Sydney Festival: The Giacomo Variations

Photo Brigitte Lacombe

We wanted Hollywood icon John Malkovich and we got him, but sadly The Giacomo Variations, the 2011 Sydney Festival’s big-ticket item, that’s arrived here after premiering in Vienna, is an odd, farcical, repetitive and ultimately tedious production – which is an awful shame. This is Malkovich, after all; one of the world’s most celebrated character actors. A man whose own parody of himself in Charlie Kaufman’s 1999 film Being John Malkovich is a work of utter genius. How could this not be great, right? Well, unfortunately, it just isn’t.

A strange hybrid of genres, where opera and theatre take turns in telling the story of the legendary 18th century Lothario, Giacomo Casanova, the production largely fails because it’s trying to be all things to all people. While Malkovich fans are sure to get a kick out of seeing the magnetic man in the flesh, they are also bound to be equally frustrated by the truncated nature of the performance. The dramatic scenes are interspersed with opera from three of Mozart’s best: Don Giovanni, Cosi fan tutte and The Marriage of Figaro, so just as Malkovich is hitting his stride as the silver-tongued charmer (depicted here in the twilight of his days, looking back on his greatest conquests aided by his colourful memoirs) the performance is brought to a crashing halt by a musical interlude.

Meanwhile, the folks who have come for the opera part of the proceedings – which is delivered with great gusto by singers Andrei Bondarenko and Martene Grimson, who stand in for Casanova and his various lovers respectively – may well find it difficult to take the whole thing seriously. Perhaps that’s because, most of the time, the duo find themselves singing in various stages of undress and on more than one occasion engaging in simulated sexual acts, all while the Sydney Symphony Orchestra plays on – in other words, it’s kind of awkward.

The set, too, a collection of three large corset-shaped tents complete with petticoats on wheels is equally cumbersome. There’s an amateurish twee-ness about it, bordering on – dare I say it? – a musical production directed by the likes of TV’s Mr G (Chris Lilley). When we do finally get to bask in a bit of quality Malkovich time, the poor man finds that he is largely preoccupied with wheeling the ridiculous things about or hoisting up the side of their “skirts” and fastening them back to reveal rooms that sometimes seem to serve very little purpose.

Actress Ingeborga Dapkünaité lends good support to Malkovich as a female admirer who has come to enquire about publishing his memoirs, however the required sexual frisson is noticeably absent. And while most audience members would probably find Malkovich mesmerising, even if he was just reading the phonebook, there’s not much of a sense of him ‘working’ to maintain our attention here; rather, he seems to be drifting on through with very few shifts of tone or energy level. Sure, he’s got some pithy one-liners and they are great, but as a whole, this is more like a snapshot than a complete performance.

“I was never capable of repeating the same thing twice,” Casanova tells us. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for director Michael Sturminger’s The Giacomo Variations. Instead, the tales of Casanova’s raunchy and outrageous conquests are flogged to death by a format that endless recycles itself: we are told something then we are shown it, over and over again. The result, I’m afraid, is more monotonous and soporific than either arousing or entertaining.

Sydney Festival 2011
The Giacomo Variations

Director Michael Sturminger

Venue: Concert Hall | Sydney Opera House, East Circular Quay
Dates: January 19-22 at 8pm
Duration: 2hrs 30 mins, including interval
Tickets: $125 – $60
Bookings: Sydney Opera House 02 9250 7777

This review first appeared on Australian Stage January 2011

Sydney Festival: Live

Jarvis Cocker pictured

Jasmin Tarasin’s Live
, a video installation that’s currently on in the Lower section of the Town Hall as part of the Sydney Festival, is billed as “intimate”, and that’s a spot on way to describe it. As you make your way into the darkened underground room past long black curtains collecting your personalised headset along the way, you get the sense that you’ve been invited to a VIP event; a one-night-only kind of affair. What awaits inside the inner sanctum is something special; but ironically, despite the show’s name, it’s not actually “live” at all, rather, viewers are greeted by four large screens – each roughly five metres across – which feature the recorded performances of twenty talented musicians from both Australia and abroad.

Like glorified buskers in a mega-mall, local indie-darling Sarah Blasko, Canadian cool-kid Peaches and Britpop legend Jarvis Cocker from Pulp fight it out against the rest in a simultaneous visual battle for your attentions. There’s a certain music-festival kind of pleasure in being able to wander between them at will, starting and stopping to listen as you see fit by tuning in or out of their songs on the different channels of your headset.

Roisin Murphy (from famed electro-pop duo Moloko) won’t break your gaze, while Yim Yames (frontman of My Morning Jacket) keeps his eyes closed and Dan Kelly hides behind sunglasses. These different approaches to connecting with the viewer serve to highlight the interesting dichotomy of performance itself: It’s an act that’s both an internal private moment for the musician and at the same time something to be shared with the audience. This tension between the two creates some of the most interesting moments in Live, as you get a measure of which performers choose to stay grounded completely in their own world and which ones seek to cross over into ours.

While they are still “performing” for a camera, the black-and-white imagery, plain white background, lack of editing and the single, static shot break down the usual music clip razzle-dazzle we’re used to having these kinds of performances mediated by. This approach creates the feeling of something more authentic; as if they are carriers of a song, stripped of all their artifice they become merely a vessel for the music itself. It’s a stirring experience, an antidote for the MTV generation.

Although visually the installation has a raw vibe, the sound doesn’t get quite the same treatment. The arrangements are stripped back, sure, but you’d hardly call most of them a cappella. With the exception of Julian Hamilton’s from The Preset’s rendition of My People, there are backing tracks on most, and there’s still a sense of something that’s been polished or “produced”. So your experience is still being guided and manipulated to a degree, but that’s something that’s obviously impossible to entirely avoid in any recorded (and indeed even truly “live”) performance.

The private viewing booths off to the side of the main “stages”, which have room for only a handful of people, work somewhat less well. Possibly this is because the screens here crop and trap the musicians into tighter portrait-shaped frames from which they seem desperate to escape. There’s less room here to experience what Tarasin refers to as “duende”: a Spanish word for the kind of soul or emotion a performance can hold. Really though, this inadequacy, instead of detracting, serves to highlight just how good those four main screens are and the performances on them. Everyone up there is in fine form: Jarvis Cocker, Juliette Lewis, Rufus and Martha Wainwright, Feist, Clare Bowditch, Lisa Kekaula; Kram from Spiderbait with his awesome look-no-sticks-ma drum solo and Indigenous artist Jimmy Little’s heartfelt personal tale with its country vibe.

Sydney Festival goers would do well to get along to Live and lap up the chance to see some inspiring and all-round fun performances in a unique up-close-and-personal setting that just might move you.

Sydney Festival 2011
Live: An intimate video study of the art of performing

Curator Jasmin Tarasin

Venue: Lower Town Hall | Sydney Town Hall, Sydney
Dates: January 14 – 23, 2011 (closed Jan 17)
Timed entry: 11am-7.15pm (closes 8pm) on Jan 14-16, 18, 23
11am-9.15pm (closes 10pm) on Jan 19-22
Tickets: $15/$12
Bookings: Sydney Festival 1300 668 812 | Ticketmaster 1300 723 038

This review first appeared in Australian Stage January 2011