Seeing Don Giovanni at the Estates Theatre in Prague is a special occasion, for two reasons. Firstly, for the history: it’s the theatre where the opera was first performed, back in 1787. Secondly, because today’s Estates Theatre is one of the loveliest opera houses you will find anywhere. Seating just 643, it’s an intimate space, in the classic horseshoe parterre-plus-boxes configuration. The ornate baroque gilt plasterwork is set against upholstery in air force blue, replacing the original red which was thrown out on grounds of its association with communism. Such political considerations aside, the effect is magical.

Svatopluk Sem (Don Giovanni) and Anna Princepa (Donna Anna) © Hana Smejkalová
Svatopluk Sem (Don Giovanni) and Anna Princepa (Donna Anna)
© Hana Smejkalová

Unsurprisingly, Don Giovanni is a repertory piece here, with around four performances a month for the foreseeable future. The present production, directed by the Czech-Slovak duo of Martin Kukučka and Lukáš Trpišovský, is a relative newcomer, having premièred in 2012. It’s a stylish affair, in an overwhelmingly black and white colour scheme - no shades of grey here, only a couple of splashes of red: one on Donna Anna’s forehead representing her father’s blood, the other being Zerlina’s very scarlet pair of too-easily-removable knickers.

Many details of the production work well. Linda Boráros’s costumes are flights of fancy: not exactly modern but not set in any particular period. A set of black stems serve either as tulips in the garden or darts to be thrown in all directions by a furious Donna Elvira. But the centrepiece is a gloriously improbable quirk: Don Giovanni himself sports a wig that I can only describe as a sort of blonde bouffant Mohican. It shouldn’t work, but it does, particularly since the Don is superbly acted by Svatopluk Sem, with just the right level of violent swagger alternating with oleagenous smoothness with the ladies.

Svatopluk Sem (Don Giovanni) © Hana Smejkalová
Svatopluk Sem (Don Giovanni)
© Hana Smejkalová

Sem also sings well, as does a generally strong ensemble cast. While none of the voices really took individual command of the stage (at least until the ending), all were attractive and musical, and the ensemble numbers sounded notably good. Since it’s a small space, a relatively small orchestra is employed (around 30-40, I guessed), and balance between orchestra and singers was impeccable, giving us a beautiful blended vocal sound. Anna Princepa was the pick of the female voices as Donna Anna, solid and appealing across her whole range. But everyone lifted their performances for the biggest of their individual numbers: “Batti, batti, o bel Masetto” for Lenka Máčiková’s Zerlina, “L'ultima prova dell'amor mio” for Pavla Vykopalová’s Donna Elvira. In particular, František Zahradníček gave us a superb Catalogue Aria in an overall strong comic performance as Leporello.

The orchestra, conducted by Jan Chalupecky, got off to a distinctly shaky start: this is an overture which is supposed to make an immediate impact, and there’s no room for even slight wavering in the strings or brass notes that are anything other than 100% on the nail in timing. But they settled soon enough, and while there wasn’t anything revelatory in the playing, there was plenty of brightness and grace, with the characteristically sublime nature of Mozart’s music often showing through. That said, things did flag somewhat in the middle portion of Act II: it’s a passage in which it can be difficult to maintain the blistering pace of Act I, and Chalupecky didn’t really overcome that challenge. The directors tried to help by introducing various visual elements at this point, but I’m not sure I understood them - was the Don’s younger self, an equivalently blond-wigged “mini-me”, to use the Austin Powers term - looking forward to his destiny, or was the Don looking back on his childhood?

Svatopluk Sem (Don Giovanni) © Hana Smejkalová
Svatopluk Sem (Don Giovanni)
© Hana Smejkalová

But orchestra and cast pulled the stops out for the dénouement. Miloslav Podsalský simply threw his voice at the Commendatore’s famous invitation to dinner, with Sem and Zahradníček upping their calibre to match him. It was as powerful a closing scene as I’ve heard. As was Gustav Mahler’s practice when he conducted the opera, the closing ensemble was omitted, and the audience was sent off on a dramatic high.