Donald Maxwell over the Moon as Scottish Opera return reveals a glorious past

FOR those with long memories of Scottish Opera, tonight marks the opening of a production that has significant links with the company's distinguished past. Let's call it the Janácek connection.

• Jancek's opera The Adventures of Mr Broucek is rarely staged. Picture: Complimentary

In the space of a decade spanning 1977-87, Scottish Opera, then on an ambitious high, joined forces with Welsh National Opera to mount a groundbreaking series of co-productions by the then young David Pountney – musical direction by Richard Armstrong – that introduced Jancek's music to a public relatively unaware of such operatic masterpieces as Jenufa, Kt'a Kabanov, The Makropulos Case, The Cunning Little Vixen and From the House of the Dead.

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There can be no doubt that the series had a huge impact, both around the UK and further afield, and these works quickly became part of mainstream repertoire for any opera company worth its salt. Boy, those were the days.

In relation to such distant memories, tonight's Scottish unveiling of Jancek's The Adventures of Mr Broucek – a co-production with Opera North – has all the trappings of a sentimental afterthought. It's an opera that is rarely staged, and has certainly never seen the light of day in Scotland, so how likely is it that yet another Jancek revelation will unfold before us?

One man who has the benefit of hindsight, as well as a direct involvement in the then-and-now of Scottish Opera's Jancek adventures, is Donald Maxwell. The Perth-born baritone joined Scottish Opera 35 years ago in its heyday of employing salaried principals (he was initially a chorus member), and just as it was contemplating the original Jancek productions, many of which he had roles in.

After that, Maxwell became better known as part of light entertainment duo Music Box – with fellow Scottish Opera veteran Linda Ormiston – before developing a career in wider operatic circles, including administrative roles at Buxton Festival, as director of London's National Opera Studio and head of opera at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama. Recently, however, he has turned his fuller attention back to his first love – performing opera – including acclaimed appearances at the Royal Opera House and last month in Donizetti's La fille du rgiment at the New York Met.

Tonight's audience in Glasgow, however, will see Maxwell as he's rarely been seen before: dressed in nothing but a jock strap. It's all part of the surreal arts community encountered on the Moon by the main character Broucek (sung by John Graham-Hall) whose time-travelling adventures take him from 20th-century Prague of the new Czech Republic (updated to the anticipation of Soviet invasion in 1968 in John Filljames's production) to 15th-century Prague, via that crazy extraterrestrial dream scene on the Moon.

"When I appeared like that in the production's original run last year in Leeds, many were saying that a middle-aged man should not be seen like that, and I was brave to be doing it. But the essence of that role is in satire and comedic impact, so if appearing like that gets it across, then I don't mind," says Maxwell.

It's just one of several parts Maxwell plays in an opera populated by multiple roles. Only the title role is sung exclusively by one person. Others appearing include the Scots mezzo- soprano Frances McCafferty, making her Scottish Opera debut, and Anne-Sophie Duprels, who sang the title role in the company's 2009 production of Massenet's Manon. The musical director is Martin Andr.

But if Jancek's operas are now common currency, why has it taken so long for The Adventures of Mr Broucek to become part of the repertoire? The truth is it is a flawed opera, a view with which Maxwell concurs.

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"The fact that Jancek took years to write it mitigated against it", he argues, referring to how the composer began work on it in 1908, lost interest, before coming back to it after the success of Jenufa in 1916, completing it a year later with major additions and finally seeing its first performance in 1920.

It is a truly fantastical theatrical creation, in which the "Moon creatures" are a parody of what Jancek considered to be Prague's pretentious artistic community, and where the satire ultimately turns on the lily-livered Broucek himself as a representation of those among prominent Czechs who wavered at a time of national crisis.

Musically, it is more embryonic than fully mature, more a test-bed for the astonishing originality that made unquestionable masterpieces of Jancek's four last great operas. There's no mistaking the saw-tooth nuclear motifs that are so electrifyingly interwoven and later created such structural tautness in The Cunning Little Vixen, or the ravishing love music of Mlinka and Mazal in Dr Broucek that pre-empts the sensuous overtones so powerful again in Kt'a Kabanov.

And there's that unmistakable quest for national identity that Jancek worked avidly to achieve, which finds a raw voice in the last act of Mr Broucek.

"There's something very Czech in the 15th-century Prague scene that is very difficult to bring off, but which this production succeeds well in getting across," Maxwell says. "It's an opera that contains marvellous writing for chorus, and marvellous instrumental colours. People will go to it and be glad they saw it."

That was certainly the case all those years ago when Scottish Opera audiences were instantly converted to Jancek by productions that Maxwell played a part in. So what's it like for him to come back to a company he last appeared with 12 years ago in Mozart's Cos fan tutte?

"When I joined Scottish Opera 35 years ago it was doing 150 main scale performances a year. But that was part of the euphoria which the young company was experiencing in the 1970s. That kind of excitement is not found so much in opera companies today," he says.

Nobody would deny these are leaner times for Scottish Opera. So the sight and sounds of Jancek and Maxwell together again in Scotland has a sentimental symbolism. And maybe, like dear old Mr Broucek, we can dream of times gone by.

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• Jancek's The Adventures of Mr Broucek opens tomorrow in Glasgow and on 14 April in Edinburgh.