OPERA / The world turned upside-down: Edward Seckerson comes reeling from ENO's new staging of Janacek's time-travelling fantasy, The Adventures of Mr Broucek

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The Independent Culture
He's a man for all seasons, except the season of goodwill; he's a selfish, irascible, chauvinistic bore; he cares about nothing and no one save his beer and sausages. He's Janacek's Mr Broucek and you'll find him in bars the world over - the everyman of indifference. The Brouceks of this world don't change, the world around them does. Janacek knew exactly what he was doing when he placed his portly Prague landlord at the centre of this satirical pageant. Broucek is neither hero nor villain; you don't exactly like him but you warm to him. He puts things in perspective. Ironically, the world according to Broucek, the world as seen through his beery fantasies, is not that far from reality. And it's definitely off-kilter.

David Pountney's new ENO production begins in woozy monochrome, Stefanos Lazaridis's treacherously unstable designs depositing one simultaneously on one's head and one's heels; inanimate objects have a habit of moving, so does the ground. This is Broucek's point of view - out of phase, out of proportion.

Actually, the two acts of The Adventures of Mr Broucek present two very different aspects of the same musical personality. Until Wednesday night I had not thought them reconcilable. One might have expected Pountney to excel, or should I say exceed, with 'Broucek on the Moon'. This is Janacek rampantly satirical, swiping out not only at Broucek's philistinism but at the objects of his indifference: the 'artists', the aesthetes, the poseurs. Pountney's new translation adds a few specifics of his own: corporate sponsors (good job the audience sponsored this one), music critics (no comment), new wave music ('Is it subliminal? No, it's minimal'), surtitles. That's a very funny scene: an operatic character looking suspiciously like Boris Godunov with an eye-patch falls prey to a rogue surtitler. Mind you, we could have done with a surtitle or two for this show. No one's fault - Janacek makes impossible demands. But the visual gags, the tricks and the allusions, came predictably thick and fast, played out in gaudy colour against Lazaridis's mockingly high-chic abstracts. Hockney's 'bigger splash' was there, , a bevy of green, lunar-punk feminists, an amazing high-tech Pegasus sculpture. As ever, Pountney's tendency towards overkill can prove energetically self-defeating: too many ideas, too busy.

And yet, in Act 2, where Broucek is despatched to the patriotic wars of the 15th century and Janacek's score darkens from a cartoonish hyperactivity to a nationalistic, hymnic magnificence, Pountney, too, broadens his gestures. An anthem to the bloody but heroic birth of the Czech nation is sung out against film footage of the 'velvet revolution' of 1989. We intercut between the Dark Ages - where history, as embodied in stilted figures and richly draped medieval horses, literally dwarfs Broucek - to the present day, where the troubled new order is symbolised by the arrival of virginal maidens in crates marked 'fragile'. Nothing subtle about this Pountney gesture, but it comes from the heart.

As does every last bar of Sir Charles Mackerras's commanding reading of a flawed but compelling score. His terrifically resourceful orchestra has been well- versed in its very particular articulations, animating, nurturing, filling the organ and bell- laden paeans. Mackerras has a wonderfully physical Broucek in Graham Clark and two brave lyric voices in Bonaventura Bottone and Vivian Tierney. But it's very much a company show and ENO has done well by a problematic piece. As figures from Broucek's past come out of the shadows finally to accuse and challenge his indifference and complacency, we too are brought back to reality with a jolt. And it's still off-kilter.

In rep at the Coliseum, London WC2, to 23 Jan (071-836 3161)