Entertainment :: Theatre

The Giacomo Variations

by Steve Weinstein
Contributor
Monday Jun 3, 2013
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John Malkovich in ’The Giacomo Variations’
John Malkovich in ’The Giacomo Variations’  (Source:Nathalie Bauer)

It’s hardly surprising that the great operas written by Lorenzo Da Ponte and composed by Wolfgang Mozart have provided inspiration for so many theater spectacles.

The best known has to be the play and Best Picture winner "Amadeus," which uses the operas (along with tidbits from the orchestral works) as the undercurrent that drives Salieri to destroy his far more talented rival. The Met-commissioned opera "Ghosts of Versailles" was largely inspired by Mozart’s opera as well. The list goes on.

The idea of pairing the life of Casanova, whose lifelong pursuit of women has made his name a synonym for "smooth seducer," and the Mozart-Da Ponte operas would seem to be a marriage made in theatrical heaven.

All three men lived roughly at the same time. They were all cosmopolitan and well traveled: Mozart toured Europe’s capitals as a child musical prodigy; Casanova spent his restless life moving from one city to another, and Da Ponte even sojourned for a time in New York, where he founded Columbia University’s music program.

Moreover, the subject matter of the operas makes a perfect musical counterpoint to the subject matter of Casanova’s memoirs. "Cose fan tutti" explores the way men and women deceive each other in all matters amorous. "The Marriage of Figaro" is a sexual farce in which everyone lusts after everyone else while making bitter fun of the way class distinctions play out in the bedroom. As for "Don Giovanni," this masterpiece is the greatest drama ever written in any medium about the conquests and comeuppance of a profoundly amoral sexual libertine.

So why is "The Giacomo Variations" such an incoherent mess?

Start with the structure. Now in his dotage, Casanova feebly tries to bed one more pretty girl; he has a stroke, which leads to reliving previous conquests, seen through the pages of the memoir he is writing. That kind of flash-back, flash-forward narrative is difficult for even the most experienced playwright, let alone an opera director whose previous original theater work seems limited to a similar work also starring Malkovich.

Michael Sturminger, the director who also wrote the script, fails to provide enough context for the audience to follow what is happening, or when. The episodes pour out, one after the other, with no connective flow other than recurring references to the memoirs.

John Malkovich is guaranteed to bring the kind of immediate gravitas to a role that comes from a lifetime well spent in the theater.

A few of the Mozart arias work well here, particularly the famous "Madamina, il catalog รจ questo," which lists Don Giovanni’s hundreds of conquests by nation. Many more seem thrown in just to be heard, or the action feels like it is only there as a build-up to an aria.

In his program notes, Sturminger writes that "Giacomo Variations" "will create a very special kind of entry to Mozart’s fantastic opera scenes, even for people who have no regular interest in classical music."

Sturminger’s exercise in juicing up Mozart’s arias only serves to confirm how much they depend on the internal context of the original operas. No one has ever written livelier operas than Mozart-Da Ponte, but they only work as a seamless whole. When I listen to a CD of opera arias, they sound lovely. But only by seeing the whole opera do I get the full sense of what the composer is trying to convey.

The two men and two women in the cast work hard at assuming several roles, although their accents sometimes made the dialogue difficult to understand. Malkovich is guaranteed to bring the kind of immediate gravitas to a role that comes from a lifetime well spent in the theater. At times he is oddly underutilized, or his character comes across as detached from what’s going on around him.

The set, three giant stylized tents shaped like giant period dresses, was a clever concept, even if the constant need for unseen stage hands to move them around while changing the props could be a little distracting. The costumes are gorgeous recreations of a time when just getting dressed for the moneyed classes required a retinue of servants.

The best thing about this production is the orchestra. The musicians have a real feel for Mozart’s timeless melodies. Two of the violinists even provide a chorus at one point.

But it all adds up to a seemingly random presentation of incidents in Casanova’s erotic career without any why or wherefore. To be sure, this guy’s life was full of dramatic incident, such as his aborted wedding when he discovers that, having seduced the mother of the bride, he’d be marrying his daughter. Casanova has long provided fodder for writers and directors. He’s been the subject himself of an operetta, several novels, films and at least two TV mini-series.

His own life presents a rich enough subject. And Mozart’s operas are rich theater works in their own right. Combining the two has only resulted in a work that doesn’t do justice to either.

"The Giacomo Variations" ran through June 2 as part of the Cherry Orchard Festival at the City Center, 131 W. 55th St. For information on upcoming shows, visit http://www.nycitycenter.org/tickets.

Steve Weinstein has been a regular correspondent for the International Herald Tribune, the Advocate, the Village Voice and Out. He has been covering the AIDS crisis since the early ’80s, when he began his career. He is the author of "The Q Guide to Fire Island" (Alyson, 2007).

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