Recent cultural travels have taken me to two separate tellings of the Don Juan story: Molière’s Don Juan dating from 1665 is now playing at Stratford, and Mozart’s Don Giovanni of 1787 capped the Toronto Summer Music Academy & Festival at the University of Toronto. I’m going to assume some familiarity with the story here because my primary interest is to compare the two works and productions.
Without question, Mozart has great tunes and, in opera, the advantage that what may take a line or so in a play can be spun out for an extended solo or ensemble piece. Molière has to talk a lot more, and his big message (which I will come to) takes until Act V to arrive. I’m not sure it’s worth the wait.
Don Juan’s servant (Sganarelle in the play, Leporello in the opera) frets over the Don’s rejection of conventional morality and religion, but far more so in the play. By the time Mozart got his hands on the story, comedy prevails and poor Leporello must make the best of his situation. However, in the Molière, director Lorraine Pintal’s Sganarelle is really running the show. He doubles as Stage Manager and as the head of a group drawn loosely from the Commedia tradition who double as minor characters in the story.
That’s where the play, a joint production of the Stratford Festival and Le Théâtre du Noveau Monde in Montréal, comes unglued. We have a funny, at times hilarious, succession of scenes involving the Commedia, including Charlotte and Pierrot who affect thick Newfy accents, mixed in with more serious scenes of Don Juan continuing to justify his immoral pursuits. Colm Feore looks marvelous as the Don, but Benoît Brière steals the show as Sganarelle.
As the show begins, the Commedia wander onto the stage in warmup mode and, one by one, discover that there is an audience watching. This is a rather tired theatre trick, but it’s rescued by Sganarelle’s arrival — he takes charge, sends them off to prepare, and then addresses us. His exhortations, in Italian, to turn off our cell phones and watch alarms, take no photographs or videos, unwrap candies quietly, cough (ma non troppo), but most importantly not to fall asleep, win everyone to his side and Feore hasn’t got a chance, especially with the wordy text.
There is really nothing to say about the acting in the serious part of the play. In October, I will have a chance to see this in the original French language version, and look forward to hearing something more compelling.
Oh yes, Act V. Eventually, Don Juan claims that he is contrite and that he will take up a religious life, but then tells us about his real intention: to join that brotherhood of religious men who exploit and inflame the masses against their opponents while wrapping themselves in the protection of the Church. It’s easy to see how this did not sit well with 1665 society. (There’s a nice echo here of the way that the Tribunes in Coriolanus rise to power and riches while inciting the foolish mob against their political enemy.)
Two days later, I was at the MacMillan Theatre in Toronto to see Mozart’s Don Giovanni. All of the singers had appeared in recital a few weeks earlier, and I knew in advance that we had a strong cast. Agnes Grossman directed members of the National Youth Orchestra of Canada, supplemented by a few professionals, who did outstanding work in the pit supporting the vocal talents on stage.
The Summer Academy is for young musicians just beginning their professional careers, and almost all were Canadian. The production was not fully staged, but the singers were in costume and simple props plus projections established the scenery. The important part was the music, and in this there were few disappointments. Phillip Addis was excellent as Don Giovanni, with great work from the supporting cast. I was particularly struck by Ileana Montalbetti who sang Donna Anna because in the recital she was a bit stiff. In the Mozart, she soared and got a well-deserved cheer from the audience.
Now we come to the end of the reviews and of the two productions. Any staging of these works has to find a way to deal with the return of the Commendatore, Donna Anna’s father who is killed by Don Juan/Giovanni way back in Act I. His grave is marked by a statue that comes to life and, eventually, drags Don J/G down to hell. For some reason, both productions chose to show the statue as a larger than life projection and, oddly, weakened the character in the process. I was particularly disappointed by the off-stage voice of bass Bence Asztalos whose recital piece had been Hagen’s final aria from Wagner’s Götterdämmerung, a rich highlight of that evening. Having him sing offstage lost the chance of a great presence as the statue.
In the Molière, Don Juan’s nemesis arrives as a sensuous ghost. They dance a quasi-tango, giving Donna Feore yet another chance to show her lacklustre choreography, and the Don’s love for sex seals his fate. Whether it fits for Molière is another matter.
Score: Mozart 1, Sganarelle 1, Molière 0.
Don Juan continues at the Avon Theatre in Stratford to October 10 with performances in French (and most of the current cast) from October 12 through 20.