Thursday, October 29, 2015

In the months before the 1920 premiere of his opera, The Excursions of Mr. Broucek (as John Tyrrell tells it in his recent biography), Leoš Janácek was battling a lingering flu.

The malaise developed during what the composer called those "damp days in Prague." He was never very happy in the Republic’s capital — the setting of his latest opera — and he would find much woe there in the months to come. Back home in the Moravian capital of Brno, the composer treated himself with slivovice, a heady mixture of horseradish, honey and camphor. Later, when the brew hadn’t cured him, he turned, ominously, to "electricity."

Professor Tyrrell doesn’t elaborate, leaving us to picture Tesla coils and mysterious midnight lightning in the Maestro’s garden house.

Eventually, Janácek overcame the flu, but another kind of malaise would forever linger over The Excursions of Mr. Broucek (full title: The Excursions of Mr. Broucek to the Moon and into the Fifteenth Century). On 23 April 1920, it premiered at the National Theater in Prague to a deafening indifference, and soon retired from sight. Audiences then and now — even ardent Janácekians — have never quite known what to make of The Excursions, with its diptych of improbable stories featuring the bourgeois, beer-swilling Mr. Broucek and his drunken encounters with ardent Moon beings and stout Medieval-types. Janácek’s inspiration had been cautionary, a warning to his countrymen on the eve of World War I against becoming lazy Oblomovs like Mr. Broucek. Any timeliness departed long before the opera’s premiere.

Since 1920, in spite of sporadic productions (its American premiere came in 1981) and a marvelous Supraphon recording in 1980, poor Mr. Broucek was shunted off to the margins of Janácek’s works. Consensus told that the first excursion to the Moon, written over a tortuous period of nine years with as many librettists, was packed with charming music and uncharacteristically fanciful moments, while the second excursion to 15th Century Prague contained thrilling pageantry soured in a heap of knotty historical longueurs that only a native-born Czech would care to puzzle out.

Yet, to this listener, at least, the Supraphon recording, and a subsequent performance in Brno, revealed it as one of Janácek’s most lovable operas, brisk and beautiful, full of beery humor, wistful and farcical by turns; a proto science-fictional artifact whose first half, written from 1908 to 1917, roughly contemporary with Georges Méliès Le voyage dans la Lune, 1902, brims with the pleasures of Janácek’s mature style -- that "driven patchwork onomatopoeia," as John Clute calls it, coming of age in the composer’s fiftieth year.

"So my dear Broucek gets drunk again," writes Janacek, to his beloved and indifferent muse, Kamila Stosslova. "Somewhere on Hradcany he falls asleep and has a dream — he is flying to the moon! There he lands. Horrors! People there feed only on the scent of flowers! They give him only flowers to smell! And now a female Moon-Being falls in love with him! She’s bloodless, and a body like lint."

Note the exclamation points — ever plentiful in his correspondence. They’re analogous to the brusque, hectoring gestures in Janacek’s music, shaking up the stately paragraphs of 19th century music.

Think: Electricity. Rather than the cure-all for the Maestro’s flu, think: the galvanizing impulse. Disembodied frog legs hammering at the air.

As for the "female Moon-Being", Etherea; in Janácek’s music she’s anything but "bloodless" (bloodful and crazed come to mind). Along with her mad lover and Lunar Prince Azurian, she’s given rapturous moments underpinned by the waltz and the polka, which underlie and drive that patchwork onomatopoeia, however subtly. Here, in his mature style, Janacek has his characters talk and interrupt one another, as in real conversation, an impulse carried into the orchestral accompaniment, which can just as easily portray gossamer moonlight on Prague, or the mighty wing-beat thrashings of Pegasus, or the Moon’s serene smile.

In Prague and Vienna, conductors were always meddling with Janácek's scores, plumping up and sanding down the strangenesses or inadequacies of Janácek’s orchestrations. Over the last twenty years, a Critical Edition has restored the original scores. Now the Edition has caught up with The Excursions of Mr. Broucek, and the results, captured in a new recording — with Czech singers and the BBC Orchestra under one of the foremost Czech conductors — is a happy affair. Though not revelatory, the new edition somehow sounds more rustic; more of Brno and less of Prague, and full of slivovice and Tesla coils.

It can’t quite erase the fondness I have for the older, plumper Supraphon, where the tenor Vilem Prybil immortalized Mr. Broucek’s brusque befuddlement, his drunken ardor, and his hyper-aversion to vegetarianism. Yet the new CD has much to recommend it, including the simple fact of being obtainable, in a striking package. And both versions capture the Moon Excursion’s memorable finale, the rapturous hush of its last moments, a lullaby in moonlight, breathing out its farewell.

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