Where it Began: Don Giovanni from the Stavovské divadlo, Prague

Mozart – Don Giovanni

Don Giovanni Pavol Kubáň
Miloš Horák
Donna Anna
Jana Sibera
Donna Elvira
Alžběta Poláčková
Don Ottavio
Richard Samek
Lenka Máčiková
Lukáš Bařák
Zdeněk Plech

Sbor Národního divadla, Orchestr Národního divadla / Karsten Januschke.
Stage director – Alexander Mørk-Eidem.  Video director – Tomáš Šimerda.

Stavovské divadlo, Prague, Czechia.  Saturday, April 24th, 2021.  Streamed via Česká televize.

There’s certainly something quite special in being able to see a new production of Don Giovanni from the historic Stavovské divadlo, better known as the Estates Theatre to Anglophones, in downtown Prague, where this work was premiered, conducted by Mozart, in 1787.  For this new production, the house entrusted the work to Norwegian-Swedish stage director Alexander Mørk-Eidem, with a local cast of ensemble members, led by German conductor, Karsten Januschke.  Performed without an audience and streamed via Česká televize’s website during the next seven days, this was also an opportunity to hear an ensemble of singers all new to me.

Photo: © Jan Pohribný

The opening scene of Mørk-Eidem’s production immediately raised interest, in that the Commendatore manages to stab Giovanni before the latter kills him.  It suggested that we might get some kind of meta treatment, perhaps Giovanni looking back on his life.  Instead, we get something that doesn’t quite know what it wants to be.  Costumes (Jenny Ljungberg) are vaguely 18th century but Leporello shows up in a t-shirt, and the party scene at the end of Act 1 sees some metal structures to hold the fancy dress costumes being wheeled on, as well as a metal stool.  The sets consist of a number of drapes and an image of the theatre itself as a backdrop in Act 1, while in Act 2 the stage remains mostly bare apart from a couple of parts of a wooden structure with windows in them, before the drapes return for the banquet.  There was a nice nod to the history of the theatre, with the Commendatore being outfitted like the statue of his character that sits outside the house.  Perhaps this temporal confusion was to suggest some kind of homage to this historic theatre, a tribute to more traditional productions of this work, but the outcome was a concept that ultimately felt as if it didn’t quite know where it wanted to go.

Photo: © Jan Pohribný

That said, the interactions between the characters were utterly believable.  There was some standing and delivering but, combined with the universal clarity of the text and the chemistry between the cast members, the personenregie was generally satisfying.  Perhaps, as Leporello conducted his cast mates in the sextet, there was a suggestion that the action was being driven by him and Giovanni, and that the other characters lacked agency, but this didn’t feel that it was especially carried through.  What was carried through, however, was the idea of that initial wound providing a compelling driver for the action, leading to an intelligent and logical dénouement. 

Photo: © Jan Pohribný

This was also a performance that lived, thanks to its musical aspects, particularly Karsten Januschke’s vigorous conducting.  The evening started so well, strings playing with minimal vibrato, the textures punchy and alive.  His tempi were nicely swift throughout, and he had clearly encouraged his cast to make full and intelligent use of ornamentation, so essential in this repertoire.  Recitatives were conversationally paced and moved along nicely, with the fortepiano soloist making some witty comments on the action.  There were some cuts in the recitatives here and there, but they didn’t disturb.  Although the cut to the epilogue did, with the ensemble moving directly into the closing fugue.  The quality of the orchestral playing was admirable, particularly in how Januschke brought out that constant interactive dialogue between the strings and winds in the texture, and ensured attack was always sharp and tight. 

Photo: © Jan Pohribný

Pavol Kubáň certainly satisfied one of the essential rules of any successful Don Giovanni – that he needs to make the listener want to drop his/her/their pants through sound alone.  His baritone is exceptionally handsome and healthy in tone and he displayed impressive breath control in ‘la ci darem’.  He sang the champagne aria with vigour, never succumbing to the need to hector, and phrased the serenade with love, pulling back yet never losing the core of the tone.  An impressive assumption.  Miloš Horák sang a lively Leporello.  He’d clearly worked hard on the text and clarity of the words, but occasionally his ‘l’s sounded rather Moravian.  He gave us a commanding account of the catalogue aria, wittily phrased, and throughout was a highly energetic presence on stage. 

Photo: © Jan Pohribný

Alžběta Poláčková sang Elvira honestly and with generosity in a soprano that, as recorded here, sounded somewhat brittle.  She got through ‘mi tradì’ with determination, adding some attractive embellishments to the line, but it did sound that the challenges of this fiendishly difficult number took her to her current limits, with emission uneven and placement of the voice not quite optimal.  Still, she gave everything to her character and had clearly worked hard on her assignment.  Richard Samek’s Ottavio was only given ‘dalla sua pace’, which he made a genuine effort to sing with honeyed warmth.  His is a serviceable tenor that has a slight nasal edge higher up, and he was initially rather free with pitching up there, but this settled as the evening progressed.

Photo: © Jan Pohribný

Anna was sung by Jana Sibera who offered us some gravity-defying ornamentation in ‘or sai chi l’onore’, dispatched with the necessary strength.  Her ‘non mi dir’ was sung with lunar, limpid tone, generously phrased, and the florid writing dispatched with accuracy.  Her embellishments to the line also gave her singing a satisfying amount of individuality.  Lenka Máčiková brought an attractively milky soprano to Zerlina, singing her two arias with a pleasingly fresh tone.  Lukáš Bařák was a handsomely-sung Masetto, one that promises that he could be a convincing exponent of the title role in due course.  Zdeněk Plech boomed imposingly as the Commendatore, in a bass that sounded of an impressive size through the speakers. 

Photo: © Jan Pohribný

I must admit to having approached this Don Giovanni with a little trepidation, but the reality is that this was one of those evenings where one would have left the theatre to head to some hostelry to enjoy a local pilsner, with a sense of satisfied contentment.  Musically, it was excellent – superbly conducted and featuring some very interesting voices.  Dramatically, it did the job, even if there were perhaps a few too many non sequiturs along the way.  Well worth watching over the next week.

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