Czech Curtains for Mozart

Kenneth Asch on Prague's memento to the great composer

As a fitting climax to the bicentenary celebrations for Mozart, the only theatre that still exists with direct links to the composer, the Stavovske Theatre (Estates Theatre) in Prague, has been refurbished and rededicated, its original glory again revealed after years of silence and neglect.

Some months prior to his death, Mozart came to Prague to complete his last operatic composition. La clemenza di Tito had been commissioned as part of the official celebrations for the Bohemian coronation of Habsburg Emperor Leopold II. It is a curious coincidence that one week after the premiere Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette (herself daughter of Habsburg Empress Maria Theresa) were taken prisoner as they attempted to escape Paris and the French Revolution.

Mozart's career was already in serious trouble when he was in Prague, in 1787, for the opening of Don Giovanni. Based on a folktale which had long been popular as a puppet entertainment for the whole family, Mozart's version was an instant success in Prague. Often called the most perfect work of its kind, the opera immediately came to occupy a pivotal place in the whole of artistic creation.

It was entirely appropriate then that Prague's unique celebration of Mozart should be the rededication on December 1st last year of the Estates Theatre for which Don Giovanni was expressly composed and the premiere of which Mozart himself conducted. In fact, it is most likely that the opera was written in the first place only because a wealthy Czech count, Franz Anton Nostitz, decided to act on his social principles and sponsor Prague's first building devoted specifically to plays and opera. His playhouse, the Nostitz National Theatre, opened its doors in 1783.

The Czech people possessed a uniquely sophisticated musical awareness, thanks largely to an education system that required that all teachers simultaneously be qualified organists. More central, perhaps to the issue of Bohemian cultural identity was the absence of an imperial court in Prague. Fewer opportunities existed, therefore, for the exercise of political intrigue which, in Vienna, decided the career of a musical genius sooner than any objective standards of artistic achievement. Prague's audiences were thus freer to respond spontaneously to Mozart's highly individual music. In any case, the Czech nation was inclined, in its own well-developed sense of individuality, to be independent of Vienna's official trends.

This was no preparation, however, for the storm about to break over them. The fateful D minor harmony of Don Giovannis opening chord presages straight away something considerably more ominous than the demise of simply a Spanish nobleman. 1787 was only two years away from the French Revolution, but more than a decade since its American forerunner. The call to liberty – viva la liberta – with which Mozart stops the operatic action is no paean in praise of licentiousness. Considering that peasant joins with noble on stage in the singing of it, and that the phrase is repeated far beyond the play's dramatic exigencies, it may safely be assumed that Mozart was alive to prevailing moods in Bohemia.

More than 150 years of Counter-Reformation under Catholic Habsburg rule had not altogether suppressed Bohemian cultural identity. The Czechs were a primary source of industrial and military strength for Vienna, and the Habsburgs were careful to allow its wealthiest province a certain cultural latitude. This was reinforced by the condition of Bohemian nobility which, excluded from positions of significance in Vienna, was encouraged to remain at home and invest in sumptuous palaces.

These magnificent buildings were for years the scene of remarkable musical and theatrical entertainments. However, as people crowded in increasing numbers into the city (following the 1774 reforms which freed peasants from ancient bonds to the land), the need to build a new type of theatre became apparent. This was the social condition that helped inspire Count Nostitz to build his playhouse, a space within which Czechs could express a national identity long suppressed by distant foreign autocrats.

The concept called for an outstanding building, while the unique site chosen for it – the old Fruit Market near the centre of the Old City and Charles University, a venerated home of scholarship – was a corner of Prague's very soul.

According to ancient wisdom, it is impossible to enter the same building twice. Nostitz's playhouse underwent substantial change in the nineteenth century and forty years of neglect by the now-departed Communists assured that, by the time expatriate film director Milos Forman moved in with his Amadeus film crew, 'the place was', as he told me, 'falling apart'. In fact, the Communist authorities had not had the least intention of allowing the almost derelict theatre to be used by an 'American' film producer. Attitudes changed instantly, however, when it was made clear that a million dollars more or less was in the balance, and the tale has now become folklore.

It took the best part of a decade for such a windfalI to translate itself into today's Estates Theatre. But it is now clear that Count Nostitz's beautiful baroque building, echoing anew to Mozart's timeless genius, has been restored to its rightful place as one of Prague's crown jewels.

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