Sir David Pountney, it appears, has been to Prague. He’s booked himself a mini-break, he’s EasyJetted out, and after (one assumes) necking a couple of pints of unfiltered Pilsner, he’s splurged the entire design budget for Janacek’s The Excursions of Mr Broucek on the loudest tourist tat that the Mala Strana has to offer. Scale it up, pile it on stage; job’s a good ’un. There’s a snow globe and a Lenin candle; there are dinky toy houses and a cardboard pop-up of the Charles Bridge. A massive souvenir plate (badly cracked) hangs over the stage, blazoned with a panorama of Hradcany Hill and the single word – at least two feet high – PRAHA.
The Excursions of Mr Broucek, in case you hadn’t guessed, takes place in Prague, and Leslie Travers’s multicoloured toy shop of a set is one of the more surreal delights of this rare British staging. Pountney pumps it full of visual gags and equally lively action. This, after all, is an opera whose entire plot is the lager-fuelled fantasy of a Pooterish landlord on the way home from the pub. Mr Broucek spends most of the opera rat-arsed. He dreams that he’s travelled to the Moon, which turns out to be full of vegans, avant-garde creatives and post-feminist girl bands in spangly pants. The worst people on Earth, then, though Janacek’s iridescent, curiously wistful orchestral writing never really gets its satirical claws bloody.
Then he’s off into medieval Czech history, and unless you know your Hussites from your Holy Roman Emperors it probably won’t ring too many bells, though the raucous, sinfonietta-like pageantry of Janacek’s music (topped with full-throated choral singing) will more than compensate. Since Mr Broucek has begun the act inside a colossal beer stein – before being caught on the crapper, literally with his trousers down – you might not be inclined to overthink it anyway. In terms of characterisation, the cast don’t have much to do, though they do it tirelessly, filling out Pountney’s cartoon conception with bold, bright strokes. Fflur Wyn, in particular, dances away with the role of the lovesick Malinka, and a cast that includes Mark Le Brocq and Anne-Marie Owens is unlikely to leave anyone feeling short-changed.
Then there’s Mr Broucek himself – the opera’s mainspring, and its biggest problem. Apparently he was conceived as a caricature of small-time bourgeois philistinism, until Janacek ended up disliking his antagonists even more (Pountney’s English translation renames one of them ‘Arty’ and another ‘Farty’ – the comedy, in general, is not subtle). As portrayed by Peter Hoare, he emerges as a man who’s endearingly out of time, whatever the century. As he blusters about in his pocket square and bow tie, struggling to hold on to his dignity, he’s far too relatable to be truly risible.
So with the satire effectively declawed, it all adds up to a grand old heap of nothing much, and watching it is like eavesdropping on a private joke that you probably won’t get unless you’re Czech. There’s plenty of harmless pleasure along the way, though, not least in the playing of the BBC Concert Orchestra under George Jackson, who sound exactly as you’d hope any red-blooded bunch of orchestral musicians would sound when presented with two solid hours of (effectively) undiscovered Janacek. Anyone who takes 20th-century opera at all seriously will want to tick Broucek off their bucket list, and Pountney and co. make it a lot of fun.
In 2018, Nevill Holt Opera opened a purpose-built, 400-seat theatre in the courtyard of a former stable block, and a visit felt overdue. The whole set-up is creamily seductive: a hilltop manor house overlooking prime Leicestershire hunting country, a vista of Deep England to make Tuscany look frumpy (when the sun shines, at any rate). Apart from Longborough, no summer opera festival feels more like being welcomed to a really enjoyable private party, and (again, apart from Longborough) none has a theatre that combines such intimacy with so vivid and transparent an acoustic.
It opened this year with La bohème, in an updated staging by Mathilda du Tillieul McNicol that utilised a single set – a glass-sided Portakabin – and occasionally pulled Mimi (Francesca Chiejina) and Musetta (Alexandra Oomens – a live wire with a voice of spun sugar) out of the action to confide directly in the audience. Chiejina’s Mimi very much set the terms of her relationship with Rodolfo (Peter Scott Drackley), while Schaunard (Dominic Sedgwick) and Colline (Dingle Yandell) were more alive than I think I’ve ever seen them. Christopher Nairne, as Marcello, poured his fresh baritone out over an orchestra (the Manchester Camerata under Nicholas Chalmers) that sounded as vibrant as a Raoul Dufy watercolour in that lovely little theatre. Nothing very special, you might think, about a midsummer country house Bohème. Done as well as this, though, it was certainly worth a detour.