Prague has a longstanding love affair with The Marriage of Figaro. It is still a point of pride among the city’s musical establishment that after a première and brief run that drew a lukewarm reception in Vienna, the opera opened in Prague in December 1786 and played for months to rapturous audiences. In a letter written during a visit to Prague the following month, Mozart marveled, “Nothing else is being talked about but Figaro, nothing but Figaro is being played, trumpeted, sung and whistled, no other opera but Figaro is being attended... it’s certainly a great honor for me.”

Jiří Hájek (Count Almavira), Jana Šrejma Kačírková (Countess) and Jana Sibera (Susanna) © Patrik Borecký
Jiří Hájek (Count Almavira), Jana Šrejma Kačírková (Countess) and Jana Sibera (Susanna)
© Patrik Borecký

Mozart himself conducted the January 22 performance. In the decades since, luminaries like Carl Maria von Weber, Bedřich Smetana and Adolf Čech have succeeded him on the podium. So it’s a disappointment to see such a lackluster new production at the storied Estates Theater.

Director Magdalena Švecová has done Figaro before, as well as Baroque and bel canto opera, plus a portion of the Czech repertoire. So experience is not an issue. But in this production, she canʼt quite seem to make up her mind. In appearance and performance it’s very much a period piece, with costumes and scenery that fit a predominantly Baroque style of declamation and singing. The sensibilities, however, are jarringly modern – physical comedy, contemporary choreography, breaking the fourth wall. This tongue-in-cheek approach has its moments, but ultimately seems to slight the material. 

And it can be distressingly uneven. Švecová teaches opera acting and movement at the Plzeň Conservatory, and at times the production is a model of period performance. But too often the singers seem not to know what to do, waving their arms aimlessly or tugging on their costumes. Figaro striking a cuckolded pose under a mounted pair of antlers is witty, but Cherubino and Barbarina making their way through the audience for their brief scene in Act Three feels contrived. Bits of slapstick to fill the time for set changes between acts just reinforce the impression of the entire evening being an awkward in-joke.

Miloš Horák (Figaro) and Jana Sibera (Susanna) © Patrik Borecký
Miloš Horák (Figaro) and Jana Sibera (Susanna)
© Patrik Borecký

There is a nod to tradition in the design, with floor-to-ceiling frosted glass walls echoing Josef Svoboda’s legendary set for Don Giovanni, which is still in use. Pirouetting panels in the first act and movable 2-D shrubbery in the fourth act add to the period look and feel of the production, though it’s difficult to tell if their clunky operation is intentional or the result of poor craftsmanship.

The ensemble cast in the première performance featured some of the National Theater’s most versatile singers, in particular Jiří Hájek (Count Almaviva), Jana Šrejma Kačírková (Countess) and Alžběta Vomáčková (Cherubino). Jana Sibera (Susanna) is a beautiful singer who has also developed into a fine comic actress. Miloš Horák was in good voice, but lacks the guile to pull off Figaro.

The wedding scene © Patrik Borecký
The wedding scene
© Patrik Borecký

Conductor Enrico Dovico has a long and successful history at the Prague State Opera (before it merged with the National Theater) and Volksoper in Vienna. Unfortunately, this was not one of his better nights. Though expertly supportive of the singers, the music had no excitement or fire. The overture to Figaro should be one of the most thrilling in opera, invoking a fast pace and whirlwind atmosphere. Instead, it was competent but colorless, setting a monotone for the entire evening.

To be fair, this was a first performance with some obvious ragged edges, and strong ensemble singing to close out the second and fourth acts suggested that it will improve over time. But to join a proud 230-year old tradition, it has a long way to go.