Canadian Opera Company’s New Staging of Don Giovanni Misses the Mark
The curtain on the Canadian Opera Company’s current production of Don Giovanni by W. A. Mozart came up to stark silence at a somber family meeting. The audience had just been informed via projected text that we could expect a different performance of this tried and true classic. In the opera’s usual plot, three narrative strands about three objects of Don Giovanni’s prodigious desire converge into a perfect storm at the opera’s close. In this production, the principal characters were all members of a very wealthy, contemporary extended family. The action took place in a single set – the sitting room of the patriarch’s mansion.
Don Giovanni is an oft performed staple of the operatic repertoire. Beloved by generations of opera goers, it is usually a guaranteed slam dunk for opera companies. In light of the work’s impressive track record, I was quite frankly astonished to find myself at a performance where the director (Dmitri Tcherniakov) was greeted with boos and hisses when he came out to take a bow. This reception was consistent with the comments I heard from patrons during the intermission. The couple ahead of me in the drinks pre-order line said “I can’t find anything good to say about it” and “this director clearly doesn’t understand anything about women”. My companion, who had never seen the work before, was bored and confused. Applause for the performers was just as warm and hearty as usual, so it was clear that the audience’s negative reception had nothing to do with them.
I think that there are a number of reasons why the audience reacted so negatively to this production. Firstly, this opera is usually darkly funny. Although as a feminist I have a number of issues with how this story reads in the modern day, I have seen it several times and I usually laugh out loud in spite of myself. None of the usual jokes were played for laughs this time. I am not sure if this was a deliberate decision or if the jokes just bombed; either way, it made for a very long three and a half hours. The photo above, of Don Giovanni (Russell Braun) and Leporello (Kyle Ketelsen) captures one of the few moments of whimsy in this productions, which was charming.
Secondly, while we were told that there were familial relationships at work that are not usually present in this opera, we were not shown this on stage. Since the new relationships were not clear in how the characters interacted with each other, this decision read as pointless and confusing. At its core, Don Giovanni is a morality tale where the villain gets his just desserts in the end. In this production, the director appeared to have some objective of subverting the conventional interpretation of good versus evil; a challenging objective when confined to the four walls of Lorenzo Da Ponte’s libretto wherein there are repeated references to the fact that Don Giovanni is not only a seducer, but a rapist. Consequently, Russell Braun’s performance in the title role could not commit to being a good guy or a bad guy and was just unfocused. I have seen Mr. Braun play the part of several villains on the COC stage and he is usually mean, menacing and lovable to hate.
Inexplicably, for much of the second half, one performer sang while the rest of the principal characters lay on the stage like corpses. I was excited to see Jane Archibald in the role of Donna Anna since in addition to having the voice of a particularly sassy angel, she is also an accomplished thespian. Sadly, her dramatic gifts were wasted as she lay flat on her back for much of the second half. I have no theories as to what the symbolic intent of this was, but suffice it to say, this choice was distinctly lacking in entertainment value.
If you have already purchased your ticket for this performance, take heart. Mozart’s music is as dramatic and beautiful as ever and the singing was absolutely divine. The casting decisions were exceptionally well made and I would love to see the same performers in a different production of this work.
- Don Giovanni is playing until February 21 at Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts (145 Queen Street West)
- Show times are 7:30 PM on January 27 & 30 and February 3, 6, 12, 14, 18 & 21 with an additional matinees on February 1 at 2 PM
- Ticket prices range from $45 – $365. Patrons under 30 can purchase tickets for $22 or $35 here.
- Tickets are available online, or through the box office at 416-363-8231 (long distance 1-800-250-4653)