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Saturday 21 April 2012

A gay Don. Yep.

Don Giovanni
Heaven Nightclub

For those who haven't already heard of this production, I should probably provide some details first.  This is a gay version of Don Giovanni updated to the 1980's, with the Don a philandering night club owner instead of a nobleman Casanova. How is it made gay? All the roles apart from the eponymous Don's switch gender, so the Don gets involved with Alan, Eddie and Zac, rather than Anna, Elvira and Zerlina. Leporello becomes Leo, his female PA; Masetto becomes Marina, Zac's fiance; Ottavio becomes Olivia who in love with Alan, but he not with her... an interesting interpretation of the original relationship.

Jack Cullen at the Gay Times sums up the risks of such a production beautifully:
Gay revamps of very traditional material often go catastrophically wrong to the point where you find yourself recoiling on your knees afterwards, screaming expletives in short painful coughs of hairspray and glitter.The Gay Don has all the staples of a potential train wreck production too: a gender-inversed cast, sexual innuendos to the max, topical character names like Zac and of course contrived inclusions of current affairs. 
Surprisingly then, it's not at all a disaster, mostly very enjoyable, and musically it's actually rather good too. The show is reduced to two hours long including so anything requiring the chorus is cut, and inevitably some dramatic situations are also telescoped and altered. This didn't grate because the dramatic conception is so different from its source material that it seems absurd to complain. Ranjit Bolt, the translator of the libretto includes lots of contemporary references and sexual gags but because he is not fighting the piece the result doesn't seem debased, or disrespectful to the original - it's just a quite silly (though occasionally serious) reaction to an old masterpiece.

Don Giovanni's punishment when it comes seems to be old age - a touchy subject in the gay community which is often accused of being very ageist. The setting makes it curious that there are no AIDS references - understandable perhaps and perhaps a blessing but overall I thought not enough gay issues were touched on. Considering this is meant to be the gay Don, apart from the bisexual interest in Zac/Zerlina, there's actually not much new light thrown on the work by the gender reversals. The aesthetic isn't particularly camp or gay either and there's not much chemistry between the Don and the other characters, none of whom seem believably gay, but maybe I'm asking for too much. Overall it was very enjoyable for both the opera buffs and the non opera peeps in my group.

The action occurs on a few raised stages and also around the club floor, so the singers always very close to the audience and virtually everything can be heard. By far the best singer is Duncan Rock as the Don, whose wonderfully controlled dramatic baritone, and hugely muscled frame just dominates throughout. He's the only cast member who is likely to reprise their role, and I can imagine that he'll be hired quite soon for this role elsewhere based on the strength of this showing. The rest of the cast though are also largely very good, each with their very nice moments, and I was particularly impressed by the thundering mezzo of Tamsin Dalley as the Commendatora in the final scene.

Best of all were the ensembles, which I was worried about previously in that potentially the melody lines might have become the bass lines and bass lines the melody lines. But sensibly in these portions, the arrangement kept the sopranos on the original soprano lines, the basses on their lines, and redistributed the other parts accordingly. Collin Pettet lead a chamber orchestra of ten accoustic instruments from the keyboard, and though the playing was a bit scrappy, what do you expect when it's performed in a club! Hugely to be preferred to the ultra reduced versions usually found in pub opera, and we usually heard something very close to what Mozart originally imagined.

If the idea appeals in any way, I can only recommend that you go! The remaining dates are 22nd, 23rd, 29th, 30th April.

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