Review: The Giacomo Variations

(c) Natalie Bauer for The Giacomo Variations
(c) Natalie Bauer for The Giacomo Variations

I was really looking forward to this event, in Toronto for four performances this weekend. It is subtitled “a chamber opera play” and stars John Malkovich and a small cast of european singers/actors. The music is Mozart, a selection of arias and other songs pulled from his opera repertoire, and the singers are accompanied by the Orchester Vienna Akademie, directed by Martin Haselböck.

The good: the concept. Casanova looks back over his life and philosophizes on various topics while remembering his conquests. Incorporating the music of Mozart, with minor changes to the ensembles and arias (and some of the text) to suit the story had thrilling possibilities. The innovative sets, three giant hooped dresses which can roll around on stage, serve as backdrops, convenient spaces for costume changes and props, were interesting.

The bad: I would have left at intermission if I didn’t feel that it could only get better. Except it didn’t.

My main issues:

  1. There is no story arc, or at least it didn’t play out as I hoped it was imagined to. We never really care about any of the characters, except perhaps a maid who escapes rape because Casanova cannot perform. In trying to combine opera and theatre, the writer seemed to have forgotten that in both those arts, story is rather important.
  2. The music was mediocre. Some of the voices were nice, but the Elgin Theatre is not a place to hear opera. Malkovich was micced, but he didn’t sing much. (And when he did, one wished he wasn’t miked.) Volume was very uneven with some arias virtually inaudible in parts. The orchestra was uninspiring. Apparently they use period instruments which perhaps explains the rather lengthy time it took them to tune at the beginning of each act. At a couple of points (I think), four members of the orchestra stood to take the chorus parts and were virtually inaudible, although micced. There were many times when the singers and orchestra were out of sync, making it seem like a rehearsal rather than a show that has run in Prague, New York, and Montreal prior to its run in Toronto. Frankly, it hurts to think the production paid to fly this orchestra across the ocean to North America, which has a wealth of musical talent from which to draw.
  3. The set looked like it had been designed for travel. The rear screen at the back of the stage was not used for anything other than a blue light that didn’t change throughout the production. Our (expensive) seats were at the edge of the hall, just behind the cross-wise aisle, and a good part of stage right was blocked by speakers and what appeared to be a monitor.
  4. The lead actress had a significant Russian accent and a tight, smiley face with very narrow emotional range. Malkovich used his usual rather flat delivery which didn’t bother me as much as it did my date. His forays into singing during a couple of the ensemble pieces, and a single solo near the end had me imagining of a cross between William Shatner and Sting.
  5. The subtitles were atrociously produced. No excuse here. They were just bad. Mistranslated. Timing out. No titles for extended periods of time. Bleh.

I wanted to like it. My date came back from a business trip expressly to attend. But it just didn’t cut it. As we left the theatre, we reflected on the riches Toronto has to offer in the music, opera, and theatre scene and that, if nothing else, this production reminded us gently that sometimes the grass is greenest right in your own back yard.

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