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There are occasions when a conductor is so inside a piece of music that, even if you are not familiar with the idiom or might not warm to it under other circumstances, the performance persuades you on its own terms. That will surely have been the experience of many on Sunday, when Jirí Belohlávek led a “concert staging” of Janácek’s The Excursions of Mr Broucek.
The opera tells of a bumbling, boorish bourgeois who boozes himself to sleep and dreams of bizarre encounters on the moon and in 15th-century Prague. With copious references to beer and sausages, it’s really a satire on the Czech national psyche, but it also raises wider issues of misogyny and xenophobia. So why has Broucek never caught on? However original the scenario, Janácek’s chattery lines don’t sell themselves easily. The comic burlesque is long-winded, doubly so without visual wrapping. There’s just one full-blown character: whether in the here-and-now of Broucek’s Prague or in the imaginary world of his dreams, the others are just crutches. Broucek is no masterpiece.
That’s why it needs help – but few conductors are willing or able to take on the challenge. Charles Mackerras did so many moons ago for the work’s UK stage premiere at ENO. On Sunday Belohlávek proved equally inspiring. He steered a path through the devilish changes of metre in a way that made you wonder whether the BBC Symphony Orchestra had been playing this music all its life: it sounded so lyrical. His cuing of the BBC Singers was equally flawless. He underlined the sublime sweetness of the interludes by refusing to indulge them, and made the Act 2 climax – all bells, trumpets and battle-chorus – really hum.
Bouquets to Kenneth Richardson for his discreet “staging”, to Maria Haan and Martina Bauerová, both classic exponents of Janácek’s high-lying character-soprano parts; and to the other members of this all-Czech cast, each of whom made wonderful sense of the text. As for Jan Vacík’s Broucek, it was hard to believe we weren’t face-to-face with a definitive realisation: it wasn’t just the specs, the paunch or the period dress, but Vacík’s knack of inhabiting Broucek’s flaws and turning them into an endearing portrait of life.
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