On 29 September 1787, Mozart wrote a letter to his brother-in-law, Johann Baptist Franz Berchtold zu Sonnenburg to say he would be leaving early for Prague. This casual remark makes no mention of the fact that Mozart was travelling with his wife Constanze to direct the world premiere of the opera Don Giovanni (K527) which had been commissioned from him earlier that year by the impresario Pasquale Bondini. It was based on the tales of the literary libertine Don Juan, in another collaboration with his librettist, Lorenzo Da Ponte. It premiered at the Estates Theatre in Prague. The success of the 1786 Prague premiere of The Marriage of Figaro paved the way for Mozart’s first trip to Prague in 1787, where he conducted a performance of Figaro himself.
Tradition has credited the overture of Don Giovanni as being written at the Duschek villa of Bertramka, or at the House of the Three Golden Lions, on Uhelny Trh 1. Mozart recorded 28 October as the day of its completion, and it seems that his wife Constanze aided his finishing the overture, sitting up with him the night before, keeping him awake, while nearly asleep herself. (Wilhelm Kuhe, My Musical Recollections (London, 1896) quoted in Mozart’s Women, Jane Glover, Pg 158, 2005). Constanze’s aunt Adelheid had also come to Prague, as had Da Ponte. The autograph of the overture is kept in the Bibliotheque du Conservatoire de Musique in Paris. The new opera was known in full as Il dissolute Punito ossia (The Libertine Punished) or Don Giovanni, as the earliest surviving poster for a 1788 performance shows. Da Ponte’s libretto is a “drama giocoso,” literally meaning a drama with jokes, a reference to the text itself.
The premiere was meant to have taken place on 14 October 1787, but Figaro was given instead, as Mozart himself wrote with some frustration in a letter from Prague, because the Theatre was not yet ready. Figaro was performed for the Archduchess Maria Theresa of Austria and Prince Anton Clemens of Saxony, in Prague en route to Vienna from Dresden, where their wedding had taken place, following their marriage by proxy in Florence. (Mozart’s opera seria, La Clemenza di Tito was a commission for the coronation of her father, Leopold II as King of Bohemia; it premiered in the Estates Theatre on 6 September 1791). The premiere was then fixed for 24 October but was again delayed because one of the female opera singers was ill. Mozart finally wrote that his opera would be given for the first time on 29 October. He was at last able to report back to Vienna that “on 29 October my opera Don Giovanni was staged, to the greatest acclaim…” (Mozart Briefe und Dokumente – Online-Edition, herausgegeben von der Internationalen Stiftung Mozarteum, Salzburg ( http://dme.mozarteum.at/briefe/, Retrieved 04/11/17 ). Don Giovanni was given again on 3 November, already its fourth performance.
A report in the Praguer Oberpostamtszeitung was reprinted in the Wiener Zeitung: “Prague has never seen its equal performed. Herr Mozart conducted himself, and as he entered the orchestra, he was greeted with three cheers, which was repeated when he withdrew. The opera is exceedingly difficult to execute, and all are astonished at so successful a staging after such a short period of study… the extraordinary numbers of spectators resulted in the general acclaim…” (Mozart: Lebensbilder, Volkmar Braunbehrens, Karl-Heinz Jürgens, Pg 144, 2005. Author’s translation).
A golden plaque placed on the floor of the stage of the Estates Theatre in 1991, marks the exact place from where Mozart conducted Don Giovanni’s premiere. It reads in Czech: “On this spot, Mozart conducted on the stringed harpsichord.” Somehow the theatre still retains something of the essence of that night – the opera scenes of Czech director Milos Forman’s Oscar-winning 1984 film Amadeus, were shot within the original setting of the Estates. Forman stated in an interview in 2002 that when he and Amadeus playwright Peter Shaffer first arrived in Prague on location, Shaffer suddenly disappeared: “We found him in the corridor – hidden, crying, because there he learned he [was] standing exactly at the place where Mozart himself in person conducted the world premiere of Don Giovanni…”
Back in Vienna, Mozart wrote to his sister, Maria Anna on 19 December 1787 that the reason that she had had to wait too long for an answer to her letter, was partly on account of his writing Don Giovanni, “to the greatest possible acclaim, as you perhaps already know.” (Mozart Briefe und Dokumente – Online-Edition, herausgegeben von der Internationalen Stiftung Mozarteum, Salzburg (http://dme.mozarteum.at/briefe/, Retrieved 04/11/17)
The neoclassical Estates Theatre was built at the instigation of the aristocrat Frantisek Antonin Count Nostitz Rieneck and opened in 1783, four years before Don Giovanni’s premiere, with a performance of Lessing’s Emilia Galotti. The Latin inscription on the theatre’s pediment, Patriae et Musis (To the Native Land and the Muses) is entirely in keeping with the contemporary ideas of the Enlightenment, as part of which the arts and sciences were actively encouraged, the theatre being one such outlet for a wider exposure to literature and music, now more readily accessible outside of the privileged elite. The theatre was purchased in 1798 by the Czech Estates and renamed the Estates Theatre; following several name changes, it became the Tyl Theatre in 1948. Only after the completion of restoration work in 1990 did the theatre once again become the Estates Theatre. It is one of the few wooden baroque theatres of its kind to survive, with only minor alterations. A statue of Il Commendatore by Anna Chromy was erected in the year 2000 outside the Estates Theatre; a plaque commemorates the premiere.
Mozart’s birthday, 27 January, is usually celebrated by a special concert in the Estates Theatre.
In a way, the golden plaque in the floor of the Estates stage says it all – simply that Mozart conducted on that spot. For so much was the night of 29 October 1787 one of musical world history that the words ‘Don Giovanni’ are no longer necessary to add.
Elizabeth Jane Timms is a writer, historian
and freelance royal journalist. She contributes to an international
academic journal about royalty and also writes for magazines and the