There are a few opera houses in the world which are worth visiting regardless of the quality of the performance offered: La Fenice, Drottningholm, Teatro San Carlo in Naples, the Hungarian State Opera and Munich's Cuvilliés Theatre immediately spring to mind. Arguably at the top of the list is the superb 650-seat Estates Theatre in Prague where Don Giovanni was first performed in 1787 with Mozart himself conducting. You can’t get much better operatic history than that.

Svatopluk Sem (Don Giovanni) © Hana Smejkalová (2014)
Svatopluk Sem (Don Giovanni)
© Hana Smejkalová (2014)

Czech maestro David Švec appeared to opt for the original Prague score as Don Ottavio’s “Dalla sua pace” was cut, which was not so tragic given the less than Wunderlich-quality of tenor Martin Šrejma. Švec used Mozart’s 1788 Vienna revision which, as usual, added Donna Elvira’s “Mi tradì” aria but omitted the final “Questo è il fin di chi fa mal” sextet. The small Mozartean orchestra played in a more accompanying than assertive way and Švec’s tempi were consistently on the brisk side, especially in the recitatives which were galloped through to the serious detriment of both diction and dramaturgical impact. The “Giovinette che fate all’amore” chorus was so rushed it gave a new meaning to “shotgun” wedding.

The production dates back to 2010 and was the brainchild of Czech directing duo Martin Kukučka and Lukáš Trpišovsk who bizarrely call themselves “SKUTR” which means “Scooter” in English. Unfortunately in terms of directional quality this Giovanni was closer to a second-hand Vespa than a Ducati Desmosedici. The opening set was a bare courtyard surrounded by three very high walls in which numerous concealed windows and openings were located.  Paradoxically there were no windows at all in Act II when Giovanni sings the “Deh, vieni alla finestra”.

Like many modern day directors who think an overture has no value unless there is some visual distraction going on, SKUTR had Giovanni and Leporello ambushing Don Ottavio on his way to a sex date with Donna Anna (who is blindfolded and dressed in some kind of commedia dell’arte tutu) and Giovanni adroitly impersonates the chloroformed betrothed. Admittedly before “Or sai chi l’onore” Donna Anna gives the same identity-confusion explanation but such libidinous pre-marital behaviour hardly fits Don Ottavio’s intensely circumspect temperament.

Leporello sings the Catalogue Aria without anything even vaguely approximating a “little black book”. Instead, it is directed to a pair of Elvira’s shoes which makes “leggete con me” somewhat implausible. Beds of black tulips miraculously appear at odd internals more suitable to a macabre staging of La finta giardiniera. Donna Elvira (a slightly shrill Jana Horáková Levicová) carries a similar bouquet although hers are actually elongated arrow/darts which she hurls indiscriminately onto the floor and walls. She is accompanied by her maid to whom Leporello directs his sarcastic comments when Elvira recognises her feckless seducer. Obviously this contradicts Leporello’s later assertion that he has never seen Elvira’s servant.

Dancing black-clad Ninja’s accompany almost all the arias with no particular elucidation. After being duly dispatched, the Commendatore simply gets up and continues to wander back into the action on numerous occasions à la Banquo’s ghost. Elvira sings “Mi tradì” in front of a huge projection showing a charging bison. A teenage version of Don Giovanni appears from time to time in Act II and is the only person to be eating in the finale, although instead of pheasant, displays a remarkable ability to wolf down huge numbers of chocolate wafers. Healthy adolescent appetite perhaps, but not quite what da Ponte envisaged as a sensual “barbaro appetito”. SKUTR certainly had a lot of directional ideas but very few had anything to do with the libretto.

The all-Czech cast was largely undistinguished although the Donna Anna of Jana Šrejma Kačirková showed a solid technique and there was some accurate fiortura and roulades in “Non mir dir”. Pavel Švingr was a dramatically convincing macho Masetto and “Ho capito” well delivered with credible menace. More pleasing was the affable Leporello of Jan Štáva who combined a Baldrick-like goofiness with some fine singing, especially in the mid-range.

The title role was commendably sung by Svatopluk Sem. Deftly negotiating the multiple directional aberrations, he managed to be dramatically credible as well as vocally accomplished. The voice is resonant and clean focussed with a Raimondi-like colour. “Finch’han dal vino” rocketed along with real bravura and there was some fine phrasing in “Là ci darem la mano”. The forte and declamatory passages were consistently impressive although a true mezzo-voce cantilena was occasionally wanting.

All in all, this Don Giovanni in the place of its birth was a bit of a curate’s egg. At a minimum, SKUTR would have been better advised to pay a little more attention to da Ponte and less to inconsistent extra-textual contrivance.