In early February, Deutsche Grammophon is releasing a new recording of a semi-staged performance of Leos JanÃ¡cek's opera The Excursions of Mr. Broucek, with JirÃ BelohlÃ¡vek conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the BBC Singers. The standard reasons for giving this seldom performed opera a chance are that it's by the master composer of Czech opera; it has a lot of comedy -- usually the domain of operetta and musicals, not ultra-serious 20th century operas -- and finally, this particular recording is based on a new critical edition of the score. But a not so standard reason for trying this out is the element of science fiction/fantasy in it. (JanÃ¡cek would go on to write The Makropulos Case, which has a Twilight Zone-ish twist to it and was based on a story by Karel Capek, author of the play R.U.R.) The Excursions of Mr. Broucek tells the story of one man's fantasies, a little bit like James Thurber's Walter Mitty, a little bit like Baron Munchausen, or in the opera realm, The Tales of Hoffmann and Hary Janos.
Broucek is your ordinary middle-class Joe, the landlord of an apartment house, who drinks too much and wishes his life could be better. In the first half of the opera, he dreams of living on the moon. Just like Baron Munchausen, Broucek finds himself the subject of the amorous attentions of the female lunar leader. When he realizes that life on the moon is more artsy, intellectual, and vegetarian than he is, Broucek longs to return home and wakes up. In the second half, Broucek in a drunken stupor stumbles into the 15th century, when Prague is being attacked by the Holy Roman Empire. He is first accused of being a spy, then, even though he tries to claim he's been valiantly defending his country, his cowardice is revealed and he's condemned to death. Just as he's about to be executed -- burned inside a barrel -- he wakes up again, inside an empty barrel.
What's really going on here is commentary by original novelist Svatopluk Cech on 1880s Czech society. Broucek is obviously an imaginative person, like Mitty and Hoffmann and the others, but those other characters are all conscious masters of hyperbole and self-promotion (in Mitty's case, at least in his own mind). However, Broucek's subconscious just can't seem to imagine him succeeding in another life any more than he can in real life. Cech wanted to show how ignorant, insulated, and self-serving the bourgeoisie and new capitalists of his day could be, and perhaps, that they deserve what they get or at least bring trouble on themselves by not being more open-minded. It's commentary that some will probably still find relevant today.