DVD & Blu-ray Reviews

The Giacomo Variations (2011)

Casanova personified if not quite glorified.

Published on January 24, 2013

The Giacomo Variations (2011)

John Malkovich (Giacomo Casanova)/ Ingeborga Dapkunaite (Henrietta, Lucrezia et al)/ Florian Boesch (Conte, Graf Waldstein et al)/ Sophie Klußmann (Cecile, Despina, et al)/ Vienna Academy Orch./ Martin Haselböck
Director: Michael Sturminger
Producer: Matthias Leutzendorff
Studio: Arthaus Musik 101 570 [Distr. by Naxos]
Video: 16:9 Color
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, PCM stereo
English Dialogues, Italian Arias
Subtitles: German, English, French, Spanish, Italian
Extras: Inside the Giacomo Variations (34 minutes)
All Regions
Length: 139 minutes
Rating: ***1/2:

You might think, after seeing John Malkovich in his towering performance in Dangerous Liaisons, that seeing him here in similar dress as Giacomo Casanova (1725-98), famous womanizer, seducer, and rapist, and also confident of Mozart (whose Don Giovanni was largely based on his exploits) and his librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte, that a certain degree of familiarity might be present when viewing this production, and you would be right. The moment the curtain goes up and we hear Casanova screaming “I want a woman” we are immediately catapulted back to the movie and to the character of Valmont, made famous from the book Les Liaisons dangereuses by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, and whose character has appeared in many movies. He is not unlike Casanova in many regards, though our hero here was one of the most influential people of his age, courting the affairs and affections of statesmen, kings, queens, artists, scientists, and philosophers. Though he claimed to die a Christian, his life was anything but, and his memoirs Story of My Life is considered one of the most accurate and honest accountings of life in his time than any other book. The entire thing runs a full 12 volumes, and it was only in 1960 that it was published unabridged in French. The American version alone and abridged is some 1200 pages.

But this production, premiered in Vienna and then set about touring Europe, concerns itself with the more salacious aspects of Casanova’s life, and they did indeed play a large part: “Cultivating whatever gave pleasure to my senses was always the chief business of my life; I never found any occupation more important. Feeling that I was born for the sex opposite of mine, I have always loved it and done all that I could to make myself loved by it.” But this is no mere play; what we have are four characters, all except Malkovich playing multiple parts, and divided into those who are portraying the personages through acting and those who are doing it using the music of—you guessed it—Mozart, though only from his three major Da Ponte operas. Some words of the music are changed slightly, but by and large the music is given complete and adapted to the dramatic situation of the moment. The play opens when Casanova is seen being resuscitated after a near death experience, and is in the process of creating his memoirs. As he does this, and recalls his various amorous adventures, he is transported back to the moment when we can relive it with him, and even see and experience his own commentary—and those of others as well—on the situation. It is in effect a gigantic musico-dramatic apologia, and the mixture of dialog and singing works fairly well, though it can be difficult at times keeping up with who’s who.

There is no little shortage of Mozart’s quartet ensemble music here either, and it is here where the singing is a little compromised, as Malkovich sounds more like a folk singer than an operatic one, his voice paper-like and thin, though in his favor he can carry a tune. He admits to knowing nothing about Mozart before this show. Actress Ingeborga Dapkunaite is Lithuanian born and had early musical training but abandoned it for the most part when pursuing her acting career, though it comes in handy. Both Florian Boesch and Sophie Klußmann, the two primary singers, have outstanding voices and are also very convincing actors as well, especially the young Klußmann, who sings with authority and passion—this is one young lady to be on the lookout for in the future.

This is not an entirely convincing production as the interjections of music and multiple characters, often the same character represented on the stage twice at one time, can get confusing. The whole dialog is in English and this certainly helps English audiences, and the minutiae of Casanova’s life come across as sometimes crystal clear and other times jumbled and nonsensical, though in fairness his real life was hardly a model of clarity and logic—this was one messed-up guy in a lot of ways, though his influence has now become legendary. Malkovich and company do as well with the material as anyone can, and the whole thing is caught in excellent video and very good if not quite state-of-the-art audio. The live Viennese audience seems to like it as well, and is for the most part quite orderly. Different, but very interesting, and often enthralling.

—Steven Ritter

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