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Mozart updated again by Against the Grain

Black Box Theatre at the Great Hall
12/11/2014 -  & December 13, 15, 17, 19, 2014
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: #UncleJohn (Don Giovanni, arr. Stephen Hargreaves)
Cameron McPhail (Uncle John), Neil Craighead (Leporello), Betty Allison (Anna), Miriam Khalil (Elvira), Sean Clark (Ottavio), Sharleen Joynt (Zerlina), Aaron Durand (Masetto), John Avey ("The Commander")
Cecilia String Quartet, Milos Repicky (pianist and conductor)
Joel Ivany (director/librettist), Patrick Du Wors (set and costume designer), Jason Hand (lighting designer)

N. Craighead & M. Khalil (© Darryl Block)

Joel Ivany and his Against the Grain Theatre cohorts have done another updated opera production (a “transladaptation”) - this time Mozart’s Don Giovanni as #UncleJohn. The location is a seedy wedding hall set up for Zerlina and Masetto’s wedding. The hall is operated by “The Commander” and his daughter, Anna. The audience (80 or so) are seated around tables, just like wedding guests, enjoying drinks from the bar. At some points the action spills into the audience.

Lorenzo Da Ponte’s general scenario is used, but Ivany’s words do not attempt an exact - or even an inexact - translation. One example: Don Ottavio’s aria Il mio tesoro opens with “Now is the time to be a man”. John’s serenade (“Deh vieni alla finestra” becomes a paean to one of the recreational pharmaceuticals he is devoted to. Other changes: “Uncle” John does not actually kill “The Commander”; while they fight the Commander has a heart seizure and tries to take medication - but John grabs it and watches him die. At the end of the work, John starts popping yet more pills to cope with the re-appearance of the Commander, then also dies of a cardiac seizure.

Leporello’s “Catalogue Aria” becomes the “ipad Aria” as he shows Elvira photos of the many conquests, who “Uncle” hooked up with - not in various countries, but via numerous network platforms (Facebook, etc. - thus the hashtag in the title.) (See photo above.) (And there are many more conquests than in Don Giovanni.) After his tryst with Elvira, Leporello (sometimes addressed as “Leper”) reveals his resulting iphone photos - and she does the same.

The “orchestra” (piano and the Cecilia String Quartet) are placed above and behind the small stage. Given that the singers could not see pianist/conductor Milos Repicky, it is remarkable how well coordinated it all was. The small ensemble does not provide the sonic cushion of a full orchestra, but in an intimate cabaret setting is perfectly adequate.

As exciting as operatic vocalism can be in a small venue, it is difficult to judge voices that really demand (and deserve) more space. I’ll swear that Betty Allison’s fierce delivery of Anna’s grand outbursts might actually do structural damage to the building. I also felt that Miriam Khalil simply needs more space to exert the vocal and physical dynamism of the ever-furious Elvira.

In the title role, Cameron McPhail (like Craighead, Khalil and Allison, an alumnus of the Canadian Opera Company’s Ensemble Studio) displays an attractive, well-focussed baritone which plays off well against bass-baritone Neil Craighead’s bluff delivery of Leporello.

Ottavio is a uniformed traffic warden, complete with parking ticket dispenser on his belt. Sean Clark ( who has a warm, smooth voice) gives the character a Homer Simpsonish aspect, very appropriate for a character who is well-meaning but ineffectual.

Sharleen Joynt and Aaron Duran sparkle vocally as the vibrant young couple whose marriage plans go awry as they encounter the predatory “Uncle”. Their whimsical social dancing is a sight to behold. Veteran bass-baritone John Avey brings an implacable menace to the role of the vengeful “Commander” - chillingly effective.

This is AtG’s second Mozart-Da Ponte production (their Figaro’s Wedding is reviewed here). Next up: A Little too Cozy (based on Così fan tutte) to be unveiled at the Banff Centre in Alberta, July, 2015.

Michael Johnson



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