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Dmitri Tcherniakov, Canadian Opera Company director, poses in the Four Seasons Centre in Toronto on Thursday, January 15, 2015. Darren Calabrese for The Globe and Mail

Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

'Don't worry about kissing right now, guys. Let's just get the scene worked out, and you can all kiss properly in later rehearsals, when it will come more naturally."

It's late December, the rehearsals for the new Don Giovanni are under way at the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto. Thorsten Colle, the assistant director in charge of laying the groundwork on behalf of director Dmitri Tcherniakov, is doing his best to put the singers at ease in a key scene of Mozart's opera.

Some among them are debuting the roles, such as Jane Archibald (Donna Anna) and Sasha Djihanian (Zerlina); others, such as Michael Schade (Don Ottavio), have sung theirs in many other productions and come with fully formed ideas about their character. Russell Braun (in the title role) has already worked with Tcherniakov in this same production in Madrid. Colle, the energetic and good-humoured long-time right-hand man to the Russian director, has the job of blending the disparate experiences and getting the singers to feel at home in the new production. Not an easy task in this early stage.

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What is being rehearsed is the scene of the party in Act 1, in which Don Giovanni opens the doors of his house to tutti quanti, meaning all social strata and presuming a degree of equality in this pseudo-public sphere. His ulterior motive is the seduction of Zerlina, the engaged woman he's recently met. Viva la liberta, the rousing chorus led by Don Giovanni amid the party's more typical dance music, had, in 1787, an unmistakable ring of French revolutionary values; so much so that in the opera's first revival in Vienna the line was to become the more anodyne Viva la societa to appease the authorities. But charisma and the seductive powers today do not come from aristocratic titles and feudal landownership, and the Mozart-Da Ponte take on the story of the nobleman who loved his freedom and honoured his desires to the point of creating a new kind of integrity will, if staged literally, turn into a piece of lavishly costumed escapism. There are a growing number of directors who are dispensing with frocks and wigs and are staging Don Giovanni as a work that is of our own age. Tcherniakov is among the most prominent of this cohort. His Don Giovanni is of arguably the greatest psychological subtlety on international operatic stages today.

Tcherniakov sets the drama in a family mansion, but not Don Giovanni's: We are at the Commendatore's, who is the top of the patriarchal chain and father of Donna Anna, Don Giovanni's first illicit love interest. While preparing the staging, Tcherniakov noticed a fundamental divide between the title character and all the others he encounters, changes, and is later punished by.

"He is on his own, and everybody else is together. And this is how I came up with the solution that everybody else was part of the same family," Tcherniakov explained in an exclusive interview with The Globe and Mail.

Donna Elvira, the Commendatore's cousin, brings Don Giovanni to the family as her partner. Zerlina, in the libretto the peasant woman who catches Don Giovanni's eye, is here Donna Anna's daughter from her first marriage, a rich and spoiled young woman. Don Ottavio is Donna Anna's partner.

"Likely a banker, a very upstanding fellow," is how Elena Zaytseva sees him. She's been creating costumes for Tcherniakov's productions since 2004, and is adept at clothing the characters to better express their personalities. "Anna is probably the most groomed character we've ever worked on. Appearance is hugely important to her. She's somebody who goes to the spa, the manicurist and the hairdresser's every week." Donna Elvira is somewhat the opposite. "Elvira is a beautiful woman, but tends to slightly fail at self-presentation. There is always some mismatch and some unsuitable tailoring with her."

Though it would be easy to read the family as representative of capitalist success, and the outsider Don Giovanni as the criticism of its values, Tcherniakov is adamant that social criticism of this kind is the last thing on his mind. "I am of the opinion that even if overnight we all became equal and well-off in material goods, we would all remain equally unhappy."

His production is a psychodrama – and the family is more akin to the family of Thomas Vinterberg's Festen and Claude Chabrol's La décade prodigieuse – but he will concede that those who read the family as a legalized version of an organized-crime famiglia might have a case. He insists, however, on leaving a lot in the abstract and up to the audience to fill in.

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"The main clash here is between two radically different ideas about how to live a good life," Tcherniakov says. "Don Giovanni here is not a seducer or a playboy; he is an older man, somebody who has experienced heartbreak and disappointment. He comes in with something of the messiah complex, but his utopia of a new kind of community unsettles everybody in the family."

And just what kind of utopia his might be, the singers were beginning to intuit at the COC rehearsal that night. Things quickly moved from awkward to jokey to teasing as the principals learned the blocking. The scene is reminiscent of the party in Arthur Schnitzler's Traumnovelle, where the wearing of masks opens the space for licentiousness as the social roles are left behind. Don Giovanni dismantles the couples and asks the partiers to each kiss a stranger, who may be somebody else's wife or fiancé.

"Here he is testing his vision of the new kind of human relations," Colle said in our conversation after the rehearsal. "But in this scene the experiment fails very quickly." It is the vision of togetherness that is beyond the nuclear family and the couple, the idea of love without possessiveness or exclusivity, of living in complete honesty and with an anarchist's attitude to power.

It is also a utopia that defies the borders between heterosexuality and homosexuality: In the masked party scene, Don Giovanni has the two most traditionally masculine men, Don Ottavio and Masetto, also kiss. Is not all this reminiscent of the experiments of the 1960s and '70s, the sexual revolution? "It may be. That is one reading," Tcherniakov says. "But we didn't mean to portray a particular period of history. Though Don Giovanni's ideas are bound to sound old-fashioned in our very practical world."

In the last scene of the opera, the character dons a suit with some clear markers of seventies' style. It's out of fashion and a bit too tight, but it's Don Giovanni's favourite and it comes with memories of a happier time. Not for the first time in this production, the audience will find themselves feeling pity.

The malevolent side of Don Giovanni's personality, however, will not be hidden. Tcherniakov's is a multilayered portrayal, and each of the singers has a somewhat different view of the Don. Jennifer Holloway intends to play Donna Elvira as a strong character, somebody who keeps trying different tactics to outwit him.

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"I don't like the portrayal of women as weak, but Elvira in particular is a passionate, strong person," Holloway says. "She moves from desperation to revenge to one final plea to make him change his ways." Her final showstopping aria, Mi tradi, is an emotional roller coaster. "Her thought process is, 'I'm absolutely justified in thinking that I'm going to kick his ass. But even though he betrayed me, I still love him.' At the end, it's as if the weight is lifted off her chest, as when we forgive somebody. The end of that aria – I'm getting chills just thinking about it."

Nobody is wrestling with the character more than Braun. Not in the least sentimental about Don Giovanni's pursuit of utopia, the baritone answers the question of whether the Don is a good man with a resolute no. "He is blind to the consequences of his actions. Like a zealous prophet, he only ever has his goal in mind." The scene in which he hands over Donna Elvira with sadistic relish to his minion Leporello (Kyle Ketelsen) is the one he finds particularly challenging.

In Lorenzo Da Ponte's libretto, the Don and his manservant switch clothes and Donna Elvira goes with Leporello believing that he is Don Giovanni, but Tcherniakov wisely dispenses with this 18th-century convention and creates a powerful scene in which everybody is fully conscious of what kind of a transaction is taking place. "There is something of the Hannibal Lecter at play there – sending somebody to the emotional slaughter," Braun says. "That scene keeps me awake at night."

Conductor Michael Hofstetter on Mozart's 1787 score for Don Giovanni:

  • The trombones sound when we are about to encounter the supernatural. This is often the case in orchestration, from Monteverdi to Wagner. They’ve become a musical symbol. Don Giovanni hears them too at the end.
  • Each character is given different musical colours. To the basis of strings, a selection of woodwinds is usually added to the arias. You achieve different colours with clarinets and horns than, say, if you mix oboes and bassoons. I find that, musically, Elvira is the most sympathetic character. She gets the most beautiful [musical] colours – and maybe she is a beautiful soul; maybe we’re supposed to like her?
  • For the scene of the masked ball, Mozart dramatized into the score three different bands tuning up and playing at three different beats. Sounds complicated, but it’s all so perfectly written that you just have to follow precisely the score. One of the bands is the pit orchestra, and we’ll have two stage bands, in this case behind the scenes.
  • I find Tcherniakov’s retelling fascinating. Don Giovanni’s intentions are good, in essence. He reminds me of a Handel heroine, Alcina. They both enchant people, and are punished for it.

The COC performs Don Giovanni at Toronto's Four Seasons Centre from Jan. 24 to Feb. 21 (

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