I barely scratched the surface in my review of Against the Grain’s #UncleJohn from late Thursday night. With one prominent exception I barely mentioned anyone. I am cocooning Saturday because of the cold that burst in on me like a stone guest (although considering Joel Ivany’s adaptation perhaps Peter Schikele’s “Stoned Guest” might be more apt), pounding in my head. The headline could be me surrendering, even if my laptop is no substitute for a nap. Maybe later…
So where the first piece was an attempt at something logical and orderly, this is more like the remnants of the wedding reception, glasses still half-filled and unfinished plates to be collected. I’ll spare you the sound of my blowing my nose, which has been likened to a cross between a Disney character and a foghorn. Think of Marley’s Ghost played by a duck.
I was struck by a few things reading other reviews, enjoying the agreements and the diversity of responses. I’ll aim to say what hasn’t been said; otherwise I’d already be napping.
I want to look at –and properly celebrate–what Joel Ivany accomplished. Were there three types of action?
- Dialogue (which may have been dry recitative originally, but was re-written into fluid lines)
- Accompagnato (corresponding to accompanied recitative that you don’t mess with, such as the grim discovery of the body by Anna & Ottavio)
- Arias & ensembles
I suppose opera has always been a hybrid whose grafts are visible, where the shifts of gears from one style to another can be jarring, especially if the singer treats the recit as mere preparation for their big solo, and in so doing kills the dramatic illusion, thwarting anything natural and organic in the process. I saw less of that than usual on this occasion, but even so I wondered whether Ivany’s respectful treatment of Mozart may not always have been the best pathway. The flow of the dialogue was so compelling that the music did not always seem like the natural outgrowth it should have been. I’ve never seen opera do this, showing us opera singers acting so powerfully that the music is almost superfluous. Each of the principals is so well thought out, so crisply executed that the music is like icing on a cake. Even so, there are good reasons for recit to sound lame, as it sets up the (hopefully) better segment that follows. If the recit were too good it would disbalance things. Perhaps the solution (if anyone else even thinks this is a problem…) would be to trim some of the cleverness that (for me) seems to upstage Mozart when we finally get to the music, making it seem like an anti-climax or a strait-jacket of convention imposed on something fluid and alive. When it works –as it did in the reinvented Catalogue aria—the setups are golden. I was rapt for the encounter between the Commander and John (and fascinated that Ivany’s translation didn’t shy away from the religious overtones of their confrontation), and then not really satisfied by the closing ensemble: an ensemble that I usually find to be an arbitrary tonal shift that may not fit with what came before; but Mozart didn’t make this one easy for anyone.
Ah but then again my head was starting to explode from my cold so maybe I was more sympathetic to a guy popping pills (just like me the past couple of days!) than all those happy peppy people at the end.
I was in too much of a rush Thursday to properly address several contributions. Most glaring was my omission of Zerlina & Masetto, namely Sharleen Joynt and Aaron Durand. In the worst productions of Don Giovanni that I have disliked, I always still like these two. Can anyone dispute that Zerlina has the most beautiful music in the opera? (disagree? “la ci darem”, “batti batti” and “vedrai carino” would be my choice for the three prettiest tunes in the opera). Mozart was trying to tell us something about love & marriage, as indeed Joel Ivany was also reinforcing with his beautiful & direct translation. How could you not melt listening to Joynt asking Durand to marry her while staring up at him as they cuddled in the middle of the stage?
And no i didn’t take a picture; i was a puddle on the floor, remember? This one will have to do in its place…
I think Ivany is true to what da Ponte & Mozart wanted in three different types of relationship:
- Ideal matrimony:
that’s Masetto & Zerlina once they realize it (with UncleJohn’s help actually), and needing very little adjustment in the adaptation
- Woman pursuing a man:
Elvira is the most modern of the three women, unsatisfied with the one who has her heart
- Man pursuing a woman:
Donna Anna keeps stringing Don Ottavio along, decade after decade (or so it seems); that Anna dumps Ottavio at the end is perfect after what I’ve seen in every other production (sad to say).
This is the first time we’re seeing the adaptation, which had an earlier life in Banff. I hope good #UncleJohn has another incarnation, to see what new ideas they might have, to say nothing of the different chemistry created by casting. AtG seem to be here to stay, a company that’s still small but offering remarkable quality & insight with everything they do. As usual they’re making theatre that’s informed by musicianship.
Next for AtG?
- Death & Desire with Colin Ainsworth, Krisztina Szabó and Christopher Mokrzewski in May 2015, in other words Schubert (“Die Schöne Müllerin”) and Messiaen (“Harawi”), presumably in Toronto.
- A Little Too Cosy, a new adaptation of Cosi fan tutte in July 2015, in collaboration with the Canadian Opera Company and the Banff Centre (who also host the production).