The last time we saw John Malkovich onstage in Toronto, three years ago in The Infernal Comedy, he was playing a serial killer. This time out, he’s switched to serial seducer. The Giacomo Variations, which opened Friday at the Elgin Theatre for a three-day run, finds the idiosyncratic actor in the role of that 18th-century Italian love machine-cum-memoirist Giacomo, a.k.a. Jacques, Casanova.
Once again, Malkovich has collaborated with Austrian writer-director Michael Sturminger and musical director Martin Haselböck. And once again, they’ve created an awkward fusion of theatre and opera. Only where The Infernal Comedy at least had a gripping performance from the Hollywood star – as the killer Johann, a.k.a. Jack, Unterweger – The Giacomo Variations doesn’t even have that.
For one thing, Malkovich doesn’t convince you that he’s Casanova. He speaks in a curious Malkovichian accent that’s full of British pronunciations but also sounds faintly Germanic at times. At no point does it resemble that of a man who was born and raised in Venice and wrote his memoirs in French. For another, he declaims his lines in a stilted style to match Sturminger’s stilted direction. If you’re reminded of one of his film roles, it’s less likely to be that other 18th-century seducer, the silky Valmont in Dangerous Liaisons , and more likely to be the cranky, pretentious CIA agent in Burn After Reading.
Granted, the Casanova Malkovich gives us is the bitter old curmudgeon at the end of his life. No longer a world-class adventurer hobnobbing with royalty, he’s stuck in a castle in Bohemia, serving as librarian to an often-absent count. Mocked and abused by the count’s servants, his only consolation is working on his autobiography. Then an intriguing young woman, Elisa (played vivaciously by Lithuanian actress Ingeborga Dapkunaite), shows up to pay him a visit, offering the possibility of one last great fling.
As the old man dallies with Elisa and reminisces, we’re treated to flashbacks of the rake in his prime. That’s where the opera comes in. Given that Casanova was a contemporary of Mozart and a friend of his librettist, Lorenzo Da Ponte, Sturminger and Haselböck have chosen to mash up these memories with excerpts from the Mozart-Da Ponte operas. So, in the opening scene, when Casanova attempts suicide by arsenic and a doctor is called, we’re suddenly catapulted into the Eccovi il medico number from Cosi fan tutte . Or when Casanova tells Elisa of his many loves, it morphs into Leporello cataloguing his master’s conquests in Don Giovanni . And so on.
The arias are sung by a pair of opera singers who either double as Casanova and Elisa, or else play various other characters. In Toronto, baritones Daniel Schmutzhard and Simon Schnorr take the male roles at different performances, while sopranos Sophie Klussmann and Kirsten Blaise alternate as the women. However, that hasn’t stopped Malkovich from also singing – after a fashion. The man talk-sings his way through parts in a few ensemble numbers, in a modest way that suggests he knows he’s out of his league.
Occasionally, the opera segments are wittily deployed. There’s an amusing double-entendre scene at the top of Act 2, where Figaro and Susanna’s duet about the size of their bed, from The Marriage of Figaro , becomes a discussion about the size of something else – as Casanova makes clear by handing them a series of increasingly large condoms. More often, though, these musical interludes get in the way of the drama. There are pleasant stretches where you hear lovely renditions of arias like Susanna’s Deh, vieni in Figaro – Klussmann, who performed opening night, was superb – but they add nothing to the fragmentary narrative Sturminger has strung together out of nuggets from Casanova’s sprawling Histoire de ma vie.
Listening to Haselböck’s original-instrument Orchester Wiener Akademie is also a pleasure, although it would be better to hear them in an intimate concert hall rather than the cavernous Elgin. It’s not the most felicitous venue for a show billed as “a chamber opera play.”
You get the impression The Giacomo Variations could be an engaging piece of straight theatre – especially near the end, when Malkovich adopts an authentic melancholy air. But the acting and staging would have to improve significantly. This is one of the rare times when those old seducers, Casanova and Malkovich, strike out.