Dilettante's Diary

Oct 27/08

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The date above is the date on which the page was started. The more recent reviews will appear towards the top of the page.
 
Reviewed here: That Choir Remembers (Concert); Doctor Atomic (Opera) Rachel Getting Married (Movie); What Is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng (Novel); Don Giovanni (Opera)

That Choir Remembers (Choral Concert) conducted by Craig Pike, with special guest Dorothy Ward. Trinity College Chapel, Toronto. Sunday, November 9/08

Sometimes minimal expectations make for big surprises. We headed out to this concert with the understanding that it involved about thirty-five young actors who get together to sing just for the fun of it. The impression was that it was a pretty ragtag bunch – some trained singers, some not. The organizer, as far as we knew, was a young actor without much experience as a conductor, who just wanted to take a fling at it. He’d managed to round up a bunch of friends and acquaintances to rehearse on Sunday nights, the one night of the week when most actors are free.

Not what you’d call a really promising prospect for a great artistic evening. But, given that a close relative was participating, we agreed in the spirit of good sportsmanship to give the group a hearing. We expected some light Broadway stuff, some pop tunes, sung with gusto, perhaps, but not much finesse.

To my astonishment, the concert turned out to be polished, professional and sublime. Perhaps, then, it’s no wonder that conductor Craig Pike turns out to have been studying for a music degree before he switched to acting. He managed to produce a gorgeous blend of voices from his singers. (I was particularly impressed with the very solid support provided by the bass section.) Most notably, almost every word was articulated distinctly. In the post-concert chat, everybody seemed to agree that one of the secrets to the choir’s success is that all the members, if not highly trained singers, know how to put a piece across, "to tell the story" as actors like to say.

Which is not to denigrate the musicianship involved. They tackled – quite creditably – some fiendishly difficult material, almost all of it acapella. For instance, John Tavener’s "Song for Athene". You may remember it as the recessional at Princess Diana’s funeral. The eery piece combines elements from the Greek Orthodox liturgy and famous lines like Shakespeare’s, "May flights of angels sing thee to thy rest." The group soared in another haunting piece that is rapidly becoming a contemporary classic, Eleanor Daley’s "In Remembrance" with its theme "Do not stand at my grave and weep...." As was that piece, several in the program were by Canadian composers.

Some items highlighted individual performers. A lament for explorers lost in the frozen north, "Frobisher Bay" by James Gordon, added a Celtic sound, featuring excellent work by Justin Bott, Nathan Carroll and Kate Kudelka. We particularly loved "Ocean of Sorrows" performed by Amanda Le Blanc, Nora Dorn and Madeleine Donohue, whose voices complemented each other very beautifully. In a more upbeat vein, Michelle Langille, Amy Connolly and Amanda LeBlanc gave a delightful rendition of "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy". Amanda LeBlanc performed "Traveling Soldier" to her own guitar accompaniment and the tenor voice of Evan Smith added a very evocative solo to Bono’s "MLK".

In the evening’s only purely instrumental offering, violinist Kelvin Tang gave a meditative, sustained performance of Arvo Prt’s "Spiegel Im Spiegel", with the able piano accompaniment of J. Scott Burbacher.

Dorothy Ward, a member of the faculty of George Brown Theatre School, a mentor to many of these actors and an Alexander Technique coach for many people (including me), recited "In Flanders Fields" with a plangent tone that was like a lone, quiet voice calling out in the darkness.

Only two slight criticisms of the whole program. At the part where the choir breaks into full voice in the very moving spiritual "My Lord What A Mornin", we lost the sense of the words at virtually the only point in the whole concert. It seemed as though the power of the sound they were making prevented the singers from articulating the words quite clearly. Thrilling as the music was, it would have been nice to catch all the words.

And in their lovely version of "Danny Boy", which the choir repeated by way of an encore, I have to quibble over the last line of each verse eg. "Oh Danny Boy, Oh Danny Boy I love you so" (first verse) and "And I will sleep in peace until you come to me" (second verse). Each time, the conductor had the choir sing the line all in one sweep. Certainly a legitimate choice, musically. But, in terms of the words and the message, I find it much more touching if there’s a slight pause, eg. "And I will sleep in peace – until you come to me!"

Given that we’re now expecting great things from That Choir, we wanted to be able to say that we had attended their first-ever concert. However, some members of the group did perform a concert last May. The best claim that we can make, then, it that we attended the first concert of the first full season. And we certainly hope to be at lots more of them. Such as the Carols concert on December 14.

 

Doctor Atomic (Opera) by John Adams; libretto by Peter Sellars; conducted by Alan Gilbert; production by Penny Woolcock; Starring: Gerald Finley, Sasha Cooke, Richard Paul Fink, Thomas Glenn, Eric Owens, Earle Patriarco, Roger Honeywell, Meredith Arwady. HD Live Transmission, Nov 8/08

As somebody who has seen or heard very little contemporary opera, I found it exciting to witness the staid old Met auditorium, with its red velvet and its dazzling chandeliers, turned over to the presentation of an edgy, contemporary piece, about momentous events close to our own lifetimes. This opera, about J. Robert Oppenheimer, the physicist who directed the Manhattan Project, which developed the atomic bomb, focuses on the days immediately before the first test of the weapon.

As the opera opens, some scientists are expressing misgivings about the politics of the project but Oppenheimer insists that the scientists have no business trying to influence the government’s decisions. Then comes a bedroom scene with Oppenheimer trying to calm his wife’s fears about it all. The rest of the opera depicts the hours just before the test, when a thunderstorm forces a delay, thereby stretching everybody’s already frayed nerves almost to the breaking point. At this point, some aboriginal characters are introduced to give their take on what’s about to happen.

The good news is that I, a classical music buff for the most part, didn’t hate John Adams’ music. In fact, I liked it. The orchestral part, whenever I paid special attention to it, was consistently interesting. The choral singing was lush and very effective in establishing mood.

My big difficulty is with the sung "dialogue" or recitative. I simply don’t get the way contemporary composers use the English language. For me, things started to go wrong with Benjamin Britten. It appears to me that he launched a trend in which the rhythms do not seem suited either to the language as spoken or to any particular musical or emotional theme. The sentences, to my ear, are pushed and pulled merely for the purpose of having different words on different pitches, with no regard for melody or feeling. For my money, the actors might better speak the words against the musical background.

In the case of this opera, the problem is compounded by the material chosen for the libretto. Some of it is banal in the extreme. I’m not sure that even Giuseppe Verdi could have done much with lines as flat as "I want a weather prediction and I want it now" or "The president will never see that petition." (Not exact quotes, but close.) We’re told that much of the libretto, put together by Peter Sellars is taken from actual documents recording the very words that were spoken by the protagonists. I’m not sure, though, that literal authenticity is any guarantee of dramatic suitability. Other parts of the libretto are poems that Oppenheimer was known to have liked. These excerpts certainly lift the proceedings to a higher plane. Even so, standing around and poeticizing isn’t necessarily any more theatrically effective.

But it certainly is in one astounding scene. At the end of the first act, Gerald Finley, in the role of Oppenheimer, sings a stunning aria on the words of John Donne’s "Batter my heart, three person’d God." It’s a brilliant show-stopper. Mr. Finley possesses, as readers of Dilettante’s Diary know, one of the great treasures of the world’s store of baritone instruments. In this aria, it comes through in all its burnished glory. I can’t think of any other male voice that’s so perfectly and seamlessly produced from top to bottom. It seems to have a backbone of steel keeping it in place and securing that ringing tone in every phrase.

Given the tremendous demands of this aria, it’s no wonder that Mr. Finley was drenched in sweat by the end of it. He throws himself into it with gut-wrenching sincerity. It would seem churlish, then, to fault his acting in any way. However, it must be said that the complexities of this role offer an opportunity for some very subtle acting. We don’t get it here. For the most part, I found Mr. Finley’s characterization external, resorting to a lot of posturing and grimacing. Is it unfair to criticize an opera singer’s acting as too broad, given that he’s playing to thousands of people in the house? Perhaps. But I have seen opera singers who inhabited their characters in more realistic ways.

Among other singers, I particularly liked the tenors Thomas Glenn as the conscientious young scientist Robert Wilson and Earle Patriarco as the put-upon forecaster who has to try to come up with the right weather for the test. Richard Paul Fink’s characterization of Edward Teller, the scientist with an expansive, rather jokey manner, grew on me. As Kitty Oppenheimer, Sasha Cooke was as lovely in appearance as in voice, but I didn’t always feel she was on top of the tricky vocal demands of the role.

Is the piece a success, then, from my point of view? Yes, in that it certainly conveys the enormity of what happened to the human race with the arrival of the atom bomb. From the outset, the music keeps hammering home the ominous implications. The design helps to emphasize the threat. A large construction looming upstage consists of three layers of little cubbyholes in which individual chorus members appear to be trapped, sometimes in distorted positions. The device speaks of isolation, inhumanity and degredation.

In terms of this message, the ending, in its quiet way, is the most effective part of the whole package. After the bright white flash of the test explosion, the assembled cast in their dark glasses freeze, while we see on a scrim the words translated into English which are being spoken quietly by a Japanese woman in the background, simple phrases like, "Can you give me some water?....my children are crying....I can’t find my husband."

As a piece with a message, then, the opera totally succeeds. But it doesn’t fully satisfy in terms of a drama where you get to know characters and follow their development. Apart from Oppenheimer's shift from cocky assurance to a more doubting stance, everybody else pretty much stays the same throughout. In the end, not much has been resolved through the inter-action of the characters. Granted, composer Adams builds the suspense leading up to the moment of the actual detonation with incredible orchestral inventiveness. He certainly has you on the edge of your seat by that point. For most of the second act, though, the major conflict has consisted of harrassing the poor meteorologist about his weather predictions. As drama, I think opera works better where you have characters tussling over issues like whether or not a wife has been unfaithful, whether or not two lovers can marry against their families’ wishes or whether a dad can save his daughter from the clutches of a lecherous nobleman. Call me old hat, but I find those conflicts more gripping than beefs about the weather.

 

Rachel Getting Married (Movie) written by Jenny Lumet; directed by Jonathan Demme; starring Anne Hathaway, Rosemarie DeWitt, Bill Irwin, Tunde Adebimpe, Mather Zickel, Anisa George, Debra Winger, Anna Deavere Smith

If you’re looking for a setup that offers lots of opportunity for angst and soul-searching, you could hardly do better than this: a young woman arrives home for her sister’s wedding, having just been released from a rehab facility where she’s in treatment for multiple addictions. Everybody’s nervous about the black sheep’s presence, hoping she won’t go off the rails. Her edgy, in-your-face manner doesn’t make things easy. This girl can hardly open her mouth without picking a fight. Old resentments get dragged out of the cupboard. A family tragedy from years past gets an airing, with issues of guilt and responsibility like land mines ready to explode. All the talk, the recrimination and the circling around feel like a concoction of Albee, Strindberg, Bergman and Altman.

Ann Hathaway does great work as Kym, the skittish addict. You can see her trying to behave herself, yet constantly battling irritability, the feeling of being at odds with everything and everybody. Ms. Hathaway’s transformation from Hollywood pretty face to haunted drug addict may not be as extreme as Charlize Theron’s in Monster, but it’s remarkable all the same. At the wedding party, she dances with the relentless fury of somebody chopping wood; you get the message that she’s as determined to have a good time as she is desolate. Her vulnerability comes through in her remark that it’s not easy having everybody watching her. A brief glimpse of her as she passes up a proffered drink says everything about her feeling of isolation.

Which is not to say that the difficulties the situation presents for other family members don’t get a fair hearing. Rosemaire DeWitt, as Rachel, the bride, has some very affecting moments. You can understand her point of view when she says that, for many years, the family’s life revolved around Kym’s illness. The only way to get their dad’s attention, Rachel says, was to mention something about Kym. As the perplexed dad, caught between his duelling daughters and trying to show his love for both of them, Bill Irwin gives us a complex portrait of a decent, loving man in dire straits.

In spite of all the good work, the over-the-top emoting becomes pretty hard to take. The sisters get into a somewhat unbelievable snit about who’s going to be maid of honour. An antipathy between Kym and one of the bridesmaids (Anisa George) is exaggerated to fairy-tale proportions. Then there’s Kym’s mawkish apology to her sister, by way of a public speech at a pre-nuptial party. You’d think everybody would gladly try to forget about the embarrassing incident afterwards. But no, when they get home, Rachel rips into Kym about Kym’s stealing the limelight from her as bride. During an encounter about the infamous family tragedy, Kym and her mother (Debra Winger) get into a slinging match, one of them ending up with a cut lip. I suppose Jonathan Demme feels these incidents give the actors a tremendous opportunity to strut their stuff. My problem is that when people on screen start to behave in ways that don’t seem to have much to do with the way people in real life behave, credibility problems arise.

A scene in a beauty parlour struck me as particularly awkward. While the women in the bridal party are being primped for the wedding, a former patient from one of Kym’s rehab programs, apparently an employee of the parlour, recognizes her. He kneels at her chair and delivers a long speech, the gist of which sends Rachel storming out to her car with wet hair. It wasn’t just that I’d had too much scenery chewing by now; the staging of the revelation that angered Rachel seemed contrived and phony to me.

Ultimately, though, it’s not the family conflict that provides the most interest in the movie. It’s the context: the gatherings of people from very different walks of life. This is where the movie is at its most Altman-esque. What we get is almost a sociological study of how people act in groups. Kym’s twelve-step meetings, for instance. The movie trots out all the predictable speeches which, while they may be clichs, are so real that they make you cringe. Most directors would show just enough to give you the feeling of the event. But here the camera runs on and on – not to the purpose of creating comedy or satire, exactly. It’s more like documentary. In keeping with which, the hand-held camera is essential.

As for the actual wedding and the celebrations leading up to it, the camera’s like an obsessive note-taker, scurrying around and observing everything. The desire to record it all is so frantic that the camera angle often changes in mid-speech, as if to try to account for every point of view. We end up with probably one of the most complete, true-to-life weddings on film. There are the corny jokes, the extravagant sentimentality, the professions of love for in-laws you’ve just met. Speeches take far too long. The groom (Tunde Adebimpe) sings an interminable, drippy song to his bride. People smile and try to look appreciative. We’ve all been there: having to make nice about goofy things at weddings.

And what a strange wedding this is. The groom is black, he lives in Hawaii, but there’s some reference to his family’s coming from the Caribbean. That makes for some interesting cross-cultural currents, given that the bride’s family are white, establishment Americans. As if for no other purpose than to mix things up a bit more, the style of the wedding is Indian: sari’s on the women, a wreath of orange flowers on the groom. The music for the dancing is nothing if not eclectic. Even a Samba group makes a rumbustious entrance from the garden. Here too, the camera lingers over the revelry much longer than you’d expect. Maybe some of it’s improvised: the laughter and the hilarity seem surprisingly genuine. The merry hodgepodge, without much rhyme or reason to the shape of the thing, seems to express an attitude to life: it’s a bit of a mess, but let’s make the best of it!

Rating: B minus (Where B = "Better than most")

 

What Is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng (Novel) by Dave Eggers, 2006

Dave Eggers’ second book You Shall Know Our Velocity! didn’t make a very favourable impression on me. As I recall, it was a novel about two young men who took up the challenge of spending a certain amount of money by travelling around with world within a certain amount of time. Apart from the fact that I don’t much like "road" books (or movies), this one struck me as a sophomoric take on two guys less funny and charming than they were meant to be.

It would, however, take more than one unsatisfying book to make me give up on Mr. Eggers, given that his first book was so wonderful. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius told the story of Mr. Eggers’ attempt, as a young man, to raise his little brother after their parents had suddenly died within a few months of each other. Some of the hilarious and poignant encounters between the two brothers remain as fresh in my mind as when I first read them, about eight years ago.

In this more recent book, Mr. Eggers has taken on the daunting task of telling the story of one of the "Lost Boys" of Africa. The book is written in the form of a novel purporting to be the autobiography of the subject. As far as I know, there is no literary precedent for this form. We get lots of ghosted autobiographies, of course, but none of them is billed as a novel, written by someone other than the subject, but purporting to be the autobiography of the subject, who is an actual living person. 

In this case, the subject is Valentino Achak Deng, a member of the Dinka people of southern Sudan. (Deng is his family name, Achak the name given him by his parents and Valentino the name given him by the priest who baptized him, so I’ll refer to him as Achak here.) When just seven years old, Achak fled his village of Marial Bai, which was under attack by Arab militia warriors in the 1980s. Joining a group of boys that gradually swelled to hundreds, he walked to a refugee camp in Ethiopia. When, after three years, a change of government there forced out the refugees, he walked on to a camp in Kenya, spending almost ten years there before being flown to a new life in the US.

First a word about the peculiar title. It stems from a Dinka story about the creation of the world. According to the story, God created the Dinka and gave them cattle. The deal was that they could keep the cattle or they could exchange the cattle for "What". Some versions hold that the Arabs got the "What", a decidedly inferior deal, which as the story goes, makes them hostile to the Dinka. But nobody knows for sure what that "What" might be. So the question arises now and then as to whether some particular discovery might be the "What" passed up so long ago. The quest for it, burbling along just under the surface of the narrative most of the time, makes for an effective connecting theme.

Another of the themes that come through most strongly in the book – apart from Achak’s great courage in his struggle for survival – is the tendency of humans to wreck things for each other. When the bedraggled boys are marching, famished and sick, from one village to another, you’d think they’d meet with compassion. Sometimes they do, but they also encounter villages where they’re chased away, refused any nourishment, because the villagers don’t want these "beggars". Even in the relative safety of the US, Achak finds that quarreling among the Sudanese refugees often scuttles attempts to help them. That was the fate of a project aimed specifically at supporting these men from Sudan and organized by the adopted daughter of Jane Fonda. Along with Ted Turner, Ms Fonda provided much of the funding. But the organizer, besieged with complaints from jealous Sudanese about the way she doled out the charity, had to abandon the effort. Clearly, Achak thinks she was unfairly criticized but he does admit that his viewpoint may be affected by the fact that he was one of the major beneficiaries of her generosity.

All of which might make you think that the book is one long stretch of misery. But lots of instances of humane behaviour and kindness lighten the gloom. For me, it was a revelation to learn that some of the most significant help in the refugee camp came from Japanese organizations. An almost idyllic section tells of Achak’s prepubescent flirtation with some girls in the camp. Later, as a teenager, he joins a sports team so that he and his girlfriend will have an excuse to hug in moments when victories are celebrated; that’s the only way they’re permitted to come into contact with each other’s bodies. Several humorous touches spring from an unsophisticated view of the world. In Marial Bai, villagers engage in a vigorous debate about whether or not the plastic wrapping on the handlebars of a new bicycle should be removed. When Achak’s pals see their first white man, a visitor to the refugee camp, they assume that he must be a messenger from heaven because, as everybody knows, Jesus and God are white men. As refugees in the US, Achak and his peers need to have the difference between a fridge and freezer explained to them. Some of the men purchase a box of tampons and, even when its purpose is explained, insist on displaying the box on their coffee table simply because they like the look of it.

As for Mr. Eggers’ handling of this material, the first thing that struck me was that he had perhaps chosen too flat and uninflected a voice for his subject. The sentences, for a while, seemed dull and plodding. But I soon realized that this was a wise choice. So much happens to poor Achak that the reader would be exhausted if it were all recounted in a breathless, excited way. The steady, measured pace sustains well for some 475 pages of harrowing adventures and nightmarish dangers.

The next thing to admire is the very skilfull way Mr. Eggers has constructed the work. Starting in Atlanta, where Achak is living in the present, the book gives us a home invasion that leaves him tied up on the floor of his apartment for about twenty-four hours. From that reference point, the book shuttles among three main time periods: what was happening to Achak as a boy in Africa, his early days as a young man in America, and his current situation. This shuffling of the chronology works very well, creating suspense and curiosity as we switch from one setting to another. Another device sets long narrative passages as apostrophes to people Achak encounters – such as the burglars who tied him up, or the people he greets at the health club where he works. The recurring name of the person Achak’s speaking to – in his imagination – reminds us that he’s describing a life very different from his listener's. Only occasionally does the device seem a bit contrived.

Whether or not Mr. Eggers is an accomplished novelist, I don’t know (I haven’t read his third book) but he shows many of the novelist’s gifts here. While most of the boys on the long trek remain anonymous – as they probably were to the subject – some of them come through as notable characters. The boy, for instance, who can’t stop lying as he elaborates his supposed knowledge of the splendours awaiting in the refugee camps. In the case of this kid and others, a child’s point of view is created very convincingly. The fleeing boys have no concept of a world beyond their borders. When a teenage leader, in the process of trying to explain the political situation, mentions the president of Sudan, one of the boys cannot accept that there could be any leader higher than his local chief.

We also get a fully-rounded, interesting character in Achak as a young man. Working at various odd jobs in Atlanta, he recognizes his good fortune in comparison to the lot of his compatriots left behind in the refugee camp. Yet, he can’t help feeling frustrated that success seems so long coming to him, after five years in the US. He had thought he would be a college graduate by now, but his college applications constantly run into snags. A deeply committed Catholic, he’s still capable, when these troubles threaten to overwhelm him, of serious doubts about the goodness of God.

And that leads to the aspect of the book that bothered me. The calamities that befall our poor subject almost stretch credulity. His trek across Africa was bad enough, what with lack of food, dodging bombs and gunfire, and companions dying like flies along the way. And life in the refugee camps was no picnic, most of the time. But it seems hardly believable that so many additional tragedies would occur to one person. Even when the horrors of the childhood journey are behind him, loved ones die unexpectedly and violently (murder in one case). When he’s working as a paid employee in the refugee camp, he’s almost killed in a horrendous accident that kills his co-worker and buddy. The accident leaves Achak with tremendous pain and headaches that never go away. When the day of his flight to America finally arrives, his plane is kept waiting on the tarmac for hours, then the passengers debark and wait several more weeks. Guess why? The day of their scheduled departure was the infamous 9/11 and planes were grounded all around the world.

Then there’s the home invasion in Atlanta, that left Achak with injuries to his face and head. Seeking treatment, he’s kept waiting all night in a hospital emergency department that seems not at all busy. Are we to assume that Mr. Eggers is telling us that this is more likely to happen to Achak than to anyone else or are we to take it simply as something that did actually happen? And what about the friend who’s always importuning Achak for loans to cover losses because of a gambling addiction? Is that typical or is it just another problem Mr. Eggers has given Achak to make his situation all the more depressing? Same question for all his driving accidents: is it plausible that one man could have so many?

In an introduction to the book, Achak says, "I told my story orally to the author. He then concocted this novel, approximating my own voice and using the basic events of my life as the foundation. Because many of the passages are fictional, the result is called a novel." He later says, "And though it is fictionalized, it should be noted that the world I have known is not so different from the one depicted in these pages. We live in a world in which even the most horrific events in this book could occur, and in most cases did occur." But which ones didn't and which ones did? And to whom? To Valentino Achak Deng?

The trouble is, Mr. Eggers has built up a very sympathetic character here. When Achak has opportunities to flee to freedom from the refugee camp, he refuses because his escape would make life harder for other refugees. While living on very lowly wages in the US, he sends money constantly to people in greater need than he. You end up really admiring the guy. But is this the real Achak? Call me too literal, but I want to know how much of it is made up and how much isn’t. If this were presented as a novel that had very little to do with a real man, I would be ok with that. What I have trouble with is this uneasy mixture of truth and fiction. Granted, the book does enlighten me on the complex and sorrowful history of Sudan and I’m grateful for that. But I wish the author and his subject hadn’t left me confused about whether or not the noble man who emerges from it all is real.

 

Don Giovanni (Opera) by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras; directed by Francesca Zambello; designed by Maria Bjornson; starring Simon Keenleyside, Kyle Ketelsen, Marina Poplavskaya, Joyce Di Donato, Ramn Vargas, Miah Persson, Robert Gleadow, Eric Halfvarson; Royal Opera Orchestra and Chorus – Opus Arte HD Presentation in Movie Theatres, October 25/08

When somebody pulls together the formidable talent required to put on a creditable production of such a great work, you should really just congratulate them and skip the fault-finding. However, I think it’s permissible to note what parts of the show work well for you and what ones don’t. At any rate, readers of Dilettante’s Diary expect some such commentary.

No problems with the music in this performance. The singing was perfect throughout. But the show didn’t really start working for me, except sporadically, until near the end. That may have had something to do with the concept, by which I mean both the design and the direction.

The root of the difficulty may have to do with the work itself. What exactly were Mozart and his librettist, Lorenzo Da Ponte intending? They billed the piece as a Dramma giocoso, so you’d think it might be a comedy. And it does contain a lot of goofing around. Then what about the rape (attempted or accomplished? – we’re not sure) and murder at the outset, not to mention the Don’s malicious conniving throughout? Well, I guess you have to go one way or the other: either play up the shenanigans or emphasize the dark side. This production takes the latter approach. It’s a show almost utterly without charm, although a smidgen of humour squeaks through now and then. Sitting through the dreary opening, you can’t help feeling a little distanced from it all.

A further challenge facing the creative team for any production of this opera is what seems to me its somewhat unwieldy structure. That rape and murder occur in the first few minutes when you don’t know the characters and barely have time to take in what’s happening. For the next while, people run on, do their bit, then run off. In this respect, then, it doesn’t seem to me that it’s as well constructed a piece of theatre as, say, Mozart’s other supreme achievement, The Marriage of Figaro.

The style of this production emphasized that jerky quality of Don Giovanni rather than transcending it. In the first few scenes, the actors seemed to be fumbling around at the front of the stage; it was almost as if they were under-rehearsed or something had gone wrong "on the night". (Or maybe it was just a question of camera angles?) It didn’t help that they were in front of a strange construction that constituted the set piece of the minimal decor: a tall, convex structure, covered with a grid or lattice, which appeared to be meant as an all-purpose wall of a town, of a villa, or whatever. Its looming, unattractive presence had an intimidating effect. Maybe that modernistic, minimalist approach to the set could have worked eventually – except that it clashed with the traditional costumes: thickly padded layers of velvet and lace making every body look somewhat maximalist rather than minimalist.

Some of the specific stage directions struck me as not very successful. The first oddity in this respect was the ending of the murder scene, with the Don subsiding on the ground beside the murdered Commendatore, snuggled up as though victim were cuddling perpetrator. It certainly was a notable moment but what purpose it served, I have no idea. During Donna Elvira’s big aria following her first entrance, a peasant woman was kneeling upstage, praying to a statue of the Blessed Virgin – a tidbit that was pointlessly distracting, in my view. Nor did I think it helped matters any to see Donna Anna illuminated in an alcove high in the wall while Don Ottavio was singing "Dalla sua pace". Poor Donna Elvira had been saddled by the director with a rifle slung over her shoulder. Admittedly, this fit with her vengeful intent, but the damn thing was clearly awkward to move with, which tended to make her look like a somewhat inept Annie Oakley. All we got to see of the statue of the Commendatore in the second act was a fragment of abstract sculpture that appeared to be a skeletal foot or arm. And why was it made of metal when the script clearly indicates that the statue is stone?

On the other hand, I very much liked some other a directorial touches. When Donna Anna was pointing a pistol at the Don, he reached out drew it closer to himself, as though inviting her to shoot him point blank in the forehead, but the gesture turned out to be a ploy to get her into his arms so that he could smother her with kisses. In the scene where the Don and Leporello are preparing for the banquet, we see them very much as two bachelors at home preparing for a big night. This means that the Don performs naked except for a pair of knee-length bloomers. I thought that helped to drive home the Don’s sensuality. Fortunately, Simon Keenlyside had the physique to pull it off. When the peasants were invited into the Don’s palace for the party, there was nothing artsy or balletic about their dancing. They truly looked like a bunch of clodhoppers making the most of their chance to whoop it up. One of the strangest touches was the stage band. Standing upstage in a semi-circle, the musicians were dimly lit, so they weren’t very noticeable, but one eventually realized that they were women wearing tricorn hats and long skirts, standing as still as statues while playing. What that all meant, I have no idea, but it had an eery effect. A genuine coup de theatre that almost made you gasp happened when Donna Elvira arrived in wedding gown, determined to make the Don her own. In his tussle with her, he had her down on the ground at one point and callously dumped wine on her white dress.

Sometimes, I thought the director had given too much action to the singing of some of the celebrated arias. Don Ottavio’s "Il mio tesoro" for instance. He was required to walk back and forth from one woman to another, enacting all kinds of business that, I thought, distracted from the beauty of the song. That is such a show-stopping number that the tenor should be allowed to just stand there and sing it. Ramn Vargas sang it flawlessly but I’ve heard more exciting versions. Possibly, all the movement prevented him from giving it as much spin as he might have.

On the other hand, I liked very much the staging of Donna Elvira’s "Mi trad quell’alma ingrata". She started off addressing herself to the Don’s plumed hat, which had been left on the floor. As she picked it up to cradle it in her arms, Donna Anna and Zerlina moved in on either side of her and gently pried the hat away. That struck me as a lovely, very contemporary moment. You could imagine the "sisters" saying: "Listen girl, this guy is no good for you." Then Donna Elvira pulled out a dagger and began toying with it, until the companions took that way too. You could see now that this woman was on the point of madness. Earlier, I had been irritated by Joyce DiDonato’s over-acting as Elvira, a role in which she was making her debut. I was wishing the director had been able to stop her from waving her arms around and gesturing with her whole body at times. In this aria, though, she turned in a very credible piece of acting, gradually revealing to us the fascinating range of a lovesick woman’s emotions.

Emotion was held very much in check in Simon Keenleyside’s Don. With a strong, sculpted face and thin lips, he made for a severe Don. His eyes had almost a dead, snake-like look. This, I think, suited perfectly the dark mood of the production. He truly looked like some sex addict driven to pursue his craving long after any genuine pleasure or joy had gone out of the game. His "Deh, vieni alla finestra" was remarkable for being sung very quietly. There was almost no attempt to make it seductive in the rich, velvety way that most baritones would resort to. You could feel that this Don was making his pitch skillfully and expertly, but it was routine and the outcome didn’t matter much to him. In a less-is-more sort of way, the aria was all the more effective for his holding back.

As his put-upon servant Leporello, Kyle Ketelsen also had a somewhat sombre mein. This was no loveable, cuddly Leporello, bemusedly tolerating his master’s antics. When this Leporello said that he no longer wanted to be a servant you could sense an uprising of the masses in the offing. Mr. Ketelsen did manage, however, to produce one of the show’s few funny moments when, forced to wear the Don’s clothes, he pretended to woo Donna Elvira, who was on the balcony above, while the Don did the singing. Facing the audience while making the required amatory gestures, Mr. Ketelson managed to show in his face both his fury and his digust with the proceedings.

The scene that made the highlight of the show for me, though, was one that presents problems in any production nowadays. It’s sort of like the Merchant of Venice dilemma where the writer seems to be presenting, without criticism, attitudes that are very hard for us to accept. In this case, it’s Zerlina’s aria inviting Masetto, her fianc, to beat her up when he discovers that she has been welcoming the Don’s advances. You have to wonder why Mozart has provided Zerlina with delightful, sweet music for a message that makes you want to crawl under the seat. What happened in this production, though, astonished me.

To appreciate the effect, you have to understand the kind of Masetto we were dealing with here. From his first moments on stage, it struck me that Mr. Gleadow was the most gifted actor on view. Instead of pulling items out of the old bag of opera acting tricks, he gives genuine, startlingly real humanity in every moment. This was no cute, cartoonish country bumpkin. No, Robert Gleadow’s Masetto is a very familiar young man of today, not exactly a lout, but not one of your most gifted or sensitive individuals. With his strong jaw, his considerable height and his hood of thick hair, he has a somewhat mulish air. Decent and honest, maybe, but not a sophisticate – maybe the carryout guy at your local Loblaws.

When Zerlina (Miah Persson) began the aria, this guy was standing right in front of her, with his back to us. You could imagine the fury seething in him, ready to pounce. After a few lines of music, though, he suddenly turned, broke away and stood some distance from her, facing us. What we saw happen was the whole history of society’s attitude to the issue of violence against women. He stood there glowering and clenched; you could see what he wanted to do. But you could also see the gradual realization dawning on him that he just couldn’t do it. And then, his slow letting go of the anger. By the time the aria was coming to an end and Zerlina was tickling him, the infectious grin that had broken out on his face told you that he felt it was better, after all, to make love, not war. Truly a remarkable and unforgettable piece of acting. And to Ms. Persson’s credit, I think it’s possible, in retrospect, to see that she was merely testing him, while feeling pretty sure that her beautiful music was going to win him over. So Mozart knew what he was doing after all.

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Unlike the Royal Opera movie presentation of The Marriage of Figaro (see Dilettente’s Diary, July 21/08), this one included Intermission features. But when it comes to this aspect of the program package, the Brits have a lot to learn from New York’s Metropolitan Opera. A pleasant young woman took us on a backstage tour of the Royal Opera but it was much too rushed. Not enough time was spent in any one department, with the result that we didn’t get anything much of interest, other than a few statistics that were thrown at us (3,000 wigs made in one season). An interview with Conductor Sir Charles Mackerras did include some insights on his approach to Mozart’s music, particularly some examples of how the music establishes the characters. A much longer segment devoted entirely to this kind of material would have been very rewarding. Unfortunately, an interview with director Francesca Zambello failed to provide any explanation of what her concept of the production was trying to achieve. But the worst aspect of the intermission package, as compared to the Met’s format, was that this one didn’t leave any time for a washroom break. The poor viewer was forced to make the difficult choice between the calls of nature and of culture.

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com