Opera Atelier Don Giovanni: Toronto context

Two down, one to go as far as the big operas are concerned.

Robert Wilson’s Turandot and David McVicar’s Rusalka, a pair of fairy-tale operas in visually brilliant productions have finished at the Canadian Opera Company, while Opera Atelier are about to open their revival of Marshall Pynkoski’s Don Giovanni. At the same time a series of smaller companies are offering premieres, including Loose Tea Music Theatre’s Singing only Softly/The Diary of Anne Frank to open this weekend and The Ethics, to be presented at the COC’s noon-hour concert series October 31st. No this isn’t nearly a comprehensive list, just an observation meant to illustrate a point.

There is a specific context that I have in mind, one that keeps coming up in conversations about opera-going in Toronto.

The last mainstage production of Don Giovanni in Toronto was the COC’s in 2015 directed by Dmitri Tcherniakov. I put an ironic headline on my review, when I said “Some resist seduction by Tcherniakov’s Don Giovanni.”  I was frankly astonished, watching an interpretation that I loved but that left a lot of people cold, and upset more than a few.

That’s part of the context right now. While I love director’s theatre, especially the controversies that erupt around creative readings such as the Wilson Turandot, they’re not for everyone. I’ve had a lot of conversations with people who disliked the show.
Opera Atelier’s recognizable brand of historically informed performance represents an another alternative.

I was going to say they’re “against the grain” in their adamant resistance against modernity while insisting on a period look & feel. Even the company who are called “Against the Grain” spent the past few weeks presenting a La boheme that is recognizably Puccini, very different from what the COC offered with their Turandot.

It’s ironic that the COC are the company who seemed to be the ones working “against the grain”.  The new operas I mention above may have new scores that are not familiar but they will likely have an approach to the staging that doesn’t fight the score, the way Wilson’s seemed to.  I was sympathetic to Joseph So’s recent review that sums up Wilson when he says the following:

I argue that his vision is more suited to modernist and new music, and certain enigmatic works such as Pelleas et Melisande. I was very taken by his staging of Einstein On The Beach, seen at the Luminato Festival some years ago. I can also see his style working beautifully in certain Baroque and Classical operas, which would benefit from his formalism. But to give the Wilson treatment to Puccini (and Italian verismo in general) where primary emotions are at the core? Not to my eyes and ears.”

I saw the Wilson Turandot twice:

  • once in the company of someone expecting the usual relationships to be explored & a mise-en-scene that matches the style & dramaturgy of the story-telling: leaving that person upset & disappointed
  • once with someone having no stipulations: who loved it to pieces

I daresay that it’s a useful lesson about how to approach director’s theatre. When you show up with stipulations you’re bound to be disappointed.  Those same sort of expectations turned up in the comments about Tcherniakov’s Don Giovanni, a show that I loved.  Ah but I had seen it on TVO and so had a good idea how it was going to go. But even so, it simply doesn’t work going to a show determined that it must be x or y, rather than letting it be what it is. That’s a bit like arguing with the weather or trying to change the interest rate by shaking your fist at the sky.

But unlike the Tcherniakov interpretation, there’s no danger of encountering a modernized Don Giovanni this time with Pynkoski. With Opera Atelier you won’t be shaking your fist at anyone.


It’s a wonderfully light approach, driven by…

  • Tone:
    the romantic period had a great time making the Don a tragic figure, and turning many around him into serious figures: when in fact Donna Elvira & Donna Anna can be as funny as Zerlina.
  • Pace:
    if it’s done quickly you alter the tone, making it more likely to be funny.
  • Youth:
    if Don Giovanni is young & attractive (see photo), he has credibility as the irresistible seducer
Douglas Williams Headshot

Douglas Williams, a believable Don Giovanni in Opera Atelier’s production

I wrote a fair bit about it last time they did it in 2011, totally blown away (here’s one of the reviews I wrote), when I went so far as to call director Pynkoski a genius.

I found the show amazing & original precisely because director Pynkoski resisted the usual modern tendencies, while doing the unexpected in taking us back to something lighter & funnier. I think it’s the best thing Opera Atelier have ever done, and can’t wait to see it again.

Opera Atelier’s Don Giovanni runs October 31 – November 9, 2019 at the Ed Mirvish Theatre, 244 Victoria St.. Don’t miss it.

This entry was posted in Music and musicology, Opera, Personal ruminations & essays and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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