Michael Sturminger’s GIACOMO VARIATIONS places the protagonist of the title – whom we know better as Casanova – at the end of his life looking back not only on his romantic conquests but on the resentments he has nursed at never having been fully accepted by the aristocratic classes he moved amongst.

The text is wedded together by selections from his beautifully written autobiography, which were spoken with sonorous irony by the actor John Malkovich during the show’s brief run this weekend at City Center. The variations on his admittedly archetypal life are provided by transposed scenes from the operas of Mozart and his great librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte, the most predictable of which is Don Giovanni (“Don Juan” and “Casonova” having become almost identical catchphrases). The effect is rather like Baz Luhrman’s Moulin Rouge! in its stitching together of songs taken from elsewhere to tell a completely different story, while at the same time recalling to us the emotions and narratives of the originals.

I am not going to rave about THE GIACOMO VARIATIONS, but neither will I dismiss it. Casanova’s prose, so well delivered by Malkovich, was a glory to hear, masterly in its embodiment of 18th century manners and literary style. Although the first half of the show left me vaguely disappointed, and a little confused, the second captivated me with its musical delicacy and sense of longing and regret. The design was something to behold – three gigantic woman’s skirts ducked into and out of as befit the intrigue at hand. (Even at that the effect could be rather static. One wanted the great dresses to move, or twirl, or flap in the wind, or something, but they just stood there like tents in the desert.) The music, under the direction of Michael Haselböck, was lovely, as was the singing, which was poetically understated.

Malkovich did some of that himself, to my surprise, and turned out to be quite touching at it; he is clearly not an opera singer, but he approached the lyrics reflectively, as though remembering them having been sung long ago, when his life was still before him and they held the hope of something tender in love that, in all of his conquests, he had never truly experienced.

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