Just a guess, but itʼs probably a good thing that Ernst Krenek was not in the audience for the premiere of the Prague National Theatreʼs production of his opera Jonny Spielt Auf. Asked in his later years how he felt about working with directors, Krenek said: “That is a sore point. Nowadays the stage director feels that the opera is just raw material with which he can do or treat as he sees, as he likes, as he feels. He can make cuts or insert things or do whatever he wants. The composer is not asked many questions. He just sits by and watches how his work is demolished.”

Jonathan Stoughton © Patrik Borecký
Jonathan Stoughton
© Patrik Borecký

Thatʼs a perfect description of the National Theatre production, which is more than unfortunate. If ever a forgotten opera deserved a smart, spirited revival, itʼs this 1927 gem that came to epitomise Zeitoper, a short-lived genre that went verismo one better. After a wildly successful premiere in Leipzig, Jonny was translated into 18 languages and given 421 performances throughout Europe before landing at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in January 1929. By then storm clouds were starting to gather in Germany, where an anti-Semitic newspaper called for a boycott of this “Jewish disgrace” (yet Krenek was not Jewish). By 1938 Jonny was a prime exhibit in the Nazi denunciation of “degenerate art,” and vanished from the stage.

By modern standards Jonny would be considered a musical comedy, with elements of drama and social commentary cleverly woven into a bedroom farce propelled by an innovative mix of classical and contemporary music. The title character is an African-American jazz musician intent on stealing a violin from the vain virtuoso Daniello, who becomes involved with a promiscuous opera singer named Anita. She is already in a relationship with composer Max, who is battling a creative crisis in the Swiss Alps, where he hopes to draw inspiration from a glacier. With Jonnyʼs chambermaid girlfriend Yvonne adding another dash of sexual spice, the two men compete for Anitaʼs affection while Jonny stays one step ahead of the police and manages to come out on top in the end – literally overlooking a crowd dancing to his music.

<i>Jonny spielt auf</i> ensemble © Patrik Borecký
Jonny spielt auf ensemble
© Patrik Borecký

Given this rich cast of characters and vibrant clash of the Old and New Worlds, Czech director David Drábek made the baffling decision to turn Jonny into what might be called a dadaist fantasy. He fills the stage with absurd figures – garden gnomes, large fuzzy animals, dancing flowers, even a yeti – which prance and flit through the action, sometimes even staging side skits of their own. Thereʼs no apparent connection to the narrative, no insights, no commentary – which may itself be the comment. Itʼs hard to discern amid an already convoluted plot made even murkier by Drábekʼs increasingly annoying distractions.

Meanwhile, the actual characters are woefully one-dimensional. Jonny in particular should dominate the opera as a beguiling blend of rascal, libertine and exotic harbinger of a new era. Instead he looks and acts like a refugee from a 1970s disco band, jitterbugging across the stage, clowning his way through arias, lightweight and ephemeral as the occasional jazz lick in the score. Worse, the National Theatre committed the unpardonable faux pas of casting a white singer, Jiří Rajniš, and having him perform the role in blackface. A versatile black singer may have been difficult to come by in late ʼ20s Germany, but thatʼs no excuse now. (Though to be fair, this may be more a matter of the theatre knowing its audience, as just an advertisement featuring a virile black man drew complaints.)

Vanda Šípová and Jiří Rajniš © Patrik Borecký
Vanda Šípová and Jiří Rajniš
© Patrik Borecký

Strong performances by Jonathan Stoughton (Max), Petra Šimková-Alvarez (Anita) and Igor Loškár (Daniello) helped, as did expert work in the pit by conductor Stefan Lano, a globetrotting opera veteran whose history with Jonny goes back to a 1978 production in Graz. And the State Opera Chorus was superb, especially the distaff side, which turned Maxʼs hallucinatory dialogue with the glacier into a haunting encounter.

Unable to sing because of a vocal injury, Vanda Šípová acted and mouthed the part of Yvonne while last-minute recruit Steffi Lehmann stood at the side of the stage and sang the vocals. In what may be the most telling measure of the evening, had the arrangement not been announced before the performance started, it would have seemed like just another inexplicable tic in this muddled production. In all, a great choice for a revival by the National Theatre, and a squandered opportunity by Drábek.