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A long, dreary night

The Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts
01/24/2015 -  & January 27, 30*, February 1, 3, 6, 12, 14, 18, 21, 2015
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Don Giovanni, K. 527
Russell Braun (Don Giovanni), Jane Archibald (Donna Anna), Jennifer Holloway (Donna Elvira), Sasha Djihanian (Zerlina), Michael Schade (Don Ottavio), Kyle Ketelsen (Leporello), Zachary Nelson (Masetto), Andrea Silvestrelli (Il Commendatore)
The Canadian Opera Company Orchestra and Chorus, Michael Hofstetter (conductor), Sandra Horst (chorus master)
Dmitri Tcherniakov (director, set and costume designer), Elena Zaytseva (costume co-designer), Gleb Filshtinsky (lighting designer)

R. Braun & K. Ketelsen (© Michael Cooper)

This production is billed as Don Giovanni and Mozart’s music and da Ponte’s words are used, but it really ought to be called something else (just as Against the Grain Theatre’s recent production in an adapted version by Joel Ivany was called #UncleJohn).

Before the overture begins we see a group of people (in modern dress) gathering in a grand room; they sit at a table where a paterfamilias presides. The curtain comes down and during the overture the following information is projected: Donna Anna is the daughter of the Commendatore and Don Ottavio is her fiancé (as in the Mozart-da Ponte opera). However, Zerlina is her daughter from an earlier marriage; Elvira is her cousin and is married to Don Giovanni. Masetto is Zerlina’s fiancé, and Leporello is a young relative also living in the house. The pre-overture tableau conjures up the Danish family confrontation film Festen.

All operas are problematic to a greater or lesser extent, and one of Don Giovanni’s problems is the time frame. The action tumbles precipitously along but it makes little sense if it all takes place in just one or two days. Dmitri Tcherniakov has decided it takes place over six months, and to keep us up to date the curtain comes down frequently to inform us just how much time has elapsed. (I tried to count how many times the curtain descends but gave up.) One example: between the Champagne Aria and the party it heralds, we are told that three weeks have elapsed. The party itself turns out to be a paltry affair, with just the seven principal singers (chorus only off-stage), most of whom live in the same house anyway (presumably Ottavio and Masetto live elsewhere). The party is also absolutely no fun at all: for instance when Masetto refuses to dance, Anna plants a huge sloppy kiss on his mouth; this has no effect, so Ottavio does the same. Everyone just hangs about.

Similar actions occur in the second act’s banquet scene. Normally, Giovanni spots Leporello surreptitiously helping himself to the food. In this version Leporello removes Zerlina’s top and fondles her, then later chews face with Anna; both women stoically (or catatonically) endure this - and there is nothing surreptitious about it. For much of Act II most of the cast simply lie on the floor; they seem to be afflicted with the same condition experienced by the cast of Luis Buñuel’s El ángel exterminador (“The Exterminating Angel”) where an upper-middle class group is mysteriously unable to leave a room.

To make sense of Tcherniakov’s family relationships, major sections have to be delivered in an ironic way - for example, Elvira’s entry aria “Ah chi mi dice mai”; she is looking for Don Giovanni, the man who abandoned her, but in this case it becomes an ironic over-statement (she knows very well where her knavish hubby is). To put an entirely different meaning on the work, the recitatives are slowed down and given Pinteresque pauses in an attempt to make the new meanings clear to the audience. The a-t-t-e-n-u-a-t-e-d recits - plus the frequent pauses while the curtain is down - make for a very draggy evening, even though Michael Hofstetter’s conducting of arias and ensembles has pretty much all of the score’s wonderful momentum and lift.

So: how are the performances? Jane Archibald’s Donna Anna has all the glow and sparkle one would wish, even though she must act neurasthenic most of the time. Jennifer Holloway is stymied throughout in that she has to act counter to the content of most of her arias so it’s no puzzle why her performance fails to jell. Sasha Djihanian has similar problems - for example in “Vedrai, carino” she shows absolutely no sympathy toward Masetto (whose aches in this version are all fake anyway). Instead she wraps herself in a fetish object, Don Giovanni’s camelhair coat. (The coat is the centrepiece in the action at the beginning of Act II when Leporello has to disguise himself as Giovanni. Given the close family connections, this doesn’t work dramatically at all.)

Russell Braun (who has performed the title role in this production when staged in Madrid) flails around in a frenzy of self-disgust until you want to holler “Stop!” By the end it amounts to flogging a dead horse. He does some nice things with - to cite one instance - the serenade “Deh! Vieni a la finestra”. As there is nobody to serenade it becomes a reverie about the time when the Don might have been able to sincerely express the song’s sentiments. Michael Schade gets to sing both Don Ottavio’s arias and performs them with lots of dreamy pianissimo, which serves to point out how detached he is from the squalid reality of the situation.

Kyle Ketelsen (the only cast member who also performed in the production’s premier at Aix-en-Provence in 2010) is well-known (deservedly) for his Leporello and carries it off with mirthless mischief (perfectly in keeping with the production’s style). Zachary Nelson, brawny in voice and shoulders, is well-cast as Masetto. Andrea Silvestrelli is a resonant Commendatore, although he doesn’t get to sing much. In the final scene, when the image of the character reappears, actor Constantine Meglis is made up to look like the Commendatore and it is he who hollowly delivers the character’s lines - the idea being that the family has devised this “double” to frighten Don Giovanni - which it does. A similar gambit was used in the COC’s old production of the opera (reviewed here.) In this case, though, Giovanni seems to suffer a cardiac event but does not die.

Dmitri Tcherniakov was heartily booed on opening night.

To sum up: what can one do but heave a great sigh and do ones best to get on with life?

Michael Johnson



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