Time after time, I seem to land on the opposing point of view when it comes to the latest COC production. I never could wrap my head around the critical apathy towards my favourite show to date- Verdi’s Masked Ball– nor could I see the reported genius of so many pieces I found deathly boring. The Canadian Opera Company’s winter season presents the same old conundrum. The reviled Don Giovanni? I wouldn’t go all the way towards the word love but I certainly enjoyed it immensely. The widely adored Die Walküre? The voices are admittedly fantastic and the orchestra in glorious form under the baton of the masterful Johannes Debus but the staging left me nothing but frustrated.
Designer Michael Levine’s meta-theatrical post-apocalyptic set is visually intriguing but completely non-functional. There are brief moments when the set provides the occasional level (act three has body stairs! Because human life is meaningless) but, for the most part, the singers are confined to small little patches of land between the fallen scaffolds and general rubble, unable to move more than a few feet in either direction and thus left with the age-old infuriating blocking choice of “stand and sing”.
Don Giovanni, in comparison, is loose and energetic, tied musically to tradition but un-caged completely from opera’s most obnoxiously stiff tropes. Here is a superb ensemble of singers (led by a particularly radiant Russell Braun at his mischievous best and the hilarious Kyle Ketelsen as a show-stealing Leporello) whose feats of vocal majesty are delivered while passed out on the floor and jumping up in delight; at one point one of them appeared to be chewing gum(!). The fact that every note still soars unhindered finally puts to bed the myth that the “stand and sing” staging is in any way more faithful to the medium “as it was intended”. The sexually troubling tale repurposed in a modern context with strong character choices and lively staging that engages the performers even when they’re not singing feels suddenly new again, simultaneously more fun and more complicated.
The audience appeared to hate Don Giovanni. Director Dmitri Tcherniakov’s clunky scene transitions add maybe 15 minutes to the already bloated 3+ hour runtime and, by the time curtain call finally arrived, the crowd bolted for the door. Meanwhile, the attitude heading into a 5 hour Wagner appeared to be that of solidarity, a “this will be worth it, we can stick it out together” vibe solidified by the hearty “here we go!” uttered by the man seated behind me and culminating in an endless sequence of bows perpetuated by apparently endless applause. Neither of these reactions made a ton of sense to me, though I’m starting to believe that’s just how it’s going to be between myself and the more standard opera patrons and critics. In my contrarian estimation, Don Giovanni may have intermittently left its audience in the dark but, unlike the dully executed but beautifully sung Die Walküre, at least the spaces between the darkness were full of bold, entertaining flashes of light.