek wanted to write something which 'strips us, so that we burn with shame about ourselves', as he claimed, it was unwise to make Broucek's opponents more ridiculous than he is.

Present Janacek with a fat man in a bowler hat, carrying a cane, on his unsteady way back from the pub, and he (Janacek) will go weak at the knees with indulgent affection. That is just what happens, both in the rarefied atmosphere of the moon, alien to the luxuriant and undisciplined life which is what Janacek holds dearest, and when Broucek time-travels, in Part 2, to Prague in 1420, with bickering Hussites and other heretics spouting the hopelessly undecidable because unintelligible doctrines which constitute the conceptual history of Christianity. Again not the most obvious collection to put a philistine petit bourgeois in his place.

At the Barbican we had a perfectly presented concert staging, the characters indicated mainly by their headgear, and with a tactful use of lighting; surtitles, presumably causing the better informed members of the audience acute irritation, above and behind the chorus. …

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