Thursday 15 April 2010

Scottish Opera presents The Excursions of Mr Brouček

Well, actually, that's not quite true, Scottish Opera are this month presenting The Adventures of Mr Brouček. I'm not sure why this is - Excursions seems a more fitting title, and that's how I'll always refer to it. Still, let's not get caught up quibbling over how to translate the title.

This marks my first visit to Scottish Opera in quite some time. Partly it's because of some rather disappointing experiences since the Ring ruined them financially (I remember an especially bad Don Giovanni), partly it's because of programming less exciting than a rained out day at Wimbledon (in fairness it's hard to be too daring when you're only mounting four full productions in a season, though that's another rant), partly it's because of generally rather second rate casting which doesn't even seem to be compensated for by any evidence of the company meeting what should be one of its primary missions: nurturing young Scottish talent. It is exceptionally telling that Jonathan Mills has only used them to stage one production in his four years as festival director.

However, the chance to see Janáček's rarely performed tale of a man whose drunken fantasies take him first to the moon, then to the fifteenth century, was not to be passed up. As added incentive, this was a co-production with Opera North who have been doing very well of late and who, incidentally, manage to mount far more productions each year than Scottish Opera, despite not being a national company.

The decision to sing in English was sensible, as seems to be all the rage for Janáček these days. As ever, I'll note that if Mackerras is happy to do so, who can complain. There were still surtitles though, and that ws, sadly, a good thing, since not all of the singers were equally clear. Towering head and shoulders above the rest was John Graham-Hall as they eponymous Brouček. His powerful voice easily carried over the orchestra, even at the loudest moments and every word could be heard. Not to mention his fine acting: the performance is a real treat. This is shrewd casting, because the work falls heavily upon the character's shoulders.

Elsewhere things range from the solid, such as Donald Maxwell's publican (also doubling up as Shining Radiance on the moon and town councillor in the 15th century), to Anne Sophie Duprels' rather disappointing Malinka (Etherea on the moon and Kunka in 15th century - virtually everyone triples up in this manner), whose words were at best indistinct.

Under Martin Andre the orchestra did well with a score which, while clearly not up there with Janáček's finest, certainly has some magical moments: the climax during the author's aria at the start of the second half and the gloriously rendered church service, complete with organ. Playing was clear, crisp and rich, though perhaps there was not the absolutely cutting bite of the very best Janáček.

What then of the production. Well, for the most part, John Fulljames delivers one that is fairly straight up and faithful. It is quite limited in terms of set, as one might expect of a touring production, and yet for the most part good use is made of what they have. The rolling barrels as Brouček stumbles about in the cellar are an especially nice touch. Other things work less well. There is a lot of use made of two screens onto which projections of one kind or another are made, a lot of which basically look like the controlling computer has gone to sleep and the screen saver kicked in. There are, predictably, visuals of the moon. This is a mistake. We're so used to seeing impressive computer graphics, that if you can't do good ones, you shouldn't try, as the result is just tacky. Odder is the opening astronaut planting the Czech flag. Fair enough, but why does an actor stroll on behind the translucent screen and plant a second one, so that when the two don't line up: it looks very odd indeed. Lastly, a visual on returning to earth zooms in on europe. Logical enough, you might think, but why centre on the mediterranean instead of Prague (which, as I recall, is located a little way away)?

Other odd touches permeate. Why, for example, does the astronaut reappear as the waiter in the Prague pub? Did Shining Radiance really need to disrobe, leaving himself in only a far too revealing pair of pants? Certainly my copy of the script doesn't call for it and seeing Donald Maxwell that way added nothing to the experience. Ditto the artist passionately kissing Brouček.

A more serious problem was the choreography which, for the most part, didn't work well. Whenever there were a lot of people on stage Ben Wright didn't really seem to know what to do with them. This was especially true on the moon in the temple of arts, where the artists wandered around in blocks or did group gestures that at times seemed right out of a broadway musical - it wouldn't have surprised me to see jazz hands. Choreography, when done well, should feel totally natural. On the moon it didn't. I know it should feel alien, but there's still a natural alien and this wasn't it.

Interestingly, it was in some ways a game of two halves. The programme note suggests that it is really two operas, and there is some truth in this. The excursion to the 15th century was largely much better realised. Though here too there were issues - the mob was simply not menacing, especially when compared to, say, that in act III of the Royal Opera's recent Don Carlos. A more minor niggle concerned the spotlight on the author. It was the least round spot I've seen in some time and, doubtless an hangup from my former techie days, it made me cringe.

Ultimately, such quibbles are minor, and this is a generally fine performance and certainly one well worth seeing. The work isn't completely satisfying: there is a general lack of characters about whom one particularly cares and, ultimately, it's not much more than a couple of drink fuelled dreams. Still, if only Scottish Opera would do more like it. That seems unlikely. Albeit on a Wednesday, the Festival Theatre was virtually deserted. The gods can have been at best a fifth full. Of course, this can't be helped by the fact that even a seat near back was £26 and cheap tickets don't really exist. It shouldn't be the case that Covent Garden has more cheaper tickets. Sitting relatively further forward in London recently, the ENO Katya was £4 cheaper and the Mackerras Vixen only £1 more. Both featured more big names and houses of greater standing. Of course, it doesn't help that Scottish Opera's absence of ambition will have fostered the natural conservatism in Edinburgh's audience (I gather Glasgow sold better - though they have more cheaper seats). The opera is repeated tomorrow. This is, apparently, the first time Brouček has been done in Scotland, it may therefore be many years before we see it again. If you can see it, you would be mistaken not to take this chance.

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