Review by Mike Mandel
Yesterday, was the premier of the Canadian Opera Company’s Don Giovanni, and to say that director Tcherniakov delivered an unorthodox performance to the sold-out audience, is akin to saying the Titanic brushed against some ice. But despite the protestations of the traditionalists, it’s actually difficult to ruin Mozart. The music is as good as it gets, and Don Giovanni, with Da Ponte’s libretto is about as perfectly designed as an opera can be. So how much can one alter the opera’s intent, without lessening its impact? Can this “opera of operas” survive intentional time distortion and reworked familial relationships, and still be Don Giovanni? Photo by Michael Cooper
Russian enfant terrible, Tcherniakov, took a scalpel to traditional staging and production, and in the first few minutes, we knew we were in for something new and completely different. Gone were the street scenes, the shrubbery for Leporello to cower behind, and half a dozen other sets. Instead, the director opted for a modern and more claustrophobic approach; each scene taking place in what was essentially, with minor variations, the same large room. He went on to change the timing of the action, and the interpersonal dynamic, while retaining intact the entire libretto and score. It was the original music and lyrics, but a different story. The result was startling, and I found myself leaning forward, completely enrapt by the kaleidoscope of psychodrama onstage.
The portrayal of Don Giovanni and Leporello strayed far from the typical. Though almost always played as a lothario and his lackey, Tcherniakov’s vision and version is much darker. Eschewing the usual presentation of Casanova the seducer, accompanied by Leporello, his buffoon, (think Nigel Bruce as a rather feckless Dr. Watson), Russell Braun plays Don Giovanni as a malignant narcissist, with Leporello as his enabler. We watch powerlessly, as this haggard, psychologically seven-year-old, intersects each character in turn, leaving human debris in his unrepentant wake. Don Giovanni has no real personality. He is a tabula rasa, on which we, the audience, project the worst of our own selfishness and need for absolute freedom and control.
The opera becomes a relational study, as social boundaries collapse, identity is fluid, all in the service of Don Giovanni’s unrestrained appetites. Don Giovanni has an almost hypnotic relationship with the other characters. Time spent in his presence is sufficient to reduce some of them to torpid, almost drugged immobility. The characters experience classical hypnotic phenomena, including catalepsy, psychomotor retardation, as well as auditory and visual hallucination. We glimpse into a shifting milieu of family dysfunction and chaos, set against some of the most beautiful arias and ensemble singing you will ever hear.
Admittedly, this Don Giovanni is not to all tastes. It’s so far outside the box, that it’s only the perfectly played score and beautifully sung libretto, that remind us that there is a box… but it’s brilliant!