Some resist seduction by Tcherniakov’s Don Giovanni

Today’s opening of the Canadian Opera co-production of Don Giovanni directed by Dmitri Tcherniakov met with a mixed reception at the Four Seasons Centre. I heard a few boos, saw some empty seats at the end and heard an earful from my companion. That doesn’t mean it’s not a success, given that the COC knew going in that some people wouldn’t like it. You can’t please everyone, especially when you hand your opera over to someone with a reputation for radical & provocative direction. People wanting a conservative approach –such as those who boo’d when Tcherniakov came out for his bow—likely knew that this wasn’t that kind of show.  But then again this review isn’t really addressed to those people.

I’ve seen a few of Tcherniakov’s productions on video, and I liked some better than others. I adored his Prince Igor and Wozzeck, quite liked Ruslan and Ludmilla, but wasn’t as infatuated with either Il trovatore or Don Giovanni. You’ll notice that the two I liked least are so well-known as to be warhorses, operas whose familiarity likely represented a challenge to the director: to do something new with those overly familiar texts, whereas the other three were all works where I felt the director was free to simply direct. And so I think Tcherniakov came in feeling the need to shake things up, to get the dust off the stone guest and everything else in the story as well. While I didn’t like every second it was stimulating and better than most DG’s I’ve seen, a great piece of theatre. And I can’t deny that the dynamic with the resistant ones (including the conversations with my companion) was an added bit of entertainment. Some of the scenes seem designed to deliberately play with our expectations, none more so than the usually sentimental “vedrai carino”, where Masetto and Zerlina usually reconcile. But in an anti-romantic universe the happy ending is elusive, especially when you have Tcherniakov teasing you without mercy.

Tcherniakov’s set design could be a distant cousin to the one for Atom Egoyan’s Cosi fan tutte.  While this opera isn’t a school for lovers –or seducers– the whole opera happens in a kind of library that in some sense represents the collective mind.  It’s a mythical place, a big metaphor, but i won’t pretend i’ve decoded its implications.  Not by a long shot.

There are at least two big changes from the original text in Tcherniakov’s production. One is the insertion of big lapses of time. A curtain will come down, while a projected title informs us that a certain number of days or weeks has gone by. For some scenes this is pure magic. For example in the first ensemble, where Donna Anna runs off to get help, she returns moments later with Don Ottavio & servants, to find her father slain. Instead, a few days pass, and now we get the same formal lines from Donna Anna in a funeral parlour, lines that seem to make much more sense in Tcherniakov’s version. My one problem with these insertions has to do with overall pace. Tcherniakov sometimes has his cast performing their recit as though it were Pinter, inserting colossal pauses (in addition to the ones when the curtain suddenly flops down, telling us of a new delay in the story), that might be meaningful, and add gravitas. But the weight comes at the expense of energy, and makes DG a longer and darker night than it has to be.   I suppose that’s how Tcherniakov likes it.

The second change is a profound revision to the relationships between the personages in the story. This too adds depths & gravitas, due to new familial connections. There’s a Jungian dimension when we start wondering about all the interactions as having overtones of other kinds of connection. The word I think I need to use is “problematize” for almost everything that one could take for granted in the text. Zerlina now has a family relationship to Don Giovanni, so the seduction scene has a different meaning.

Tcherniakov always seems to get full commitment from his cast, so that they’re never out of character for the entire night, and there are always several places you can look in his stage picture. But there are moments when the lines that are sung seem to make no literal sense, because one has to decode what’s happening, to step over the virtual corpse of the original text that’s been knocked down at times. So long as you don’t resent that imposition of new meanings, it can be hugely enjoyable.  Maybe it makes sense in his alternate world, but several times I was puzzled, speaking as someone who knows this opera so well that I know almost every line by heart. Maybe I am in need of an intervention, a visit by a bunch of people dressed up as the characters in Don Giovanni to rescue me from my dysfunctional relationship with the text. But then again the last scene was a lot like an intervention for DG, even if the addict being helped could be the conservative listener/viewer as much as that womanizing Don.

I’m a lover of abstract art and someone who enjoys ambiguity, not someone who needs to have everything explained. For example I don’t know what happened at the end, when the fellow who sang the Commendatore re-appears at the end and the lines seems to suggest that the Don is going to Hell. I don’t mind, it’s fabulous music. The final moments—when the Don is alive, and those who have been in thrall to him have finally shaken off his control and celebrate their freedom—are wonderful. While there are moments that are confusing, that are still enjoyable, presented with commitment & passion; and quite a few stretches of the opera that make more sense in this production than in any Don Giovanni I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen lots of them. While I like that sense of being disoriented & challenged, some in the audience don’t like that, and they voiced their displeasure.

The cast is strong. Russell Braun continues to captivate with the COC, a winning streak going back over several productions. The voice is sometimes delicate as in his Act II serenade, sometimes powerful, as in the finale to Act I. Everything Tcherniakov is doing with the Don seems to work for Braun, whether he’s at the centre of our focus or simply lurking in the shadows.

Kyle Ketelsen as Leporello is every bit as watchable. The voice is stunning and never less than beautiful, while the body-language is strongly suggestive of a playful servant right out of Commedia dell’arte even if Tcherniakov’s modernized reading makes no direct references to the style. Leporello is not actually a servant, his relationship with the Don being left quite ambiguous. Whenever KK was onstage he was usually the one I was watching.

(l-r) Russell Braun as Don Giovanni and Kyle Ketelsen as Leporello  (Photo: Chris Hutcheson)

(l-r) Russell Braun as Don Giovanni and Kyle Ketelsen as Leporello (Photo: Chris Hutcheson)

Michael Schade’s Don Ottavio isn’t like what one usually gets in this role. With the passing of the Commendatore Ottavio becomes something like the leader of the family, a leadership that’s visible in Schade’s performance. The singing was as flawless as ever: meaning that I don’t think I’ve ever heard this man sing sharp or flat in years and years of roles here at the COC. Some lines were exquisitely delicate, others more powerful. This might be the most macho & confident “Il mio tesoro” I’ve ever seen, sung to a group of characters who seemed to be lost in the slough of despond. Yet his “dalla sua pace” is achingly vulnerable, some of it sung in a foetal position.

Jane Archibald as Donna Anna and Michael Schade as Don Ottavio (Photo: Michael Cooper)

Jane Archibald as Donna Anna and Michael Schade as Don Ottavio (Photo: Michael Cooper)

Jane Archibald sings a wonderful Donna Anna even if Tcherniakov seems to dislike the character & what she represents, considering what he puts her through. At the end we find a genuine reconciliation both with her and the entire cast in the final great aria, which the director used as a kind of abstract template for everyone to drift back in the direction of sanity & possible fulfillment after the travails of earlier scenes. While her lines resist sense—because the lines are meant for Ottavio, not the others—I was grateful that for once the aria seemed to have a central purpose in the story instead of feeling like something Mozart tacked on (as it can in some productions).  It’s such a beautiful piece of music, especially once Archibald cuts loose in the last part that I completely teared up watching this music used in such an original way.

Jennifer Holloway is given a great deal to digest as Elvira, the most interesting of the women in most DG productions that i can recall. She is both an agent and also a reactive canvas, as we watch her reactions. Holloway’s intensity was often the most profound of anyone on the stage, and every moment of her role made sense to me (something I can’t say of everyone in the opera).

I’ll be seeing DG again from up close, hoping I understand it better next time. The production runs until Feb 21st. I’d recommend that you see it if you can.

click for more information (photo: Michael Cooper)

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9 Responses to Some resist seduction by Tcherniakov’s Don Giovanni

  1. I guess I was lucky in my choice of companion. The Wunderlemur was even more enthusiastic about it than I was!

  2. Edward Brain says:

    Thanks for the review, Leslie. While I would enjoy hearing the cast, the production team is keeping me away from attending.

  3. Ian Henderson says:

    Thoughtful as always, Leslie. I saw the production last night. While I think I’m as open as anyone to directors taking fresh approaches – at least I’m not on the side of the “conservatives” – I can’t say I thought it was in any way “a great piece of theatre”. The whole family relationships/fetal-position-on-short-notice/curtain staying down so long that the “three weeks later” seemed like it was in real time, etc. struck me as trite and increasingly silly – like trying to shoehorn the opera into a Psych 101 class. My main comment – I found a disturbing misogynist streak in the whole approach – was I’m not sure whether I was watching Don Giovanni or Don JianGhomeshi…

    • barczablog says:

      HA, great quote! I suppose the main reason I resist saying it’s misogynistic is in comparison to the politics of the original (hardly enlightened or kind to women). At least Donna Anna’s journey is one that seems redemptive at the end (including the obligatory rejection of Don Ottavio). The cognitive dissonance in the disparity between the two visions (old & new, or text & overlay) can be pleasurable or set your teeth on edge. I call it great theatre because it’s always provocative. I am looking forward to seeing it again.

      BUT to each their own of course!

  4. Sorry, we thought that it was a mess. Singing was wonderful, but the director appeared to attempt to sabotage the performance. For example, Sasha Djihanian sings an incredibly wonderful and seductive Vedrai carino, but Tcherniakov has Masetto throwing books and running around pushing people. Really? That works? Or Zerlina with on her knees with a coat over her head while Don Ottavio sings?

    • barczablog says:

      I think that’s a valid way to see it (YOU SAID ” the director appeared to attempt to sabotage the performance”), and perhaps that’s the way i see it too: that Tcherniakov’s interpretation interrogates the text, or (as i think i said somewhere) “problematizes” the text. Something that’s been left unquestioned for generations –such as the apparent happy ending between Masetto & Zerlina– comes across as sentimental for those requiring something more authentic than the conventional portrayals.

      And yes it really is a mess, especially that scene that i refer to as “the slough of despond”, where everyone seems completely heart-broken. But this is a legitimate response to some very messy action, with messy consequences. Maybe productions of Don Giovanni should be messy. The usual DG is neat & tidy like a Hallmark card, and maybe that’s how we like it sometimes. Sending him down the providential poop-chute at the end of the opera is possibly a bit too neat & tidy. But then again, I don’t deny being conflicted by all this. Yes I will see this again, sitting in my subscription seats, and enjoy whatever clarity i find. It just happens to be the best DG in town: right now. There are some fabulous insights, some moments that work in new ways. That doesn’t mean it’s the best i’ve ever seen or my favourite. But i might change my mind once i’ve seen it again.

      And i will inevitably write about it. Whereas the first time –as usual–I wrote about my observations, upon revisiting later i usually attempt to reckon with the views of others. It’s a fascinating topic.

      • Bill says:

        I’m sorry but I don’t understand why directors these days feel that they are more clever than the composer or the librettist of works that have survived for centuries. And, please, don’t hand me that old line of “shaking off the cobwebs”. I am sick and tired of people who profess to love opera but then turn around and act as if they are ashamed of it or feel it is so inherently silly that a “bold” new take is required. This production has absolutely no respect for Mozart’s music. If you actually listen to the music…that is if you can stop being spellbound by the director’s artistic masturbation…you will hear that Mozart wrote in distinct styles. His music for Donna Anna and Don Ottavio is in the grand, florid style of opera seria whereas the music for Maesetto and Zerlina comes from the folk idiom and is writing as more simple songs. To have these characters all come from one family completely distorts the composer’s intentions. I find it so funny that people such as yourself are gushing over this production but the night I was there people were leaving the theatre in droves during intermission and anyone I have spoken to thought it was a white hot mess. Sadly, what these avant garde directors haven’t quite realized yet is that their “modern” takes on these operas have become even more cliched than the standard presentations that claim they are saving us from. I am so sick of seeing operas staged in shades on black, white and grey or having singers running around in modern dress as the director hits me over the head with new-found relevance as if to say, “You see, you thought this was written two hundred years ago. But I have dressed everyone in modern clothing and so that means this opera can now speak to our times.” I think of that dreadful production of La Sonnambula that the MET put on a few years ago. It is a lovely opera, very naive and very delicate and it needs a careful director to present it properly. Instead, we had Mary Zimmerman snickering at it and setting it all in a modern rehearsal room and then forcing the opera to try and work within the narrow confines she had set. And then, the final insult, she staged the soparanos final aria as a staged parody of the actual opera as if to say “You see, aren’t you glad you had someone clever like me stage this opera for you? Otherwise you would have been stuck with something like this for the last 3 hours!” This DG is a flop. Just accept it. It doesn’t work and the audiences who are walking out in droves know that. The sad part is it has some wonderful singers who are wasted, yet again, in the kind of Eurotrash that passes for opera in today’s theatres. We are living in the joint tyranny of the director/designer. Sadly, they are turning off a whole new generation of opera goers. The art form, if it does implode, will do so because of misguided productions like these…not from the greatest of the actual works.

  5. Pingback: “Don Giovanni or Don JianGhomeshi…?“ | barczablog

  6. Pingback: Opera as blood sport: the Hutcheons contra Regietheater | barczablog

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