“I want a woman,” John Malkovich as the dying lover Casanova shouts elegantly from the stage of City Center, while in the audience – in the row right in front of me – a young man has two: He kisses one on the lips, one on the cheek; he squeezes both during Act I. They leave at Intermission.
I envy them.
“Giacomo Variations” is playing just four performances, as part of the first-ever Cherry Orchard Festival, one of nearly two dozen summer theater festivals in New York. It is the second collaboration between Malkovich and the Viennese-born conductor Martin Haselbock and director Michael Sturminger.
Their first collaboration, “The Infernal Comedy: Confessions of A Serial Killer,” about real-life killer Jack Unterweger, which I saw at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2011, was called a “musical stage play,” and was performed by Malkovich, two sopranos and a full orchestra. It alternated straight scenes focusing on Malkovich seducing and/or strangling one of the singers, with classical pieces played by the orchestra and sung by the sopranos.
Similarly, “The Giacomo Variations,” which premiered in Vienna and is called “a chamber opera play,” features two actors, two singers and an orchestra. Giacomo Casanova, in his seventies and dying, recalls his life and loves to Elisa, the sister of the host of the villa where he is staying. Scenes adapted from Casanova’s 1790 memoir, Histoire de ma vie, with dialogue between Casanova and Elisa (and various other women), are played by Malkovich and the actress Ingeborga Dzpkunaite. These alternate with arias sung by Daniel Schmutzhard and Sophia Klugmann from the operas Mozart wrote with librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte: “The Marriage of Figaro,” “Così fan tutte “ (aka “The School for Lovers”), and “Don Giovanni.” But the two singers also play Casanova and Elisa; often, they and the two actors are performing simultaneously (something akin to the scenes with the older couples and their younger selves in “Follies.”) Sometimes, Casanova (or Elisa) reads from Casanova’s memoirs while the other Casanova (or another character) recites the line of dialogue at the same time.
Sturminger writes in the program about the intended effect of all this unusual, complicated staging: “This unique combination of the intensive drama acting, with the impact of two acclaimed young opera singers and performers, will create a very special kind of entry to Mozart’s fantastic opera scenes, even for people who have no regular interest in classical music.”
Would that this had been so. “The Giacomo Variations” is ambitious, clever and well-intended. The music is never less than completely lovely. John Malkovich is an actor practiced in luring us in. But this innovative hybrid that lasts 150 minutes (not counting Intermission) produces few striking moments. Mostly, it’s slow-moving and pretentious. Malkovich speaks in an affected accent of uncertain foreignness – sometimes it sounds Cockney, sometimes Eastern European, like the villains in James Bond movies – and is given such things to say as:
“When you are left with nothing but your naked life, and your naked life is of no value at all, even including possible interests or income returns, you don’t have to be a studied cabbalist or mathematician to count up to zero, rien, null, niente, minchia, nada….”
This is all surely high art for cultured people of refined sensibility, but that particular soliloquy (or whatever it was) made me think of the song “Nothing” from A Chorus Line, when Diana Morales (played originally by Priscilla Lopez) is given acting exercises in one of her classes, told to figure out what it feels like to be a sports car or an ice cream cone:
And Mr. Karp turns to me and he says”Okay, Morales, what did you feel?”
And I said”Nothing, I’m feeling nothing”
And he says”Nothing could get a girl transferred”
They all felt something
But I felt nothing
Except the feeling
That this bullshit was absurd
at New York City Center
John Malkovich & Ingeborga Dapkünaité
Wiener Academy Chamber Orchestra
Based on opera scenes by
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart & Lorenzo Da Ponte
May 30 – June 2