If the layman knows one thing about Don Juan, it's that the guy likes to screw around. Show him a girl, and he'll woo at her until she succumbs — or until he has to kill her dad and drag her off by her hair. But even Don Juan and his overactive libido would have begged out of the matches set up for him in "Don Juan in Prague," the "Don Giovanni" adaptation staged this weekend at Brooklyn Academy of Music. It's hard to stay lusty when you look like you just kicked your way out of a brawl between Gary Glitter and the Klingons, can't sing a simple serenade without tripping over some electronic fiddle-faddle, and need to wrap your mouth around dialogue like "Capisce?" while sporting a spiky mullet.
Director/adaptor David Chambers exerted little control over the work: Five different design concepts screamed for attention in Mr. Chambers's chaotic mess, and their competing efforts effectively canceled each other out. Darcy Scanlin's handsome set — massive reprinted photographs by Jan Saudek and Robert Polidori — promises something ruinous and debauched, and Christopher Akerlind's lighting plays clever games with the mirrored stage. But Irina Kruzhilina's costume design torpedoes all their visual gains, and Mr. Chambers and his composer do their best to rile Mozart.
Ms. Kruzhilina's gonzo design might have appeared playful in another setting, but here she just succeeds in making characters into laughingstocks while literally tripping the actors up as they try to run in her spike heels and gigantic panniers.
Matthew Suttor's musical adaptation of Mozart's score first pares it down into an arrangement for a string quintet (here the Agon Orchestra), and then builds it back up with computerized tweaks and whistles. Mozart's score isn't sacred, but this is a halfway effort: It sounds like the well-loved opera is being piped through "It's a Small World After All" speakers at Disney World.
Mr. Chambers has also had his way with the libretto, leaving some of it in Italian while inserting wincingly "tough" speeches in English. This has the happy effect of letting him do away with surtitles altogether, relying on the prose exchanges to explicate the scenes. But listening to Masetto (Christopher Bruchett) call Zerlina a "lying slut-mouth" before he bursts into song doesn't modernize the experience; it just jars it into risibility.
If it weren't so poorly realized, the format would work nicely as a way to introduce first-timers to opera. Mr. Chambers keeps the story quite clear; it's only the awkward writing and palpable embarrassment from the actors that make the spoken sections painful. The size of the text, however, and the chamber opera dimensions — audience members in the front row had a singer in their laps for one aria — render Mozart's titan quite approachable. Proximity also helps out his young cast, many of whom could not quite project over the amplified din of the orchestra. And while Lisa Hopkins as Donna Anna sounded confident and sweet, and Amelia Watkins as Zerlina is clearly developing the necessary chops, the "star" and raison d'etre for Mr. Chambers's production needed all the acoustic boosting she could get.
One assumes the totally unnecessary shift in setting from Seville, Spain, to Prague, Czech Republic, was partly to justify casting Iva Bittová,the "Moravian Bjork," as the unhinged Donna Elvira. When Elvira breaks down with her love for the dissolute Don, she tears down musical walls in her tantrum. Ms. Bittová plays the violin and sings (weakly, and with much miked reverb), but her actual sonic output is more like a woodland glade in full cry. She meows and whoops, shrieks and twitters, a funky mix that has inspired the Bang on a Can All-Stars to record with her and has made her a folk-rock icon in Eastern Europe.
Unfortunately, her director undercuts her, leaving her to wander around aimlessly, waving her bow at us like a stoned, rather than stone, guest. Again, the idea of a Mozart remix isn't in itself upsetting (although some testy patrons booed her during at least one performance). Instead it's the queasy incompleteness of the exercise that makes it first stumble, then fall. Don Giovanni would have been the first to tell Mr. Chambers: Don't bother starting a seduction unless you mean to seal the deal.