Its composer called it opera buffa. Its librettist labelled it dramma giacosa. To audiences past and present, Don Giovanni endures as both and neither, a bawdy, brash account of seduction, murder and damnation. Feverishly composed by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in 1787 with text by Lorenzo Da Ponte, the dense, knotty tangle of explosive emotion has consistently fed centuries of opera-going imaginations. It is a difficult work to pin down, a taut, black comedy dripping with venality, one of the first of its kind. Power and passion, sociopathy and sex, volatile human themes relentlessly intertwine. Combined with an exquisite score, flippant at times, urgent at others, the impact of this irreverent musical mocudrama is head-spinning. Conventional notions of honour and morality are turned upside down.
Shrewdly transposing Mozart’s tumultuous masterpiece to Toronto’s funky club scene, indie groundbreaker Against the Grain Theatre delivers an all together original iteration, smart, sassy and meticulously crafted. Workshopped at the Banff Summer Arts Festival last July/August, currently on view in a revamped, subterranean concert space beneath Queen West’s landmark Great Hall, creator Joel Ivany’s boisterous #UncleJohn sets a new standard for contemporary theatrical adaptations, musical and otherwise. As refreshingly free of regie artifice as it is brash, this impertinent, brand new Don Giovanni, for all its glossy polish and hipster lifestyle jokes, comfortably inhabits its decidedly classic skin. Crisp retro styling cues punctuated with original details abound in this updated, scrupulously respectful retelling of Mozart’s iconic opera.
Seated at linen-draped tables, cocooned by Lighting Designer Jason Hand’s pastel floods, we watch entranced as the story unfolds, guests at a flickering, candlelit wedding.
A team of caterers from Bridge Party Rentals is at work transforming the gritty venue into an upscale setting. Michael “The Commander” Bridge is personally supervising the preparations for hosts Masetto and Zerlina’s celebration. A pair of uninvited guests arrive, the raffish “Uncle John” and his wingman, Leporello. The Commander’s daughter, Anna, strays into Uncle John’s sights. His good looks and worldly air make it hard for her to resist his charm. The Commander is less impressed, catching the slick seducer in the act. His temper boils. Anna flees. Fists fly. Suddenly, The Commader stiffens and collapses, struck down by a massive heart attack. Deprived of his medication by Uncle John who deliberately withholds it, Anna’s father dies. Anna returns with her boyfriend, trusty Metro Parking Authority officer Ottavio in tow. First responders are hurriedly called. Uncle John is nowhere to be seen.
A short time later, Zerlina’s friend, Elvira, arrives for the wedding still smarting from a messy break-up with a former lover. Sensing vulnerability, Uncle John pounces. Elvira explodes. Can he honestly have forgotten he was the one who broke her heart? Uncle John beats a hasty retreat leaving Leporello to pick up the pieces as best he can.
Uncle John spots a new prize. Another attempted hook-up, this time targeting Zerlina, all but delivers the nervous young bride-to-be into his clutches when Elvira comes storming back in a thundering rage. Uncle John breaks off the chase. For now.
Anna and Ottavio re-enter, frantic for clues to The Commander’s death. The sight of Uncle John stops Anna in her tracks, a guilty reminder of recent tragic events. Elvira returns with a warning. The Uncle is not to be trusted. Anna begs Ottavio to seek revenge. Uncle John shrugs everything off, including Masetto’s dismay at the ruins he has made of the hapless bridegroom’s wedding. The event kicks into high gear.
The tense festivities wear on. Leporello lectures Uncle John. He may be a compulsive player, but this time The Uncle has gone too far. Elvira is shattered. Uncle John tosses him his smart phone, telling him to text her and smooth things over. Leporello’s fingers dance across the keyboard.
A tipsy Masetto finally summons the nerve to confront his rival. Uncle John practically beats him senseless, curses and leaves. Stumbling across her battered fiancé, groaning and bruised, Zerlina’s affection is rekindled.
Ottavio, Anna and Elvira all search for Uncle John, guided by ‘Find iPhone’. Everyone wants answers. Despite his seemingly genuine remorseful texts, Elvira still doubts his sincerity. Anna, crushed by the loss of her father, desperately craves closure. Leporello is located, Uncle John’s cell in hand. The Uncle has managed to escape.
Alone in the wedding reception hall, Uncle John finds himself haunted by a voice only he apparently can hear. It is The Commander’s ghost. They will meet face to face at dinner.
Later that night, Uncle John blithely awaits the visit. Spooked by his strange behaviour, Leporello grows increasingly frightened. A knock at the door. The Commander has arrived. Washing down a handful of pills with a snifter of brandy, Uncle John takes the old man’s cold, lifeless hand, gasps and instantly drops dead.
The wedding party promptly draws to a close. It has been a night none in attendance will ever forget.
All does not end happily in Against the Grain’s tale. Like Da Ponte’s fractured original, villainy is dispatched, struck down by a quasi divine avenger. But goodness never completely bounces back. Anna and Ottavio, one fearful of commitment, the other timid and insecure, will surely never marry each other. Elvira, once so eager to surrender to love body and soul, is mortally scarred. Impetuous Zerlina and gormless Masetto face a bumpy road ahead. Wickedness leaves a more or less permanent stain. Still life goes on. Leporello clears his tablet and looks for another job. Spin doctors are always in demand. There is a future somewhere beyond the horizon. Mozart has been saying much the same for over two hundred years.
However tempting it may be to see Uncle John’s demise as premeditated, the ultimate score for the serial thrill-seeker, it is not quite that simple. Uncle John may very well dabble with self-destruction, even gorge on it in the end. His drug use is positively epic. But the issue of whether he consciously seeks his own death is murky. His first impulse, faced with disaster of his own making, is to feed Leporello to the flames, not leap in himself. The Uncle is more opportunist than man of action. The catastrophe that fells him is the one he cannot avoid. It takes no small amount of courage for a librettist to dispatch a complex anti-hero via the supernatural. Even Da Ponte continues to have his critics. Writer-director Ivany pauses his character for a few seconds, takes a deep theatrical breath and presses ‘Enter’.
Uncle John is a restless soul, pitiably self-obsessed. Sooner or later, every woman he encounters comes to the same conclusion. Anna, Elvira and Zerlina are no exception. Strong, independent, utterly plausible, the sisterly triumvirate that drives so much of #UncleJohn’s story, fascinates. The first member of the trio is particularly absorbing. Donna Anna to Mozart and Da Ponte, the Commander’s grief-stricken daughter is customarily presented as a static, albeit tragic victim. #UncleJohn sees her quite differently. Traumatized, certainly, but not to the point of paralysis. This is an Anna we have never met before, one not to be trifled with. Nothing will kill her spirit, not even her father’s murder. If #UncleJohn is populated by and large with pathetic specimens of manhood, its women, Anna included, keep the action razor-sharp.
Singing #UncleJohn’s title role, baritone Cameron McPhail delivers a performance of great intensity, his skill as an actor superbly mirrored by his glowing vocal presence. Warm and resonant, demonstrably capable of spanning a seemingly inexhaustible range, this Uncle mesmerizes, red-hot and seductive, defenceless and reflective in turn. McPhail’s rendition of Mozart’s celebrated serenade, Deh, vieni alla finestra (“Oh, come to your window”), here movingly transladapted to This moment when time stands still, is inexpressibly touching.
Bass-baritone Neil Craighead is a scruffy, street-smart Leporello, worldly, rumpled, eternally disgruntled. Severely afflicted with a chronic case of ennui, Uncle John’s beleaguered wingman is still very much the heedless womanizer’s voice of conscience in true Mozartian style. Craighead’s singing with its caramelized undertones is intoxicating, his instrument lustrous as neon.
Miriam Khalil is Elvira, dark, dangerous and alluring, her fiery sound ablaze with passion. A skilled, versatile artist, Khalil’s voice entrances, a kaleidoscope of tumbled emotion. Fellow soprano Betty Allison is #UncleJohn’s anguished Anna. Exquisitely sung with heartfelt bravura, Allison creates a character of enormous strength and determination. Her declaration of independence, Tu ben sai quant’io t’amai (“You know how much I love you”), rephrased as You have always been a strong support to me, sparkles with Allison’s dazzling coloratura. Sharleen Joynt’s mischievous, uninhibited Zerlina enchants. Mozart invests his spunky romantic explorer with some of the loveliest arias in all opera. Joynt sails through the sumptuous music with a breezy, winning attack, silky and sunlit. Her Batti, batti, o bel Masetto (“Beat me, dear Masetto”), lyrically refreshed to What a sad night, my Masetto, is simply blissful.
Tenor Sean Clark sings a surprisingly affecting Ottavio, peeling back layers of traditional bland veneer to reveal a character of considerable pluck and fortitude. Aaron Durand is #UncleJohn’s nerdy Masetto, all bow tie and bad suit, guileless and loveable. Baritone John Avey is The Commander, sonorous and resounding, magnificently apocalyptic in full-on vengeful ghost mode.
Music Director and pianist Miloš Repickẏ joined by The Cecilia String Quartet sensitively partner Against the Grain’s splendid cast, playing with gorgeous tone and lush refinement.
Don Giovanni is an old story, one with roots stretching back to the Middle Ages. #UncleJohn, by comparison, is as recent as yesterday. The two works may be divided by entire centuries, but in a very real sense Against the Grain Theatre’s sleek, quintessentially 21st century production is timeless. Mozart has seen to that.