Tonight I attended the opening night of Opera Atelier’s new production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni. This is their second production of the opera in roughly a decade, one I am inclined to call Don Giovanni 2.0 because this feels like an evolutionary step, a smarter and better interpretation in so many ways.
In the previous one Marshall Pynkoski (the director of both productions) had explained that the Don was one of the Commedia dell’Arte types, namely the Captain (aka “Capitano Spavento”), a variation on the older comic type known as the miles gloriosus or braggart soldier, whom we’ve seen in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.
While I did like that earlier version, this one is much better. The chief difference is simply self-assurance. Where the previous production explained itself in academic terms, the new production boldly goes where everyone really should have gone all along. While I accuse the previous Opera Atelier production of being a bit stiff in its scholarly concerns, in fact that’s true of every Don Giovanni: except the world doesn’t know it yet.
When we study Don Giovanni it’s as if musicologists fit us out to be stone guests, complete with the cold stiff jacket and the lead boots. We’re told about the multiplicity of styles that Mozart combined in the opera, and then –if we’re like most producers—we place seria alongside buffa (and pastoral), just as we make the whole thing too long with extra arias that were never meant to be included. Lovely as we may find the two tenor arias Mozart wrote for this opera, one was created as a substitute for the other (when the singer had problems singing it), therefore it’s surely a problem to ever use them both on the same night unless of course you’re doing a concert of tenor arias (in which case feel free to sing Wagner, Puccini & Massenet too while you’re at it).
I remember a teacher telling me that performance can be a kind of research, which is very much how I felt tonight, as I watched a company experimenting and in the process, discovering new possibilities. The entire opera feels different when you change a few relationships.
First off, everything changes when you speed up. Stefano Montanari conductor and keyboard, is as fast as the great playboy’s pickup lines, bringing a wonderful fluid manner, and huge energy to the podium, getting us through the opera in three hours including an intermission.
Another fundamental difference was explained by Pynkoski in his pre-show chat. He insists that the opera is a comedy –which is how Mozart understood it—and that it needs to be played as such. Using the fast pace and a very young attractive cast changes the tone, fixing a series of moments that don’t work when played slower by older performers.
1) It’s a given that Don Giovanni kills the Commendatore. But must this scene be set up to make us hate our protagonist? Yes protagonist. Pynkoski’s thought this through. We see a struggle between the two men. We do not come away from it hating Don Giovanni. While we will see dissolution punished, why stack the deck? Are we, in this day and age, some moral inquisition that needs to make you hate a libertine? I don’t think that what Pynkoski did is especially radical, but it is brilliant.
2) Don Giovanni has just killed the Commendatore. In a brief exchange –delivered quickly by the very young handsome Don & his equally youthful servant Leporello, they joke about what has just happened. If we were watching singers in their forties this can be offensive, or at least suggests that the Don is evil; with two men (boys?) in their early twenties who look fresh from a bar brawl, the tone is completely different, and no longer so offensive.
3) A moment after they leave, Donna Anna rushes back in with help for her stricken father. I recall that her first line was delivered with a surtitle in a conventional production (at the Canadian Opera Company in the 1980s) explaining her feelings. She sang “what a dreadful sight I see before me” and some in the audience laughed, because at the usual opera seria pace (with gravitas and a most serious facial expression) this delivery is laughable. Tonight, done at break-neck speed, the recitative accompagnato was tossed off, and therefore not overwrought
4) Donna Elvira sings two consecutive Act I warnings – first “ah fuggi il traditor”, then in the subsequent quartet “Non ti fidar oh misera”. The two are separated by two and a half pages in the Boosey & Hawkes score, or in other words a very short period of time. When the high born characters must play in a ponderous style, slowing everything down, those separate numbers don’t really have any connection, one to the other. But what if Elvira’s admonitions are light and comical? In the first, Elvira –played in complete deadpan by Peggy Kriha Dye—has a virtual cat-fight with Zerlina, who doesn’t want to believe the admonitions and would prefer to make googly eyes at the Don on the other side of the stage. Elvira is all sisterly concern, oblivious to the fact that Zerlina doesn’t WANT to be rescued, whisking her off (against her will) at the end of the aria, and sung in an over-the-top flourish. Moments later, why Elvira returns! We see her, see the Don’s look of comic despair, and then see her take on the same protective attitude when she notices the Don talking to Donna Anna. Instead of the usual pompous opera seria nonsense, Elvira seems to think “not again!” and rushes to rescue Anna from the lecherous Don. While the music in that quartet is solemn, directors usually miss the hilarity of the situation, tyrannized by the gravitas of the music. Pynkoski uses the music to great advantage, letting the scene be funny. The overall tone of the quartet is not the usual fateful encounter, but rather more like a romantic comedy, albeit with some serious overtones.
5) When the high-born trio (Elvira, Anna and Ottavio) show up masqued at Don Giovanni’s home, their music in a minor key again can seem very portentous and weighty, particularly if the three get carried away with their mysterious attire. But these are party clothes! Pynkoski refuses to lose sight of the fun he’s having, refusing to let serious music weigh down the opera, as we see that the masquers can actually seem silly at times. This time, as in each of these cases, Pynkoski breaks out of the stylistic strait-jacket imposed by too much scholarship.
I’ve been watching Pynkoski for decades now, listening to his pompous introductions at the beginning of each show. While I used to roll my eyes a bit, thinking his ego was perhaps as big as his stature, I think it’s time to admit that the man’s a genius (more or less as Gerard Gauci told me a few days ago). Let him have a big ego. He deserves it. This production bravely goes against the grain of orthodoxy, and has me thinking that no opera has been so poorly served by tradition, an opera that should be a light comedy, not the dark romantic work of tragic overtones we usually get.
There’s more I can say about Don Giovanni 2.0. The visual scheme, now by Martha Mann is also a leap forward from their previous production that had costumes designed by Dora Rust d’Eye. On that occasion we saw beautiful colourful outfits leaping from the pages of the Commedia dell’Arte textbooks. But they were so brilliantly coloured that they hurt your eyes to look at.
And of course that was just the problem: that these garish costumes were meant for candle-lit 18th century theatre spaces, not the brightly lit spaces of the 21st Century. No one in Mozart’s time had ever seen those colours under so much candle power. Version 2.0 designed by Martha Mann is as subtle as the previous one was overdone. The men look suavely seductive, while the women are stunningly beautiful whether they’re peasants or nobility. Mann’s muted colour scheme is easy on the eye.
Perhaps there’s room for lots of interpretations and one doesn’t have to choose just one. Pynkoski said emphatically that Don Giovanni is a comedy. I wonder, have we been missing the point all this time? Surely Pynkoski’s brought out something important. Zerlina doesn’t have to be an innocent being corrupted by the Don; instead she’s merely one in a series of conquests. And right up until the moment that the Commendatore arrives to take him to hell, this young man is still having fun, playfully humping Donna Elvira as she warns him to save his soul. Yes the Dissolute One shall be punished. But are we so moralistic that we can’t enjoy the two and half hours before the stone guest comes to drag him off to hell?
This is way more fun.
I didn’t speak much about the singing. On top of everything else, the production is well-sung. Phillip Addis gives us a very likeable Don, a straightman whose face reflects the comedy of his repeated attempts to escape the consequences of his lifestyle. Vasil Garvanliev is a very funny Leporello, with a lovely voice in support of his master. Peggy Kriha Dye goes in a different direction, having often sung the baroque femme fatale parts such as Medée or Armide; hers is a very funny reading of Donna Elvira, reminding me of an eighteenth century material girl, complete with matching luggage.
Opera Atelier’s Don Giovanni continues at the Elgin Theatre until November 5th.