Casanova and de Musset: A Disaster… and a Delight

John Malkovich stumbles through The Giacomo Variations, while Isabella Adriani and Xavier Lamaire are irresistible

John Malkovich’s disappointing performance as Casanova in The Giacomo Variations | Photo: VBW/Nathalie Bauer

By mid-December it was already nearly impossible to get a ticket for The Giacomo Variations, a new chamber opera written and directed by Michael Sturminger on the life of Giacomo Casanova that opened at the Ronacher on Jan. 5.

Surely this was in part because of the music, pieced together by Martin Haselböck from beloved opera scenes by W.A. Mozart and his librettist Lorenzo da Ponte. It may have also been partly because of widely-admired baritone Florian Boesch, playing the famous roué as a young man; or perhaps it was the actress playing German writer Elisa von der Recke, the captivating Lithuanian Ingeborga Dapkunaite, known to many for her roles in Mission Impossible and Seven Years in Tibet.

But who’s kidding whom? Most of the audience was there to see Hollywood titan John Malkovich, long unrivaled as cinema’s Casanova in Chief following his unnerving brilliance as the Vicomte de Valmont in the 1988 filming of Christopher Hampton’s Dangerous Liasons. Back in Vienna less than two years after his heralded debut here as the Austrian serial killer Jack Unterweger, and just four years after his disjointed yet still compelling portrayal of the artist Gustav Klimt, Malkovich would now play Casanova himself, adding yet another to a long list of the malevolent seducers that have made his name. An inventive mix of opera and spoken word, reflecting the lost powers of the aging libertine amid the flourish of the costume graces of the 18th Century stage, it was an almost irresistible combination.

Unfortunately, the reality was a disaster. Opening with the aging Casanova raging at his lost youth, it never felt like a comedy. A diseased and bitter old man, his lust, felt like lechery flirtations, came off merely crude. So when Malkovich/Casanova collapsed suddenly onto the stage and was wheeled off on a gurney, the audience was stunned. It was too shocking to be funny, and the mood never recovered.

But the mix of idioms was awkward from the start; this was a work that could never decide what it was trying to be. Employing a kind of “greatest hits” approach, including excerpts from The Marriage of Figaro and Così Fan Tutti, the music set a frothy tone, and the singers, who in addition to Boesch included Andrei Bodarenko, Sophie Klußman and Martene Grimson, did their best to breathe life into what could have been a piece of playful, high-polish debauchery.

They never had a chance. Badly under-rehearsed, the threads of continuity kept unraveling, as Malkovich repeatedly dropped lines, hesitated and was forced to resort to reading from crib sheets included with less than perfect discretion among the props.  But even more damaging, we were shown a film actor who simply doesn’t know how to move on stage. There is no grace to his walk, no fluidity to his gestures; he seemed to blunder around the space oblivious to the audience, to whom he often turned his back. While the others bore themselves with the lightness of marionettes, gliding weightlessly across the stage, and whose every gesture was a choice, John Malkovich had feet of clay.

In this company, he just couldn’t keep up.

At the intermission, a throng of people lined up to collect their coats; some were headed out for a smoke. A startling number never came back, leaving empty seats scattered throughout the sold out house.

It was an entirely different world a few nights later for the premiere of Alfred de Musset’s “Il faut qu’une porte soit ouverte ou fermée” – a completely captivating two-actor/four-character one-act play adapted and directed by Isabelle Andréani, who also stars opposite the winning Xavier Lemaire.

It is a clever conceit: Andréani has written a curtain-raiser – an outside story – of the housemaid and the coachman of Alfred de Musset, who climb up to the attic in search of the coach harness, as de Musset is back in the money and can now afford to put his equipe back on the road. While sorting through the old trunks, filled with a jumble of unedited manuscripts and unfinished scraps, they become carried away, sharing their reverence for the poet and competing with verses learned by heart. So they quote lines, they declaim with grand gestures, each line a veiled flirtation, and finally challenge each other to act out the courtship of the  – “Il faut qu’une porte soit ouverte ou fermée” – that they discover they have each committed to memory.

The result is an irresistible declaration of love, a comedy-fable that revels in the flamboyant extravagance of the Romantic. Along the way, it evokes the turbulent, real-life romance of de Musset and French novelist George Sand (the penname and alter ego of Baroness Aurore Dupin), although the voluptuous contours and distracting bosom of the dazzling Andréani make it unlikely she would have succeeded in the Edwardian trousers and frock coat Mme Sand once made her trademark.

But most important, it is in the vivacity of the interaction, in the fully imagined and realized characters of the maid Leonie and the coachman Eduard, of la Marquise and le Comte that this disarming little gem succeeds, played with such skill that you forget they are acting. They are simply irresistibly alive.

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