Saturday, May 8, 2010

Modern Don Giovanni gets Mixed Reaction

When the Canadian Opera Company (COC) introduced a modern staging of Strauss’ Salome in 1996, directed by Atom Egoyan, the reviews were positive but cautious. Staged the following year in Vancouver, it was called “effective”, “tastefully erotic” and “a bold, modern look at the ancient tale.” Three years later the COC mounted La Traviata in a similar way. It was called “controversial” and the costumes likened to “Eurotrash.” But the production sold out in two separate runs, and very quickly. The audience had spoken.

The ensuing trend of modernizing old classics – Egoyan and fellow famous directors François Girard and Tim Albery mounted a stark, contemporary Ring Cycle in 2006, and in 2008 Hip Hopera (a blend of DJ turntables and memorable arias) was introduced – has provoked reaction both good and bad. Egoyan’s Die Walkure received both a standing ovation and loud, persistent boo-ing when it opened in Toronto.

“There are people who take tremendous pride in their ability to publicly disclaim something,” Egoyan said at the time, “I just couldn't help but boo back. It was just fun.”

The staging of Calgary Opera’s Don Giovanni then, which premiered last week as the final production in their 2009/2010 season, was not without precedent in this country or around the world. The minimalist, modern sets were inspired by CEO Bob McPhee’s recent viewing of European operas, which depicted costumes, context and sets as contemporary as the 1940s.

And while there wasn’t any boo-ing on opening night, there was no standing ovation either.

Don Giovanni is set in a glass windowed office tower, somewhere in the Western World, it would seem. The costumes could be taken from any boardroom meeting; well-cut suits, skinny ties, artful glasses for the men, and slim-legged trousers with pumps under beige trench coats for the ladies. The protagonists are given new roles as well. Leporello is a personal assistant; Zerlina and Masetto are the building’s cleaning staff (this works wonderfully well), and Elvira is a public relations executive.

The captions, projected in English above the stage, were also given a modern touch with phrases like, “He’s just not that into you.” With the majesty of Mozart’s music, and the compelling talent of the company (Brett Polegato in the title role and the three sopranos are immeasurably good), it’s difficult to see how it could go too wrong. The same can’t be said for this weekend’s take on ‘modern meets classic’ when likely much of the same crowd will sit in the same theatre to watch Alberta Ballet’s Love Lies Bleeding, set to the music of Elton John. Expectations – and ticket sales - are high, but the concept itself has received mixed reviews from established patrons. If subscription sales are any indication, for both companies the risk has been the reward.

Present at the premiere of Don Giovanni were Ann Lewis-Luppino, CEO of the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra, Jean Grande-Maitre, artistic director of Alberta Ballet, Sharie Abramson of Western Sky Creative, and fashion designer Marilyn Milvasky.

Published in National Post, May 8 2010

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