CAMBRIDGE - In "Don Juan Giovanni," Moliere's Don Juan meets Mozart's version of the same famous rake at a drive-in movie, and the doppelgängers, along with their respective servants, embark on a surreal road trip.
The theatrical mash-up comes courtesy of Minneapolis's Theatre de la Jeune Lune, which begins a six-week residency at the American Repertory Theatre tonight, presenting, in repertory, unique takes on two of Mozart's most famous operas, "Don Giovanni" and "The Marriage of Figaro."
It's a form Jeune Lune has come to specialize in: setting play and opera in counterpoint, each striking sparks off the other. The results can be disorienting to a spectator familiar with the pre-existing versions, but the point is to find the emotional truth behind the variations.
In rehearsal, though, the challenges can be more immediate - on one recent day, getting an actor, a singer, and a 1950 Plymouth all working in the same direction.
Dominique Serrand, founder and artistic director of Jeune Lune, plays Don Juan. But this afternoon, he peers under the hood of the car that's been cruising around the stage of the ART's Loeb Drama Center.
Brian Boyce, playing Mozart's Don Giovanni, is supposed to be serenading Serrand from the back seat, but the car-stereo monitor that lets Boyce hear the accompaniment doesn't seem to be working. After a few minutes of tinkering, success: The rehearsal rolls on.
Serrand says the production will create interesting juxtapositions between the philosophical bent of Mo liere's play and Lorenzo Da Ponte's "much more plot-oriented" libretto for Mozart's opera.
"It's Mozart who truly, through his music, finds emotions that are very wide, very complex," Serrand explains. "It's interesting to almost put Da Ponte aside, with the plot, and put Mozart's sensibility next to Molière's philosophy."
Bradley Greenwald, who sings Leporello in "Giovanni" and Almaviva in "Figaro," has adapted the music for all of Jeune Lune's operatic projects. "They coined the term 'musical dramaturg' for me," he says. His job is to find the music in the score that best suits the dramatic goals of each scene, which often means abandoning the original context. "We take each piece and whittle it down to its true emotional state."
"Don Juan Giovanni," premiered in 1994, was the company's first pass at the genre. "The first time we did it, there were no surtitles," Jeune Lune actor and co-artistic director Steven Epp remembers. "We made no attempt to let the audience know what the singers were saying. It was really more of a purely emotional catalyst."
The current production has been completely reworked. "We abandoned it for 10 years," says Serrand. "This is only the second time we've done it."
The original was more farcical, but much of the anti-authoritarian humor played very differently after a decade of political and social upheaval. "We used to get huge response, people laughing in complicity with the material," Serrand says. "Now we just get, 'Oh.' "
Epp agrees. "Things that we kept, little moments that had always worked, some of it was the irreverence and the nasty, naughty side that we had done in '94," he says, "and nobody ever questioned it, or was offended, or anything," now inspired more unease than mirth.
"You could really feel how things had journeyed."
Jeune Lune's "Figaro," first performed by the troupe in 2003, wreathes Mozart's joyous, subversive comedy in the social upheaval of the terror of postrevolutionary France. Pierre de Beaumarchais, author of the plays "The Barber of Seville" and "The Marriage of Figaro," wrote a lesser-known 1792 sequel, "The Guilty Mother," which inspired Jeune Lune's interpretation. Serrand is Mr. Almaviva (no longer Count) and Epp the older but still wily Figaro. As they remember, bittersweet flashbacks of their lives play out to Mozart's music.
Greenwald notes the differences in tone between the two operas. "Not a lot of plot happens in the music of 'Don Giovanni' - the arias and ensembles are more contemplative. In 'Figaro,' there's a lot of plot in the music - the plot is shifting and changing and exploding."
But even within that more intricate clockwork, the search for the emotional core takes precedence. Music will be shifted to other characters to reinforce their emotional state: "L'ho perduta," an aria sung in the original "Figaro" by a secondary character, Barbarina, gets taken over by Cherubino, the opera's love-struck teenager.
"It's an aria about loss," Greenwald explains. "Instead of Barbarina losing a pin, it's Cherubino, losing his heart."
Jeune Lune was founded in 1978 by Serrand, Vincent Gracieux, and Barbara Berlovitz, three graduates of the famous French theater school of Jacques Lecoq, who gained an international reputation for using mime, farce, commedia dell'arte, and Greek tragedy as a wellspring for contemporary theater.
"I met him because I was in architectural school, and he was teaching architecture: movement in space," Serrand recalls. But he insists that the common stereotype of Lecoq as an advocate for physical theater fails to capture the fullness of his approach. "It's also a social awareness, it's very, very large in the sense that as an actor, you fill a role, in the space at the moment, and that you have to take responsibility."
For Greenwald, the focus on movement, rather than complicating the physical demands of singing, actually helps.
"Sometimes it's incredibly freeing to be so uninhibited in terms of traditional decorum," he says. "We've sung arias standing on our head, lying on our back, hanging by one arm from the catwalk. But a lot of that means you're in a constant state of physical release, so you're freed from a lot of muscular tension."
Epp says working with the singers is a perpetual education. "Opera, the discipline, is so rigorous, and that alone has been amazing to watch what it requires, from the body, and the commitment, and just the breath and the muscle of it, " he says. "And trying to sort of match that, and be in that world, acting-wise it pushes you and catapults you new places."
Does the audience follow? As the troupe tours, Serrand says that, unlike the comparatively adventurous audiences at the A.R.T., where Jeune Lune has performed "The Miser" and "Carmen" in recent years, some theaters present more of a challenge.
"Going through these different regional theaters, you get to a point where you have single tickets mixed in. And the single tickets are usually in the back," Serrand says. "And you realize that there's a whole row in back that's responding very directly and you have to jump over this sea of subscribers."
That just means Jeune Lune redoubles its efforts.
"We want," Serrand says, "to get everybody."