Dmitri Tcherniakov’s mesmerizing co-production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni opened at the Canadian Opera Company’s Four Seasons Theater after resounding success in Teatro Real Madrid, and the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence. This is not a production for the faint-hearted, and it is sure to disappoint an audience that simply seeks the comfort of the tried and true. Tcherniakov’s Don Giovanni forces its audience to wander the depths of human fallibility; it is bitter and dark, a troubling essay into the forces of self deception that lock us into our very own psychological torture chambers.
Tcherniakov pushes La Ponte’s drama into territory that is transgressive and mined with our deepest taboos. These characters are no longer the members of a provincial town in Spain, they are family, bound together by blood, and separated by the deep furrows of hatred that only familes can bear. The action doesn’t take place in a whirlwind matter of days, it stretches over half a year, giving the weight of time and intention to the crimes of deceit and murder. There are no tricks with mistaken identities (a central Mozartian trope that propels the action). Each woman knows exactly who she has chosen to walk with, fundamentally subverting the idea that these women have no agency in Don Giovanni’s seductions. This knowledge also reminds us that Don Giovanni is not the only deceiver in this story. There is no resolving hand of god that appears in the form of a ghost; instead, the collective psychosis of Don Giovanni’s willing victims eventually percolates into a hellish plot where a man dressed as a ghost brings Don Giovanni to terms with his own conscience. But here’s the rub, it is only Don Giovanni who is troubled enough by his own conscience that he cannot “see” through the plot. In other words, he knows his own madness only too well, and he has simply been waiting for it to make its final claim.
Perhaps the most powerful choice that Tcherniakov makes is to set the action entirely within one room, and oh, what a room! Tcherniakov, who is also responsible for set design in this production, gave us a quintessential bourgeois Italian interior with all the ostentatious finery of a class that depends on appearance. This choice was perfectly complemented by costumes designed by Tcherniakov and Elena Zaytseva that were reminiscent of the golden age of Italian cinema, and perfectly contemporary. Tcherniakov’s homage to Italian cinema of the 1970s seemed intentional. This family drama had the tragic irrationality of Pasoloni’sTeorema; the Don was a probing study of Brando’s broken Paul in Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris. The archetypal quality of these narratives spoke through all of Tcherniakov’s design choices, and the effect was mesmerizing.
What made for difficult viewing, however, was the lack of action in the second act. In Act II of Don Giovanni, the Don’s deceit is revealed to his “victims,” and they begin to come to terms with the damage that he has wrought. We all know that in La Ponte’s original envisioning, Don Giovanni’s actions are so sinful and he is so adept at getting away with his crimes, that even after his crimes are revealed, no one can bring him to justice. The opera, in its traditional form, ends with the ghost of the Commandatore (the murdured father of one of Don Giovanni’s conquests) returning from beyond the grave to exact divine retribution on the sinner. In Tcherniakov’s reading of these scenes, Don Giovanni’s victims are paralyzed by the knowledge of his deeds; they remain in static, prone positions onstage, singing about their desires for revenge, but doing nothing. While this is an interesting depiction of the paralysis of depression caused by trauma, it makes for some heavy-going theater. One would expect, therefore, that this paralysis would eventually lead to a cataclysmic act of revenge, but the staging of Don Giovanni’s demise is anticlimactic and static. It felt, unfortunately, like the production suddenly ran out of ideas and energy.
What distinguished this production from any I have heard before, were the absolutely astounding performances by all members of the cast. Don Giovanni is a man’s opera, and tonight’s performances by Michael Schade, Kyle Kettelson, and the inimitable Russell Braun, brought passion, subtlety, vigor and richness to the music we know so well. Schade’s Don Ottavio was subtly sinister while managing to deliver the heart-wrenching passion of “Dalla Sua Pace.” In a production that was relentlessly dark, Kyle Ketelsen’s Leporello brought us the mercurial, tricksterish movement that we badly needed. Ketelsen’s voice could make the rafters ring, and his Faustian stage presence was the perfect complement to Braun’s troubled Don Giovanni. The star of this evening’s performance is, without doubt, Russell Braun. Braun’s Don is a ravaged shadow, lost within his own psychosis, and deeply conscious of his own malignance. When Braun seduces the sweet, young Zerlina, he sings almost in her direction, never really making eye contact with her. The moment is terrifying, as you realize that the Don really is a psychopath caressing an inward craving. He has no knowledge of the many women before him, they are all his one ghost. Jane Archibald’s Donna Anna perfectly captured the manipulative charm of a spoiled heiress, and Sasha Djihanian’s Zerlina was achingly fragile. As Donna Elvira, Jennifer Holloway gave the performance of a lifetime. Alternating between drug-induced hysteria, depression, and rare gasps of lucidity, this Donna Elvira is already damaged beyond reckoning.
Under the baton of opera luminary, Michael Hofstetter, the COC’s orchestra reached heights that are rarely heard here. There was a precision to this performance that never lost sight of the drama in Mozart’s scoring. The bassoons spoke as human voices would. A rare foregrounding of the cello obbligato brought out the ensnared passion in Zerlina’s “Batti, Batti,” an aria she sings to placate her cuckolded Masetto while clearly longing for the absent Don Giovanni. These musical choices were every bit as challenging as Tcherniakov’s artistic vision. All in all, this production will fundamentally change the way you see and hear Don Giovanni, in the most profound way.