Against the Grain’s adapted Don Giovanni takes place in a wedding hall that’s seen better days. The party planning company is owned by il Commendatore, and his daughter Anna is on staff. Zerlina and Masetto are the couple to be wedded, Elvira is Zerlina’s friend who gets invited to the wedding. Ottavio, Anna’s fiancé, is a low-ranked policeman, though in an earlier version of Uncle John he was, more plausibly, a security guard at the venue. John and Leporello are besties. What brings them to this particular hall, other than a shared interest in breaking up other people’s monogamy contracts is anyone’s guess. Once Elvira shows up and John sets his eyes on Zerlina, they are reluctant to leave.
It can’t have been an easy task for Joel Ivany to adapt the Don Giovanni libretto in the course of the year that saw an unprecedented public debate on sexual consent and rape in Canada, but he did an honourable job. While navigating the countless pitfalls this work contains, he sometimes erred on the side of safety, but probably wisely. (How on earth do you transladapt Zerlina’s “Batti, batti”? Obviously not as “Punish me, slap me”, and probably not as “Discipline me, tame me”, so Ivany’s complete cleanup of the aria was, I’d wager, a wise decision.)
I don’t belong to the school of thought arguing that DG is a rapist: there would be no opera to unfold if this were the case. Donna Anna would not be obsessing about a rapist and would not be endlessly postponing her marriage; and although DG’s no stranger to using and abusing his aristocratic power differential, Zerlina and Elvira would not have been seduced by sexual blackmail or threats. The work would not be a dramma giocoso but a dramma thriller-ico in which the three women do their best to avoid a violent predator and to go on with their lives. I wonder if anybody ever tried doing a production with DG as a naked brute? I don’t think the staging would work, but I’m open to being surprised.
All this to say that Ivany avoided the pitfall in that other direction too: tranlsadapting DG into a very (to us, today) recognizable type, a high-powered sexual criminal who goes on unpunished thanks to the enabling infrastructure around him.
No: Ivany’s and Cameron McPhail’s DG is a charmer. A sleazeball, an ADD, a junkie-in-the-making, violent to other men, but a charmer to the laydeez. Ivany didn’t give him any special qualities that our age worships (celebrity, athletic prowess, wealth) so it’s all down to his personal seduction skills and muti-tasking. We never really find out what is it that he does in life; we do find out his number of LinkedIn endorsements, so he does have a career in some field it seems. A smart political point could have been scored by giving him some prestigious career in the background (Tech? Hedge funds? Hollywood? Media mogul-dom?). Without any of those crutches, McPhail’s job of convincing us of DG’s irresistible prestige is more difficult, but he carries it off, and plays the fairly young Uncle John with a certain wide-eyed “the world is here for my pleasure” boyishness. DG’s two solo aria come to us intriguingly devoid of any concern for women: the mandolin-accompanied “Deh, vieni alla finestra” is here turned into DG’s melancholy paean to his drugs and mood enhancers, and his later call to the party “Finch’han dal vino” is delivered as the effect of taking a line of cocaine, the aria’s jittery beat gaining a new meaning.
Neil Craighead is perfectly convincing as Leporello, a dishevelled wingman who tries to keep track of John’s social entanglements chiefly out of loyalty, and much less so out of desire to get in on the action. “Madamina, il catalogo e questo”, probably the most successfully adapted aria of all in the production, starts as he opens an iPad for Elvira and begins reciting the number of followers and connections John has forged over various social networks. (“Ma in Ispagna son gia mille tre” becomes “But on Tinder, there are 14K.”) The tricky part of the opera in which Elvira goes to bed with Leporello thinking it’s Don Giovanni is here cleverly handled as an episode of sexting, Leporello texting on behalf of his friend.
Some of the loose ends of that episode remain untied and that is probably the weakest spot of the adaptation. Ivany dispenses with the change of the clothes sub-plot, and rightly so; I can’t see it working in modern adaptations. Leporello here does not dress as DG, and does not seduce Elvira, but later still gets caught by the group of the aggrieved principals and has to endure their anger caused by (supposedly) Don Giovanni. It’s a well-directed and well-sung scene that however does not make a whole lot of sense. I guess you could argue that all of them are now flat out angry at both men, at Leporello mainly because he’s enabling? Still, some questions linger on.
While I’m at the weak spots, let me smuggle in this one so I don’t end on that note: the quartet in charge of the music, the Cecilia String Quartet, was consistently underwhelming. They sounded disjointed and uninterested. Here’s hoping that the conductor at the piano, Milos Repicky, gets them inspired, unified and crisp in time for the remaining performances. A lively quintet of instruments can make you forget that you’re listening to a radically reduced score.
Back to the positives, my favourite voice of the night—amid some tough competition—was the big, bright and beautiful sound of Betty Allison. She opens the opera, effectively, and her voice is there full-on from the very first bar. Anna in this production is anything but glamourous—very working class, too sentimental and naive for her (not tender) age, and having to sport a uniform in colours of dish water for the whole of 2.5 hours. None of that manage to distract from Allison’s remarkable voice.
I’ll have to rush through a few other mentions as this is getting too long: the award for superb acting goes to Miriam Khalil (her Elvira is somebody who suffers profoundly, and makes us suffer with her) and Aaron Durand (who hilariously delivers to us, ladies and gents, and I think for the first time on any stage, Masetto as a jealous hipster). John Avey is also very good, vocally and dramatically, as the Commander who comes without the usual pseudo-Gothic accoutrements (pardon the green lights at the end). He scares the heck out of all with his rage even while donning the uniform of his catering company.
Uncle John continues Dec 13, 15, 17 and 19. This online promo video will give you a further idea of its tenor.
Photos are by Darryl Block. Top photo: Cameron McPhail (Uncle John) and Sharleen Joynt (Zerlina) with Aaron Durand (Masetto) under the table. Middle photo: Sean Clark (Ottavio), Miriam Khalil (Elvira), Betty Allison (Anna), Neil Craighead (Leporello), Aaron Durand (Masetto) and Sharleen Joynt (Zerlina).