'Casanova's Homecoming' returns home

Casanova's Homecoming
Casanova (John Fanning) contemplates another seduction in the Minnesota Opera production of "Casanova's Homecoming" by Dominick Argento.
Image courtesy Minnesota Opera (photo: Michal Daniel)

This weekend the Minnesota Opera returns to a milestone in its history, "Casanova's Homecoming" by Minneapolis composer Dominick Argento. He wrote the opera 25 years ago to mark the opening of the Ordway in St. Paul 25 years ago.

Despite great reviews at the time, "Casanova's Homecoming" hasn't been performed much recently. It's hoped this new production will re-launch the piece.

Dominick Argento composed the music and wrote the libretto for "Casanova's Homecoming" in honor of the new Ordway.

Argento said the inspiration was actually a joke.

"'New house' in Italian is 'casa nova,' and it's surprising to me that no-one has caught on to that," he said.

But the joke was then on Argento. He decided to base his story of the infamous lover and libertine on Casanova's actual memoirs. Then he discovered they filled no fewer than 12 volumes, and Argento waded through them all.

"I discovered such an embarrassment of riches," he said. "There were so many funny things and amusing things, and interesting, curious things that he'd done, I thought you could just pull these things together and make a story out of it and that's really, in effect, all I did."

Dominick Argento
Dominick Argento says the idea for "Casanova's Homecoming" began as a play on words in English and Italian.
Photo courtesy of VocalEssence

Performed in English, the opera tells of Casanova's return to Venice. A recording of the original production at the Ordway shows everyone knows he arrives with intrigue and seduction in mind.

It's a comic story of concealed identity, an inheritance, confused lovers and a very tempted priest.

Casanova's homecoming was an important production for Minnesota Opera Artistic Director Dale Johnson. In 1984, he had just joined the Opera as the music administrator and chorus master. He remembers Argento's score sending chills up and down his back.

"And then, of course, just reading the libretto, which is very human and humane, witty and fun, and very silly, but yet really intelligent," he said.

However he said it's not an easy opera to perform.

"'New house' in Italian is 'casa nova.' And it's surprising to me that no-one has caught on to that."

"I also remember how difficult some of the chorus music was," he said. "I was pulling out my hair; specifically the 'Ha-ha-ha!' chorus."

That chorus, which runs for several minutes, involves members of a crowd laughing heartily, sometimes in harmony with other singers, and others not.

After a run in St Paul, two in New York and a production in Germany, Dominick Argento thought Casanova would enjoy a life of its own. But while it's had a few college productions since, Argento said it's now rarely done.

"One of the things that happens is we are now producing new operas to the point that new operas are pushing out the ones from only last week," he said.

The revival of "Casanova's Homecoming" is a deliberate attempt to break that cycle. The production is part of Minnesota Operaworks, the seven year program to encourage and promote new American operas. Dale Johnson said just two years into the program the effort is working, especially with young opera fans.

Dale Johnson
Dale Johnson, director of the Minnesota Opera.
MPR Photo/Karl Gehrke

"I think that there is a kind of maybe a younger audience which is not so wedded to Bohemes and Carmens, and they are interested maybe in things of now," he said.

The revived Casanova will be different from the original show. That 'Hah-hah-hah' chorus is shorter for one thing. Also, even though the production is in English, it will use subtitles, so the audience can catch the nuances of Argento's libretto.

"The libretto relies a lot on gags," he said. "As a matter of fact, the New York Times said I was sort of like the Henny Youngman of opera."

Intrigue
Lorenzo (John Michael Moore) and Casanova (John Fanning)hatch a plot in The Minnesota Opera production of Casanova's Homecoming
Image courtesy of Minnesota Opera (photo Michal Daniel)

Both Johnson and Argento are excited the show is being directed by James Robinson, a former student of Argento's who is now one of the most sought after opera stage directors in the country. In fact Argento, who admits he usually sits in on many rehearsals for his pieces, said he trusts Robinson so much he'll see it first on opening night.

"So I have no idea what's happening even today as they rehearse, so everything I see will be a surprise," he said.

After the run at the Ordway, Casanova will be performed by the Opera Theater of St Louis. A German company is considering remounting the production too.

So Casanova may be coming home for some time.

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