Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Wankfest: The Giacomo Variations

Ingeborga Dapkünaitë and John Malkovitch in The Giacomo Variations (Photo by Nathalie Bauer)

At one point in The Giacomo Variations, a character waves around a rubber and asks for its meaning. This being a work based on the life of Casanova – the Giacomo in the title – the question is perhaps apt because the famous Venetian-born seducer popularized the use of prophylactics when gallivanting through most of the 18th century. But this also being a work in which nuance or subtleties of text are almost entirely missing, and where the actors themselves appear to be sleepwalking through their lines, only the obvious fact that it is a condom, used to prevent the spreading of disease and offspring, is offered.

The rubber in question is empty, batted about like a flaccid balloon. The same, ultimately, can be said of The Giacomo Variations. This turgid work, billed as a chamber opera play, cleared Toronto’s The Elgin Theatre in droves when the Viennese production touched down on the city for a two-night pit stop last week, an indication of how deflating the whole affair had been for many in the audience. Written and directed by Martin Sturminger in collaboration with musical director Martin Haselböck, conductor of the Vienna Academy Orchestra, The Giacomo Variations felt like an over-long and tortuous wank, a useless spilling of creative seed. By intermission, many in the gilt-edge house had fled their seats, shaking their heads as they walked out the door, loudly bemoaning the sheer vanity of it all. Casanova, probably for the first time, was a stud who had become a dud, a colossal waste of everyone’s time.

Anticipation had been strong in advance of the curtain rising last Friday night on a production which stars Oscar-nominated actor John Malkovich in the title role. From having established his 18th century seducer credentials with the 1988 film Dangerous Liaisons, Malkovich appeared to have been perfectly cast as Casanova. But the only true comparison between this recent role and the one that, 25 years ago, first catapulted him to international fame and glory, is that both require the wearing of satin breeches and beribboned periwigs. Malkovich is as terrible as Casanova as he was brilliant playing Valmont. He had previously teamed up with Sturminger and Haselböck for the critically successful The Infernal Comedy: Confessions of a Serial Killer which has garnered rave reviews wherever it has played around the world since originating in 2008 as a work for one actor and two sopranos. But lightening, in this case, hasn’t struck twice.

Malkovitch in Dangerous Liaisons
In The Giacomo Variations, first produced in 2011, Malkovich struggles to find his comfort zone in a problematic play which is badly written and as badly directed. In it, he adopts a phony English accent which makes him sound not unlike a foppish Mick Jagger. He is supposed to be a man in his seventies recounting his life as a polymath with a weakness for women but gives little indication of a body well and truly lived. He stands (ahem!) erect, and uses his hands to make curlicues in the air, as if such trifle embellishments might lend an aura of artistic innovation to lines falling thuddingly from the moue of his mouth. In other instances of his career, Malkovich has shown a genius for being able to combine artificial and naturalistic acting styles to stunning effect. But here his efforts just look phony. In playing Casanova he is largely just playing John Malkovich, but without his heart really in it.

But Malkovich isn’t the only thing Hollywood about this production. The overblown sets by Renate Martin and Andreas Donhauser (they also did the costumes) consist of three enormous and frilly 18th century gowns which serve as tents, opening and closing on various scenes throughout the play’s two-hour-plus running time. They are so big and static, they anchor the play further in pretentiousness.

Such onanistic displays of lace and language can be blamed on Sturminger, an Austrian conductor with a proven track record in interpreting and directing Mozart operas. His Giacomo Variations, while ostensibly about Casanova, is more about his own personal idol, Mozart. He parses the story of Casanova with arias borrowed from such Mozart operas as Don Giovanni, Cosi fan Tutte and The Marriage of Figaro, the idea apparently being to underscore a shared theme of grand seduction. Casanova was Mozart’s contemporary, and enjoyed a friendship with Mozart’s long-time librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte, but the concept of mixing the two personalities together felt stretched, to say the least.

Malkovitch as Casanova
If on paper Sturminger thought his idea of cleaving the two legendary personalities together seemed clever, in actuality, as a cohesive piece of theatre, it doesn’t work. His chamber opera play feels awfully insider, a Mozart tribute written by a Mozart lover for others like him who might find it amusing to hear their hero rammed down the throat of the great lover, Casanova. But those who don’t immediately get the connection feel lost, if not locked out. In Sturminger’s hermetically sealed world, Mozart and Casanova are both fetishized for the pleasure of the writer/director, the needs of the audience be damned.

As Casanova dallies with Elisa, a woman he may or may not have once known in all senses of the word, recounting to her episodes from his 1770 memoirs, arias erupt out of nowhere, sung by actors doubling as singers and vice versa. For the Toronto run, they included baritone Daniel Schmutzhard (alternating with Simon Schnor) and soprano Sophie Klussmann (alternating with Kirsten Blaise). They were the variations in the title, playing Casanova and Elisa respectively while others played them, too. Yes, it is as confusing as it sounds. They acted and sung, and Malkovich did as well. But for the record, he cannot carry a note. Not one. So to have had him even try, and alongside these other accomplished singers of the operatic repertoire, was not just laughable, it was insulting.

Ingeborga Dapkünaitë, the lovely Lithuanian actress who gained world-wide recognition from her part in Nikita Mikhalov’s Oscar winning 1994 film Burnt by the Sun, a role for which she won the best female performance prize from the Moscow Critics’ Association, rounded out the cast. While charming as Casanova’s interrogator, she also appeared ill-suited to the part. Her foreign accent was pronounced, setting her apart from her fellow players. Like Malkovich, she also had a tendency to recite her lines without actually feeling them. There was no depth to her character. Her performance clung stubbornly to the surface prettiness of the baroque-flavoured production, coming across as shiny but hollow. When she chided Casanova for being a tease it was the only time she came close to making a connection with the spectator. But for all the wrong reasons.

Deirdre Kelly is a journalist (The Globe and Mail) and internationally recognized dance critic. Her first book, Paris Times Eight, is a national best-seller. Her new book, Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, has just been published by Greystone Books (D&M Books). Visit Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection and Paris Times Eight on Facebook, and check for more book updates

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