On October 29, 1787, the curtain rose on a new opera at the Estates Theatre in Prague. Its authors, composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte, were already local household names. The pair’s previous collaboration fresh from Vienna, The Marriage of Figaro, had been wildly successful at the box office when it played on the same stage the year before. Their latest project, Don Giovanni, created an instant frenzy in the up and coming Hapsburg outpost. Jaws dropped. The buzz reached fever pitch literally overnight.
Everyone had heard a story. Mozart wrote the overture the day of the first performance. The orchestra locked him in a closet until he had finished his score. Casanova was in the audience. He consulted on the seduction scenes. The anecdotes, likely more apocryphal than authentic, still resonate.
Every audience everywhere since Don Giovanni premiered has adored this dark, deliciously antic shocker. There is, quite simply, nothing in the entire repertoire of Western opera that mirrors it. Framed by its own eccentric values, Don Giovanni defines itself.
Taking a controversial, revisionary approach to Mozart’s genre-defying classic, the Canadian Opera Company launches its 2015 Winter Season with a decidedly unorthodox post-modernist import. Don Giovanni, designed and directed by theatre rabble rouser Dmitri Tcherniakov, has amply succeeded in pitting passionate apologists against enraged opponents both in the press and auditorium since first presented in 2010. In a co-production with Festival d’Aix-en-Provence, Bolshoi Theatre and Teatro Real Madrid, the Moscow-born regie provocateur brings his characteristic blend of impudence and zeal to Toronto’s Four Seasons Centre stage. For better or for worse, this Don Giovanni rewrites the historical experience, essentially stripping away layers of vibrant comedy to reveal the full extent of the brutal underworld originally intended to serve as an opposing beat in Da Ponte/Mozart’s layered design.
We begin with a radically reformed list of characters, all members of a single dysfunctional extended family, possibly with mob connections. The powerful patriarch, Il Commendatore, lives in a nouveau mansion surrounded by his near and not-so-dear. Daughter, Donna Anna, feeds on his wealth and status, emotionally supported by her live-in partner, the sly Don Ottavio. Zerlina, Anna’s daughter by a former marriage here elevated from peasant to pampered young woman of leisure, shares the sprawling villa with her fiancé, Masetto. Donna Elvira, now cousin to the Commendatore, has somehow managed to convince the others to befriend her new husband, Don Giovanni. Leporello, no longer Giovanni’s servant, is given free license to operate as a privileged insider, friend and keeper of secrets to the vaguely sinister clan. The utter lack of textual guides to this labyrinth of revised relationships seemingly unfazes director Tcherniakov. A projected genealogy fills the production’s 40-foot high drop curtain prior to the first act. Despite best intentions, initial confusion, at least, is virtually guaranteed.
The reforms continue. Instead of conveying the established approach to the passage of time in Don Giovanni, traditionally compressed into a breathless 24 hours of hyper-accelerated action, the Tcherniakov staging unfolds over a period of months. Events are fragmented into a succession of discrete scenes, black-out sketches essentially, each terminated in an abrupt rush as the heavy curtain savagely slams shut. It is a curious piece of stagecraft, attention-getting certainly, but the relentless interruptions quickly become frustrating. A ragged story unfolds.
A few weeks after gaining entrée to the Commendatore’s lavish residence via marriage to Donna Elvira, Don Giovanni, ever the player, is caught fleeing from another fresh conquest, Donna Anna. He has obviously not had to force his attentions upon her. Outraged at the assault on his daughter’s honour, the Commendatore lashes out. An accidental stumble causes the family chief to strike his head on a nearby bookcase. Suddenly, he is dead. Anna is stricken with guilt. Time passes. Although accepting of her husband’s promiscuity, Donna Elvira is nevertheless deeply wounded by his blatant bad behaviour. Don Giovanni shrugs off her suffering. Leporello tries to cheer her up, ludicrously exaggerating the extent of the Don’s dalliances in the past. Don Giovanni sizes up his next victim, the impulsive Zerlina. Overcome with jealousy, Donna Elvira hurls herself in their path. Seeking to silence her nagging conscience, Donna Anna pleads with Ottavio to avenge her father’s death. Don Giovanni is glaringly complicit. Heedless, always in search of the next thrill, the Don decides to throw a wild party. The mad masked celebration of life and love escalates to orgiastic proportions with family guests willing participants. Conventional morals all but evaporate but ultimately Don Giovanni is the one to be targeted for flagrant depravity.
Days later, weary Leporello decides he has had enough of the Don’s debauchery but cannot resist the latter’s suggestion to exchange identities and seduce Donna Elvira. Lust trumps ennui. The ruse is eventually discovered by Masetto et al. Leporello is threatened. Don Giovanni, in turn, beats Masetto, for interfering in his vicarious fantasy. The Don, everyone decides, is a monster. Living with him is a nightmare. Their lives continue to unravel. Donna Anna slips into a state of nervous collapse. Zerlina, unable to shake her suppressed desire, has become obsessed with Don Giovanni’s overcoat. Trapped in a web of tangled emotions, the Don is haunted by the voice of the Commendatore whom he taunts with an ominous invitation to dinner. All gather to witness the outcome. The Commendatore appears. Don Giovanni greets him with a handshake and is instantly struck down by a massive heart attack. Everyone rejoices. The air is thick with hypocrisy and relief.
Tcherniakov’s capacity for artistic reinvention is unquestionably enormous. His vision of Don Giovanni, the legendary seducer, burned out physically and emotionally, deep in the depths of a vicious downward spiral, is as startling as it is original. But the perspective is a cloudy one. Zooming out to the larger picture, witnessing the seedy anti-hero in the context of the unremittingly callous, chaotic world he inhabits, the view becomes problematic. Concept masks clarity. The Don dispatches Leporello to seduce Donna Elvira wearing Giovanni’s trademark overcoat by way of sole disguise. Despite obviously knowing full well it is not her husband, Donna Elvira succumbs. Is she hoping to make Don Giovanni jealous? Is she sexually aroused by the role-playing? In scene after scene, Tcherniakov stubbornly refuses to bring key events into focus. Is Ottavio secretly in lust with Masetto? Does the Commendatore return as ghost or is he an actor as has been hinted in other versions of the production? The frustrating task of filling in the interminable gaps with wild second guesses proves exhausting.
If Don Giovanni’s story treatment is exasperating, the situation in the pit is positively maddening. Visiting conductor, Munich-native Michael Hofstetter, leads an untypically subdued COC Orchestra with a singular lack of sprightliness and sparkle. Orchestral colours are tenuously defined, particularly in the all-important horns and woodwinds. Harmonies are slack. Leporello’s much beloved catalogue aria, Madamina, il catalago è questo (“Little lady, this is the record”) all but passes unnoticed, dreary and blunted. Continuo played on harpsichord and cello is minimalist to the point of near irrelevance.
Mercifully, Don Giovanni’s accomplished cast of deft singer actors does heroic work injecting a much needed dose of Mozartian vitality into the production.
Singing the opera’s title role, baritone Russell Braun delivers a performance of towering virtuosity. Flirting, bullying, raging, this Don Giovanni powers through his scenes, the twin spectres of madness and mortality clinging to his greasy T-shirt. But there is also great quietude and stillness at play here, too. Braun’s rendering of Don Giovanni’s two best-known arias, Act I’s Là ci darem la mano (“There we shall take hands”) and Act II’s Deh, vieni all finestra (“Oh, come to your window”), sung simply, purely with exquisite piano understatement overflow with oceans of pain.
Second baritone Kyle Ketelsen as Leperello skillfully embodies the character in all his abrasive, worldly cynicism, singing with emphatic confidence and bite.
Soprano Jane Archibald sculpts a Donna Anna of superbly refined vocal proportions. Her Crudele? Ah, no, mio bene! (“Cruel? Oh no, my dearest one!”), is given deeply moving expression, a heartfelt cry of loneliness and distress. Jennifer Holloway is ablaze as Donna Elvira. Sasha Djihanian is a high-strung Zerlina, unpredictable and temperamental.
In the role of Don Ottavio, tenor Michael Schade all but steals the show with his extraordinary passagio, balancing brightness and lushness with seeming sunny spontaneity. His Come mai creder deggio (“How can I believe a gentleman”), Mozart’s gorgeous reflection on the anguish of shared love, is inexpressibly beautiful. It is the first of several stunning solo moments, all exquisite, all affecting, voiced by Schade during the course of the production.
Baritone Zachary Nelson appears as Masetto. Bass Andrea Silvestrelli sings Il Commendatore.
This is an unsettling Don Giovanni on a variety of levels. Deconstructed, directorially iconoclastic, Dimtri Tcherniakov’s brash, dramatically reshaped presentation invites strong reaction. Critics aside, final judgement, success, failure or something in between, rests, as opera has always demanded, with the audience. One thing is very clear from crowd reaction on opening night, however. A mix of boos and cheers are not an encouraging omen of communal high praise. The creative vision underlying the production is sharp but sadly, despite fine efforts from the performers, its theatrical realization is not.