A “concert staging” that is, a semi-staged concert performance of an opera can be problematic, but the BBC Symphony Orchestra‘s Chief Conductor Jiří Bělohlávek and his large forces did justice to the musical content of Janáček’s opera The Excursions of Mr Brouček. It is based on two satirical tales by Svatopluk Cech. Part I of the opera tells about the excursion of Mr Brouček to the moon and Part II is the story of his excursion to the 15th century.
They are bridged by a short scene in the Prague of 1888 – with Brouček found in a drunken stupor – which is where the opening and closing scenes of the opera take place. In the opening scene, Brouček is very drunk and dreams about escaping to the moon. In the closing scene he wakes up inside a barrel at his local inn, relieved to be at home. Though clearly both parts of the opera are only dreams, they present a sharp satire on arty intellectuals (apparently living on the moon) and on greedy nonentities (represented here by Brouček) who have replaced the Czech national heroes of the 15th century.
Though tastefully and imaginatively staged by Kenneth Richardson, it might have been better to present the opera in a straightforward concert performance. The stage was too crowded (with the large orchestra and chorus) to have easy visual demarcation of the various characters. All of the cast sang from music placed on music stands (the latter thus further cluttering the stage) and all the solo singers stood in front of the stage, with their backs to the conductor. Presumably the solo singers saw the conductor from TV screens placed in the auditorium but having the singers back to back with the conductor for such a complicated score is less than helpful.
We were treated to some wonderful singing by the all-Czech cast. In particular, Jan Vack as Broucek delivered a virtuoso performance both vocally and as an actor. Soprano Maria Haan and bass Zdenek Plech also impressed but tenor Peter Straka‘s top notes were strained from time to time. The BBC Singers, as more often than not, were on excellent form. The concert staging did not extend to the chorus so they stood and delivered – facing conductor and audience – with unrestricted and secure power from their regular choir places.
Used to complicated modern scores, Janáček did not seem to cause problems for the BBC Symphony Orchestra. They had firm and inspired direction from Bělohlávek, who clearly knows as well as loves Janáček’s music. Interestingly, Bělohlávek, a compatriot of Janáček, characterises the composer’s rhythms less sharply than I am used to in performances conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras. “If the music seems rough”, Janáček wrote, “isn’t it to confront us boldly with the truth?” Though Bělohlávek and his forces treated us to a high quality performance, the roughness was somewhat tempered. Perhaps a studio recording, with good eye contact with the conductor by all singers, would give us a different account.