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Don Juan Giovanni and Figaro

These operatic pastiches of Mozart's great works turn out to be a 50-50 proposition. logo
Bryan Boyce, Steven Epp, and Dominique Serrand
in Figaro
(© Michal Daniel)
Who would presume to improve upon Mozart? Certainly not Dominique Serrand, artistic director of Minneapolis's award-winning Theatre de la Jeune Lune, who co-conceived Don Juan Giovanni and Figaro, a pair of operatic pastiches currently on view at Harvard's American Repertory Theatre. Admiration clearly fuels Serrand's hybridized concoctions. He comes not to one-up the master, but to play with him. Still, the experiment proves to be a 50-50 proposition.

Of the two productions -- both presented within a spacious white box of a stage, virtually bare but for a screen on which closeups and flashbacks are projected -- Figaro, a 2003 production riffing on the opera and the trilogy of Beaumarchais plays that inspired it, is the most effective. The intricacies of its plot lend themselves to inventive staging coups. Conversely, a reworked version of 1994's Don Juan Giovanni -- a Mozart/Moliere hybrid reimagined as a road trip in a 1950 Plymouth coupe -- lacks sufficient emotional depth or character development to sustain interest.

The dialogue between the coolly cerebral atheist/libertine Don Juan (Serrand) and his increasingly frustrated, faith-based majordomo Sganarelle (co-creator and librettist Steven Epp) is essentially philosophical and fairly static, despite Epp's best efforts to keep his Woody Allenish stand-up kvetching comic by injecting topical references. However, it's not until quite late in the play, during Elvire's broken-hearted lament "Non mi dir," that the human cost of Don Juan's predatory ways are driven home.

The pregnant Elvire (Jennifer Baldwin Peden), dressed like some kind of fantastical seed pod in apple-green satin (Sonya Berlovitz's allusional costuming is piquant throughout), has been subjected to unconscionable manipulations: plucked from a convent, no sooner married than abandoned, then duped into mourning the undead Don Juan, who's just curious as to whether seeing her love manifested would resuscitate his own. Peden brings to the song a luscious, seductive sense of tragedy. No wonder Juan is re-smitten - or is he, as he claims, just pretending?

Serrand and Epps are primarily text men; neither exhibits any pretension as a singer of operatic stature. Thus, in both productions, the cast is essentially doubled up. In Don Juan Giovanni, the middle-aged Don Juan and Sganarelle find themselves hijacked by the younger Don Giovanni (the extraordinary bass Bryan Boyce) and his sidekick Leporello (Bradley Greenwald, who doubles as the company's musical adaptor). Boyce, though possessed of Opie-wholesome looks, convinces as a stylish, somewhat menacing young stud on the make, and Greenwald is delightful as a bully who's a softy underneath. Somehow Serrand -- as both mastermind and protagonist -- is all too prominent as Don Juan. He schemes, he pounces, he poses weighty questions, but Don Juan's pattern never changes: he's a character without much in the way of interesting camouflage and with very little arc.

It's Figaro that shows Serrand to best advantage, even if he spends a good portion of the play locked in a big wooden box. It's the height of the French revolution, and Figaro aka "Fig" (Epps in the prole role again) must keep "Mr. Almaviva" hidden lest the revolutionary hordes get their hands on his eminently guillotinable neck. When, at intervals, Almaviva does emerge, it's to insist upon the privileges of his rank. He's forever beckoning behind his backside for the chair that ought to be proffered there -- and to reminisce with Fig about their randy youth.

As it happens, all was not fun and games back in the day: The young Count, while daily entrusting his neck to his barber, Figaro, fully intended to exercise his droit de seigneur over Figaro's comely fiancée, Susanna (Momoko Tanno). Is it any wonder insurrection loomed? And yet here they are, decades later, with Figaro protecting his former master out of pure loyalty, or perhaps co-dependency.

In this, much richer amalgam, the back-up roles are reversed: Boyce plays the young Figaro and Greenwald the spoiled Count --- a better physical match, in terms of both type and resemblance. And the women are less interchangeable than the other play's wronged maidens. Peden brings a magnificent mournfulness to the lovelorn Countess, while Christina Baldwin makes for a plucky Cherubino, the archetypal horny adolescent. As Susanna, Tanno -- sporting a hairbow like Daisy Duck's -- is the perfect soubrette, with a voice that leaps effortlessly into the rafters.

In the world of "real" opera, Figaro can flip by like an especially ingenious wind-up toy. The Jeune Lune perspective allows time and space in which to savor the human truths that lie beneath the clever machinations. It's light and funny, yes, but you can hear the tumbrils drawing nigh.

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