Skip to main content

A scene from the Canadian Opera Company production of Don Giovanni, 2015.Michael Cooper

The Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard loved Mozart's Don Giovanni with an enduring passion. But he preferred to hear the opera from the lobby of the theatre, where the sound of the masterpiece by itself could provide him with the purity of Mozart's conception, unsullied by whatever action might be on stage.

Had Kierkegaard been in the lobby of the Four Seasons Centre on Saturday evening, one imagines he would have been enthralled with a beautifully rendered musical version of Mozart's 1787 classic. A first-rate orchestra, under the direction of guest conductor Michael Hofstetter provided tight, subtle support for a fine cast of excellent voices, led by Canadians Russell Braun, Michael Schade, and Jane Archibald – a musical tour de force.

However, had Kierkegaard peeked into the auditorium on Saturday night, he might have come away with a slightly different impression. Russian director Dmitri Tcherniakov's re-working of Don Giovanni might have been a brilliant, modern, insight into the essence of the story of the arch-seducer that has beguiled the imagination of the West for several centuries. Instead, Tcherniakov's staging and conception of Giovanni is more confusing than illuminating, imaginative sometimes, but inconsistent much more often

There is nothing wrong with a modern director putting his or her stamp on a piece of classic culture. We do it in the theatre all the time. Tcherniakov's problem lies in the scale of the changes he has decided to overlay on the original libretto and score of Giovanni. In his Giovanni, all the characters are made to be members of the same extended family, led by the Commendatore. (Giovanni is married to Elvira, Zerlina is Donna Anna's daughter).Thus, the class divisions of the original are eliminated. Moved into the present day, the supernatural elements of the story are gone (Giovanni's descent into Hell, occasioned by his shaking the hand of the Commendatore's statue come to life, now becomes a heart attack he suffers because an actor, pretending to be the slain Commendatore, shocks him into one)

None of these departures by themselves would be problematic except that, with an unchanged libretto, the "new" Giovanni runs into countless moments of confusion. For example, a Donna Anna, looking right into the face of the Don Giovanni who is now her cousin's husband, cannot recognize him; there are many other similar moments, each one of which stops the action short, and breaks the concentration we need to make the opera a success. By opera's end, the inconsistencies between the old libretto and new relationships have accumulated to the point where we stop trying to make sense of them and just let them flow along, a deadly situation for a piece of dramatic art.

However, Tcherniakov's most original bit of re-telling of Don Giovanni is the most successful. The Don is not a powerful, young and superhumanly cold nobleman in this version. He is an older, dissipated, almost hysterical libertine at the end of his sensual rope, craven and pitiable, even if still noble in some part of his being. In this, Giovanni is us – emblematic of the twilight of two centuries of social, political and sexual liberations – tired, disappointed and out of options.

And Russell Braun is brilliant in his portrayal of this exhausted Don, weaving around the stage in his undershirt for all of Act 2, the Brando of Streetcar turned into the Brando of Last Tango, drugged, defeated, but still defiant. Braun's realization of two of the Don's very few arias were beautifully portrayed – a slowed down recitative leading into the most sadly seductive La ci darem la mano I've heard in a long time, and an equally sad, nostalgic, Serenade in Act 2. Had Tcherniakov managed to keep the focus on this sort of Don for the entire evening, we might have had a quite different reaction to the piece.

But he couldn't – mainly because Mozart wouldn't let him. Don Giovanni is a great opera for many reasons but chief among these is the enormous, Shakespearean variety of its moods, characters and textures. The opera shifts gears from tragedy to comedy to the sublime to slapstick in a twinkling, defeating the will of any contemporary director to shape the opera in any other pattern than the one Mozart's great arias create for it.

And the voices the COC assembled to sing Mozart's astonishing tours de force, one after another, were superb. Michael Schade was in his prime with Ottavio's two famous arias, one in each act, focussing his burnished tenor to a whisper, then to a cascade, perfect in his control. Jennifer Holloway sang her vengeful, but pitying Elvira with great beauty and scope; Sasha Djihanian was a winsome Zerlina, much more knowing and aware in this production than is usually the case, and Jane Archibald's Donna Anna was thrilling from first note to last, with a sweep and an edge that made her presence on stage aurally riveting. Kyle Ketelsen was a provocative, nagging Leperello, Zachary Nelson an angry, but effective Masetto, and Andrea Silvestrelli a fine Commendatore. Musically, the evening was a triumph.

But its musical excellence wasn't always enough to overcome the textural and dramatic confusion on stage. Despite some brilliant touches, the sum of the parts of this Giovanni just didn't add up to a satisfying whole. But Don Giovanni is a great enough piece to be able to absorb all interpretations, so no occasion to hear it should be missed. Like Whitman, it can contain multitudes.