Against the Grain Theatre opened their new show last night on the worst day of the winter so far. Over 15cm of snow fell and the TTC was in utter chaos. It’s becoming a habit. Last year’s Messiah opened in weather almost as bad. Uncle John is the latest modern, Toronto based, adaptation of the Mozart/da Ponte trilogy. It follows on from last season’s smash hit Figaro’s Wedding and was created and produced with support from the COC and the Banff Centre. It will be followed by A Little Too Cosy next season. The formula is basically the same. It;s ataged in a non traditional spave; in this case a rock concert venue on Queen West. The libretto is in English and differs in detail from da Ponte while respecting the basic spirit of the original. It’s also very Toronto and a little bit Toronto opera scene insiderish. Much of the recitative is replaced by spoken dialogue. There’s no chorus and accompaniment to the singers is provided by piano and string quartet. It’s a musical solution I like. It adds enough weight and colour that one hardly misses the full orchestra while being, of course, much more affordable. It all works really well and if you can you should see it. I’m putting my more detailed thoughts under the cut because they contain lots of spoilers which you may not want to read if you are going.
Director Joel Ivany’s concept places the wedding of Zerlina and Masetto front and centre. Uncle John and Leporello are gate crashing for their own purposes. Elvira is Zerlina’s bestie; a Montréalaise of Lebanese ancestry who has flown in for the occasion. The Commander and Anna own/operate the rather downmarket wedding venue where the action takes place. Ottavio is a parking enforcement officer. So, there’s no sense of a peasant couple getting mixed up in the affairs of aristocrats. Zerlina and Masetto, while hardly Rosedale material, are probably some way up the social scale from Anna and Ottavio and he comes off as even more of a sadsack than usual. This also makes Anna less of an aristocratic maiden whose honour has been outraged and more a girl who has been around a bit. We, the audience are seated at tables looking mainly towards the “high table” though the action takes place all around and among us (rather like AtG’s inaugural La Bohème at the Tranzac).
There’s a very clever symmetry too that resolves one of the central problems of Don Giovanni. In the opening scene the Commander has a heart attack during his fight with Uncle John who snatches away his medication and watches him die. As the action progresses we see John slowly unravelling under the influence of drugs and drink and it’s a hallucination of the Commander’s ghost that finally drives him to a fatal overdose. I see shades of Tcherniakov’s Don Giovanni in the progressive disintegration but whether that’s my imagination you can just for yourself. As with Figaro’s wedding, technology plays a role here. Leporello’s little book is an iPad and the catalogue aria lists out the extent of Uncle John’s connections on various social media sites “and on Tinder, 13k”. There are also photos illustrating his conquests across Canada. Watch out for Miss Saskatoon. The exchange between Leporello and Elvira in act 2 is also played out by text message and attached photos (which, perhaps mercifully) we don’t see. The modernisation also removes much of the more problematic misogyny. “Batti, batti” is probably the toughest thing to deal with in a traditional production. There’s a choice between revolting and a sort of cutesy soft porn BDSM come on. Ivany avoids the issue by making it a straightforward plea for reconciliation.
And so to the performances. Cam McPhail plays the title role. Dapper and self assured to begin with he very convincingly brings off the dissolution of his character. It’s a really good acting performance, especially perhaps in the champagne aria scene, here transmuted to a cocaine aria. He also nails the role vocally. I’ve heard much more famous singers sing it less well and, certainly, be far less convincing. Neil Craighead plays his thoroughly scruffy wingman Leporello. This role sits really well for where Neil’s voice is right now and his chemistry with Cam is terrific. Miriam Khalil is a rather dark and vengeful Elvira, truly Mistress of the Dark. It’s an interpretation that perfectly suits her appearance, her dark beauty and her acting skills. Her version of what we usually think of as Mi tradi was a kind of paean to feminine survival and pretty much brought the house down. Betty Wayne Allison was a straightforward and quite forceful Anna. Maybe the one weakness of this production is that her character isn’t explored as much as it might be but she does well with what she has to work with. Sean Clark doesn’t have the prettiest Mozart tenor voice ever but he created something rather special in an Ottavio who never seems to be taken quite seriously either by his police colleagues or Anna and who seems completely perplexed when she dumps him at the end. All of this was beautifully encapsulated in a very fine Il mio tesoro; one of the highlights of the evening.
Aaron Durand sang solidly as Masetto. As ever, it’s a bit of an ungrateful role and one really does wonder what Zerlina is doing with such a chump. The answer here is that she’s just going down the road any working class Italian girl does in Toronto; marrying her childhood sweetheart from within the approved ethnic group. It’s a subtle portrayal by a singer new to me; New York based Ottawa native Sharleen Joynt. There’s just a moment when she seems prepared to recognise and embrace other possibilities but of course “other” here is the sleazy Uncle John and so she resigns herself to a life of white leather couches; probably in Vaughan. She has a lovely voice too. It’s accurate and full and has a really interesting timbre; not exactly dark, not exactly light; coppery perhaps? She usually sings coloratura roles (she’s covering at the Met) and I would really like to see how the voice sounds when pushed high. Rounding the cast out is veteran bass-baritone John Avey as the Commander. He’s solid and imposing and provides a really good foil to a largely youthful ensemble. The band consisted of music director Miloš Repicky at the piano with the Cecilia String Quartet. As earlier mentioned with such fine playing one scarcely misses an orchestra.
How does one end a Don Giovanni stripped of supernatural elements? One could use the Prague ending but Ivany opts for a meta theatrical subversion of the Vienna version. The final ensemble announces the end of a really long show and thanks us, the audience, for coming. It’s a fitting end to a show in which we have been made to seem complicit.
There are four more performances Dec. 11, 13, 15, 17 and 19, 2014 at 7:30 pm at The Black Box Theatre at The Great Hall, 1087 Queen St. West. Tickets are $40 and available here. It looks like Saturday is already sold out and I would expect the others to sell out soon too so get in there!
Photos, unfortunately, are the best I could do on my iPhone.