Against the Grain Theatre premiered #UncleJohn, their new adaptation of Don Giovanni tonight at The Black Box Theatre at the Great Hall on Queen St West after workshops out west at the Banff Centre. As much as anything this was the first night for a new concept as well as a new show.
AtG partnered with the Canadian Opera Company and the Banff Centre, and will do so again with A Little Too Cosy, their upcoming adaptation of Cosi fan tutte, to complete their survey of the da Ponte trilogy of Mozart operas. The business model is perhaps more exciting and original than the actual opera presented onstage –which wasn’t too shabby—given that opera is in big trouble all over the world. Big companies are struggling with big overhead, in the salaries for orchestras, chorus and other staff members. Opera is understood to be the most expensive art form, so naturally this comes with the territory.
Or does it? AtG offer something a little simpler. They don’t have a permanent chorus or orchestra, even though they have been gradually tippy-toeing in that direction. While their Messiah last year used a chorus and (if I remember right) their largest orchestra yet, the important point to note is that they have not turned it into something permanent, tying them down with entitlements & pensions. The sound for tonight’s performance was just about right, the small space of the Black Box Theatre filled comfortably by a string quartet plus piano, played by music director Milos Repicky, and no chorus. While the oomph of chorus might be welcome in a few places it would make no sense in Joel Ivany’s modernized story. There are no mass groupings of peasants on an estate, just Torontonians.
There’s no arguing with the business model. It works, or to put it another way, the other one is terribly precarious, depending heavily on private funding and government support. While the government is there in Austria & Germany –where opera has a huge audience and so remains viable—they’re the exceptions to the gradual change to more austere models the world over, Canada included. AtG appear to be in better shape than their bigger parent –the COC—who are in a much more precarious position, balancing huge expenses with revenues from various places. I love the COC orchestra & chorus, but worry about the viability of the company in the long run.
Ivany’s adaptation is every bit as remarkable as what he created with Figaro’s Wedding (first of the trilogy) in 2013. There are aspects that I quibble with just as I did in 2013, yet overall this is new without feeling like Regietheater, where the director is like another author competing or overlaying texts upon the original. It’s simply modernized but still largely faithful to the original text. I don’t want to spoil it for anyone but suffice it to say that almost all the music you know and love is there, including an appearance by the Commendatore in the last scene.
Some of Ivany’s touches are brilliant. By now I cringe whenever I see someone putting a mobile phone into an opera, even if people still titter at the effect. But this time it made wonderful sense when Leporello –who usually disguises himself as the Don to woo Donna Elvira early in Act II—communicates to Elvira through the phone: the perfect modern medium for this sort of dissembling. Neil Craighead is a messy foil to the tidiness of the Don, the man who gets the most punchlines all night and doesn’t miss once. Putting the entire opera into the context of the wedding of Zerlina & Masetto, with Anna as the daughter of the caterer, helps to make up for the mixed blessing of the venue. At times it was bizarrely real to hear music from the other venue blasting into our space, exactly the way it would if we were in one of those rented banquet halls where so many weddings happen in this city.
The concentration of action around that wedding made some sense, even if it was accomplished at a price, namely reinventing Donna Anna & Don Ottavio without any of the nobility that they had in the 18th century version. It made the new version of “il mio tesoro” one of the highlights of the evening, wonderfully sung and acted by Sean Clark, now more of a soliloquy to anyone who will hear his complaint, concerning his manhood, and probing the numb passivity for which the character is known. Donna Anna became Anna, still a character who seems to have little ability to laugh at herself, making soprano Betty Allison’s job extra challenging.
As a result #UncleJohn shuffles the key relationships ever so slightly. Anna and Ottavio are now a comic pair who seem even lower in the social hierarchy than Zerlina & Masetto; that’s only jarring if you insist that AtG do it as written, a stipulation I’d never make. The two key figures are now Elvira and John (formerly Donna Elvira and Don Giovanni), which is perhaps a reflection of the brilliance of the two performers.
Miriam Khalil’s centrality to the production might be a reflection of her centrality in Joel Ivany’s life as his partner and the mother of his little boy. But she makes the most of every moment, including the most scintillating reading of “Mi tradi quell’alma ingrata”, the big aria that usually tests audiences’ ability to stay awake, coming as it does in the latter stages of the opera. It can seem like an add-on, it can seem like part of the battle between two divas seeking to one up each other. Or in this case, it’s a wonderful affirmation of the empowerment that Elvira is seeking while hoping to redeem her relationship with John, and got one of the biggest ovations of the night.
And speaking of John, Cam McPhail demonstrated a level of star power in his singing & acting that suggests something very radical about the COC Lite business model: that there are wonderfully talented Canadian singers who can actually out-do what you see from the COC. This should be no surprise. It’s an open secret, one that has been whispered in my ear repeatedly since I posted a diatribe about the bizarre spectacle of David Pomeroy’s photo advertising a COC Madama Butterfly sung by a pair of imports who were inferior to the Canadian tenor who was busy singing in Manitoba instead.
Back to McPhail, this is a very intriguing reading of Don Giovanni –aka Uncle John (no hashtag because I’m speaking of the character this time, not the opera). He’s cruel yet manages to be likeable. His charisma is genuine. The voice has nuances, including two brilliant re-makes of famous arias:
- the champagne aria –“fin ch’han al vino” –becomes the cocaine aria, and suddenly the quickness of the aria makes incredible sense (and yes it’s the fastest reading i think i’ve ever seen)
- the serenade by the window –“deh vieni alla fenestre”—becomes a soliloquy about drugs (hm,…no wait, it’s still a love song-serenade, but he’s singing his little love song to the drugs)
McPhail carries most of the darkness in the work, more intelligible in his enunciation of the English in this libretto than anyone else in the show, which is a good thing considering he had the most lines by far. But while he’s the one who goes to the dark side, he’s balanced by John Avey as The Commander (formerly the Commendatore), standing his ground musically and physically in this life and maybe the next.
It’s lots of fun, above all. #UncleJohn continues December 13, 15, 17 and 19, 2014 at 7:30 p.m, at the Black Box Theatre at The Great Hall. I look forward to seeing more from this team, and more of this approach to an expensive art form. This business model seems to work.