It’s always special to see an opera performed in the very theatre that gave its premiere, even if only via a screen. Mozart’s Don Giovanni premiered at Prague’s Estates Theatre (then the Nostitz Theatre) in October 1787 and was rapturously received. “Connoisseurs and musicians alike agree that Prague has never heard anything to equal it,” reported Die Oberpostamtzeitung. The opera has a cherished place in the capital’s cultural history and has received over twenty productions at the Estates, but this new staging is the first to be entrusted to an entirely non-Czech directorial team, led by Alexander Mørk-Eidem.

Don Giovanni in the Estates Theatre, Prague
© Jan Pohribný

Mozart enjoyed great success in Prague. Don Giovanni was commissioned after Le nozze di Figaro had proved such a huge hit at the Nostitz in January 1787 (a bigger hit than in Vienna) and his final opera La clemenza di Tito premiered at the theatre in 1791, months before the composer’s untimely death. The Estates is tiny, seating just 635 (closer to 800 in Mozart’s day) and from the brief glimpses at the start of the stream one realises what an intimate experience it must be watching opera there. If the theatre looks familiar, that could be because Miloš Forman shot scenes there for his Oscar-winning film Amadeus.

Just 34 players crowded the pit as Karsten Januschke launched into the tempestuous D minor chords with whiplash arm movements. The overture was certainly better played than at the 1787 premiere, where the orchestra was largely sight-reading parts that were still wet with the copyist’s ink. Although played on modern instruments, the small forces of the Prague National Theatre Orchestra aided clarity. Ironically, given the opera’s Prague history, Januschke largely opted for the 1788 Vienna revision, with the new arias Mozart composed, Don Ottavio’s “Dalla sua pace” and Donna Elvira’s “Mi tradì quell'alma ingrata”, and the big cut to the closing sextet.

Alžběta Poláčková (Donna Elvira) and Miloš Horák (Leporello)
© Jan Pohribný

Januschke’s Prague cast was reliable, although his hectic tempi hampered his singers. Pavol Kubáň’s firm baritone gave Giovanni plenty of bite, but his Champagne Aria (poured from Leporello’s hip-flask) was barked frantically and there was little seductive about his loud “Là ci darem la mano”... although it clearly worked on this Zerlina as she ended up minus her knickers and with the Don buried under her skirts. Miloš Horák was a likeable Leporello, his bass-baritone slightly darker than Kubáň’s. It was a shame Richard Samek lost Ottavio’s “Il mio tesoro” because he sang very well, a more muscular tenor than usually heard. Jana Sibera was a splendid Donna Anna, not a huge voice, but well-controlled in the notorious “Non mi dir”. Alžběta Poláčková was a nicely venomous Elvira, but the once-sweetness of her soprano has soured, alas, in an uneven performance. Lenka Máčiková’s feisty Zerlina was the most interesting of the ladies; well sung but also very knowing – she cries for help even though Giovanni is nowhere near her to “frame” him and is quick to spot Leporello in disguise. Lukáš Bařák was a reedy Masetto.

Lenka Máčiková (Zerlina), Richard Samek (Ottavio), Alžběta Poláčková (Elvira) and Jana Sibera (Anna)
© Jan Pohribný

Mørk-Eidem stages the opera as metatheatre, the drop-curtain suddenly plunging after the murder of the Commendatore to reveal wings, footlights and the Estates auditorium in the distance. Clothes rails are wheeled in before Giovanni’s party and the guests don their disguises – Ottavio as an archbishop, Anna in French Revolutionary garb, complete with red “liberty cap”, Elvira as a commedia dell’arte Harlequin. Jenny Ljungberg’s costumes are broadly traditional, but with a modern twist. In another nod to the Estates Theatre, the dying Commendatore is revealed in a wheelchair, his head shrouded just like Anna Chromy’s statue The Commendatore (elsewhere titled The Cloak of Conscience) displayed outside the house.

Pavol Kubáň (Don Giovanni), Zdeněk Plech (Commendatore) and Miloš Horák (Leporello)
© Jan Pohribný

Which leads us to Mørk-Eidem’s “big idea”. In the duel, it is the Commendatore (woolly-voiced Zdeněk Plech) who strikes the first blow, running his rapier through Giovanni’s side. He spends the rest of the opera in his death throes, blood seeping from his wound. The Don knows it’s his final day on earth and he intends to live it to the full, although he fails to notch up any further conquests for Leporello’s catalogue – here a collection of books, one for each country! It’s an interesting concept, but Mørk-Eidem doesn’t really take his idea anywhere, so it comes across as half-baked.

Pavol Kubáň (Don Giovanni) and Miloš Horák (Leporello)
© Jan Pohribný

For the rape of Donna Anna, Giovanni is dressed in the identical yellow frock coat we later see Don Ottavio wearing… his means of gaining access to her intimate chambers? But Mørk-Eidem never follows up this idea either. And considering master and servant briefly swap identities in Act 2, he doesn’t make anything of his Giovanni and Leporello looking uncannily alike although, Prague’s National Theatre being a repertoire house, this production – when audiences eventually return – will have to play to many bass-baritone pairings over the seasons. It’s certainly a highly revivable staging though.

This performance was reviewed from the Czech TV live video stream