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John Avey, Betty Allison and Sean Clark in AtGs #UncleJohn

Darryl Block Photography

Title
#UncleJohn
Company
Against the Grain Theatre Company
Venue
Black Box Theatre
City
Toronto

We forget how many impediments of convention, inattention and sheer repetitive boredom separate us from the emotional heft of the classics of great art. Overlaid with centuries of accumulated tradition, they often scarcely break through the tough membrane of ultra-familiarity that can be their shroud.

And then – there you are sitting in the grungy basement Black Box Theatre on Queen Street, with 80 other people sitting at 20 tables arranged for a mock wedding reception, and the power of art, of opera, of storytelling and of great music smack you in the face like a bracing wake-up call to the spirit.

You're there to see #UncleJohn, Against the Grain Theatre's adaptation of Mozart's Don Giovanni, an updated version of the operatic masterpiece transplanted to the Toronto of today, where iPads replace written notebooks, text messages substitute for conversations, but the power of the story of the great amoral seducer is presented with an urgency at once universal and as timely as the tweets to #beenrapedneverreported. #UncleJohn is a triumph.

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#UncleJohn uses Mozart's score for Don Giovanni as its foundation, played beautifully by the Cecilia String Quartet and pianist and music director Milos Repicky, so it begins from a position of strength. But director Joel Ivany has written a new modern libretto for the opera that is more than clever – although it is that. Ivany has managed to channel the spirit of Lorenzo da Ponte, Mozart's original librettist, and remake the tensions and contradictions, passions and horrors of the original to work in a modern setting. All of the characters are there – the Don, (renamed Uncle John) his "wingman" Leporello, Elvira, Zerlina and Anna, and their male add-ons, all thoroughly up-to-date, but essential and real and vibrant as characters, something you don't always see in more traditional stagings. And Ivany's own staging for the opera, which has the characters circulate through the tables where we, the guests at Zerlina and Masetto's wedding are sitting, bring the action to life in an intimate, touchable, way.

But the key to the success of this superb production is in the voices of its cast. That's the thing about Against The Grain productions. They break so many of the rules of opera, but follow the most important one – the singing is beautiful, urgent and telling. Neil Craighead is a funny, boisterous Leporello. Sean Clark's tenor soars on more than one occasion as Ottavio. Aaron Durand makes a nice, metrosexual Masetto. John Avey is a truly malevolent Commander. Cameron McPhail's Uncle John is well-sung, but even more beautifully acted. McPhail makes us feel the slimy, seductive, cruel power of Don Giovanni in an especially creepy and powerful way through both his fine voice and exceptional acting.

But it's the women of this cast that stun. Miriam Khalil wheedles, begs, suffers and rages as Elvira, the jilted lover, making her fine soprano express every emotion with exactness and feeling. Sharleen Joynt is a gorgeous Zerlina, with a voice full of power and control that is by turns seductive and serene. And then there's Betty Allison's creamy, effortlessly created Anna, a simple, beautiful joy to hear.

Opera is complex. It's old. It can be elitist. It's used as a class marker by many – turning its intrinsic worth into a token of status. But, as #UncleJohn blissfully reminds us, it can also speak to our hearts and spirits, and move us, perhaps more powerfully than any other aesthetic form. This is a very satisfying evening in art's embrace. The COC is presenting the "real" Don Giovanni in January. They have a very tough act to follow.

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