The quote in the headline is the witty riposte of Ian Henderson as part of the conversation about Dmitri Tcherniakov’s Don Giovanni. You may have thought of it as Mozart’s Don Giovanni,…? ha! but when a modern opera director gets their hands on one of the warhorses it can be contentious.
Ian’s comments (found here if you skip to the bottom of my review of opening night) are wittier than most, but in context with concerns about the production’s misogyny. While it may be true – that at times the director is rough on the women in this opera— I feel it goes both ways, as life is every bit as rough on the men, Don Giovanni included, who is the chief victim of this version of the story.
I got to see the show for a second time tonight, fresh from a production of von Horvath’s Tales of the Vienna Woods at Ryerson Theatre School. Mozart is a great cure for the chronic ear-worms I have from hearing and playing so much Johann Strauss over the past month of rehearsals & performances. Resounding in my head at the moment? the glory of a COC cast without any weaknesses –Russell Braun, Jennifer Holloway, Jane Archibald, Kyle Ketelsen, Michael Schade, Sasha Djihanian, Zachary Nelson, Andrea Silvestrelli– and the orchestra.
Russell Braun’s Don Giovanni sometimes resembles a singer in a monodrama (borrowing an idea from one of James Jorden’s reviews, coincidentally about another Don Giovanni, but in a very different sense). How ? While Kyle Ketelsen or Jennifer Holloway are singing powerfully in his face, Braun sings some of the quietest subtlest recitative I’ve ever heard. Sitting up close I recognize that it’s as though he’s in his own little private Espagna, crooning to himself, hallucinating at times (twice seeing someone who looks just like the Commendatore venture onto the stage), when he isn’t living the high life (or the life high). The portrayal is better, deeper & more powerful than what he gave us opening night, but it may also be the benefit of sitting closer, picking up little nuances that you miss when you’re sitting further away.
Michael Schade continues to impress me with his range of emotions. In “dalla sua pace” he runs the gamut of emotion, not just the moment when he’s in a foetal position that I alluded to in the earlier review, but instances of power, passion, reflection, sadness, triumph, all in the space of a wonderfully dynamic few minutes.
It’s really crazy to single anyone out though. Kyle Ketelsen is amazing, even better up close with his physical eloquence, including everything from popping bubble gum to trick moves with a yo-yo. Jane Archibald sounded better tonight, possibly because she’d been announced as unwell back in December when she sang in the TSO Messiah, and has finally shaken off her virus; and she was deliciously comical, once I began to wrap my head around Tcherniakov’s version, a reading that’s very dark at times, never dull, but often hysterically funny. I felt like a fish out of water, sitting beside a newcomer to the opera, and in the second row, which meant we were immersed in the comedy. I don’t understand why there weren’t more laughs, unless it’s because some people think you’re not supposed to laugh at an opera. But I do understand why there weren’t more bravos during the show, as there were many times that everyone was silent in a kind of awe. Where the music signals a clear break for applause, they went wild.
I feel there’s a cautionary note that should go with productions such as this one. “If you’re a person who arrives with stipulations, either lose them now or prepare to feel frustrated”. Seeing an opera isn’t like buying real estate. Yes you can insist that your house must have a walk in closet or 4 bathrooms or whatever floats your boat. Stipulations at the opera? They may help you understand what you’re seeing but they will not make you happy. Nope. Happiness is arriving at the opera, ready to let the opera move you any way it wants to move you. Now of course there are moments where I am not sure precisely what was happening. We didn’t get the usual gag from Donna Elvira’s arrival, because Tcherniakov does it differently. I don’t pretend to understand what his version “means” in the arcane subtextual world created for the performers. So what. In most of the opera it makes exquisite sense even at times like this, when I’m scratching my head. There are far worse examples I could point to, where a director’s insight that works 80% of the time leads to moments or entire scenes that are ludicrous because of how badly they serve the text & the performers, but slavishly serve a concept. Tcherniakov’s concept illuminates a far higher percentage of the text, and perhaps more importantly, when it works it’s amazing, especially when you sit up close.
And here’s another thought, from the morning after, that perhaps this is really about our society’s maturation. DG is a throwback of sorts, certainly someone valorized in other centuries. The first time I was confronted with Tcherniakov’s modernization i too was stuck in that slough of despond where everyone seems stuck for much of Act II, unable to shake off the heavy legacy of past DGs, of honour and lies and behaviour that’s ultimately unhealthy. Last night I realized what that Act II struggle was about. We watched the three women gradually come back from a very dark place, we see Ottavio man up, and Masetto have his own crisis, so that in the end the cast seems to outgrow the childishness of what DG represents, the old false social archetypes that we no longer can live honourably. Perhaps this is like an ordeal for the collective unconscious, as each archetype grows up: except DG himself. DG (and also Don JianGhomeshi too, yes we can use Ian Henderson’s version) represents everything we are outgrowing, in the glare of the trials and the screams of sexual assault.
Don Giovanni runs until February 21st. See it if you can.