Theater Review: ‘The Giacomo Variations’

Intimate and involving
June 4, 2013 Updated: June 4, 2013

NEW YORK—John Malkovich cuts a dashing figure as the alternatively aging, virile, lewd, and tormented Giacomo Casanova in the wonderfully staged chamber opera play The Giacomo Variations—a story with an interesting psychological puzzle at its center.

Based on opera scenes by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Lorenzo Da Ponte, the play at New York City Center was part of the Cherry Orchard Festival. 

As the piece begins, Giacomo, now some years past 70, is proclaiming his need for a woman—a constant refrain throughout his life. His spirit is continually willing, even though his flesh has become somewhat weak in that regard over the years. 

His moments of brooding are interrupted by the arrival of Elisa (Ingeborga Dapkünaité), a woman who has journeyed a great distance to meet him.

Elisa is seeking Giacomo’s permission to publish his memoirs, which he began writing several years earlier, naming names and deeds in quite expansive detail. Initially suspicious about Elisa’s offer (“I have opened my heart, oh so many times, but now it’s closed!”), Giacomo finally agrees, but only if Elisa falls in love with him, love being quite the serious matter for Casanova.

Containing multiple flashbacks, with Sophie Klussmann and Daniel Schmutzhard playing different versions of Elisa and Giacomo, as well as various other characters, the story examines significant moments in Giacomo’s life: his being caught in a lady’s boudoir by her enraged husband; fighting a duel of honor with pistols; and seeing his own past unexpectedly catch up with him.

Forced by Elisa to continually defend his actions, Giacomo is presented as an interesting conundrum. As a man to whom love is vitally important and who claims to have never intentionally broken a woman’s heart, he has left a trail of pain and shattered dreams behind him, nonetheless. 

It is also in this pursuit of love that Giacomo has ventured into territory considered taboo by most members of society. He defends this action by pointing out that if the love involved is pure, then the actions that come from it must be understood in that context. 

What makes this more than a standard biographical piece is the seamless blending of the dramatic scenes with the operatic ones, the various classical pieces, including several from Don Giovanni (all sung in Italian, though there are cheat sheets for the audience to follow along if they so desire).

Both writer and Austrian director Michael Sturminger and musical director Martin Haselböck, do a good job in this regard. The latter is also responsible for the production’s musical concept. 

The music itself is performed live by the Wiener Academy Chamber Orchestra under the excellent baton of Haselböck. It helps that the costumes and scenic designs by Renate Martin and Andreas Donhauser are nicely opulent without being overpowering, coming across more as an appropriate addition to the story rather than a distraction.

In Malkovich’s capable hands, Giacomo is a fascinating individual who has lived life to the fullest, often by reinventing himself continuously. He is now forced to face the consequences of his actions through a woman who may have deeper ties to him than he ever thought possible. 

While his motives may never be completely understood, one still finds oneself trying to understand just who this complicated individual really was.

Dapkünaité works nicely as someone who comes closest to Giacomo’s other half as anyone has ever been in his life. She knows him by reputation and by all the emotional baggage he carries. She is continually fascinated by the man himself, almost against her will at times.

Klussmann and Schmutzhard do fine playing alternate versions of Elisa and Giacomo, as well as several other roles throughout, all of whom are key to the unfolding story.

An interesting exploration of what love means to the man most synonymous perhaps with amorous adventures, The Giacomo Variations is both a thoughtful and insightful piece and well worth the experience.