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Los Angeles Philharmonic's 'Don Giovanni' stars the music

The opera, conducted by Gustavo Dudamel and with design by Frank Gehry and Laura and Kate Mulleavy, is a semi-staged production.

May 11, 2012|By Reed Johnson, Los Angeles Times
  • Portrait of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart circa 1780 painted by Johann Nepomuk della Croce.
Portrait of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart circa 1780 painted by Johann Nepomuk… (Universal Images Group,…)

There've been commedia dell'arte versions of "Don Giovanni" and a 3-D version of "Don Giovanni." Mozart's terminally debauched antihero has been reimagined as a kind of peruked Hugh Hefner and as a junkie with a hypodermic needle stuck in his arm and aMcDonald's hamburger on his breath.

But when conductor Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic present a new, semi-staged production of "Don Giovanni" at Walt Disney Concert Hall for four sold-out performances starting Friday, the emphasis won't be on some radically high-concept re-invention of Mozart's 1787 masterpiece.

Nor will it necessarily be on the production's much-ballyhooed creative team of architect Frank Gehry, who designed the sets (or "installations," as the Phil calls them), and costumers Laura and Kate Mulleavy, sibling creators of the red-hot Rodarte fashion brand.

Instead, above all, the production of this first of the Phil's planned trilogy of operas that Mozart wrote with librettist Lorenzo da Ponte will try to serve the dazzling score, say the creative principals, who include director Christopher Alden. But that leaves room for sensual appeal and a bit of interpretive daring, befitting a title character who dedicates his life to the pursuit of the pleasure principle.

"We've decided not to try to do anything too conceptually specific with it but just to do a kind of beautiful, dreamy, abstract approach to it that would throw a lot of light onto the music," says Alden, whose previous treatments of "Don Giovanni" include a highly praised, darkly erotic 2009 New York City Opera production set somewhere around the 1930s, with a set design that comprises industrial lighting and a neon crucifix.

"That's sort of the idea," Alden continues. "And there won't be really a single prop in the whole thing; no sword, no book of his conquests, no champagne glass to smash."

Laura Mulleavy, the younger of the Pasadena-based sibling designers whose celebrity clients include Natalie Portman and Kirsten Dunst, echoes Alden that the production won't be tethered to any particular time, place or stylistic trope. Instead, she suggests, it will be as if the characters inhabit a self-contained, abstract universe, possibly representing the unrepentant rake's own lurid psyche.

"We are interpreting [it] as that Don Giovanni has created these characters, and they only exist with each other. None of them can really exist without one another," Mulleavy explains.

Audiences will have more visual stimulation besides Gehry's designs and the Mulleavys' costumes. The production's young, easy-on-the-eyes cast includes, in the title role, the athletic Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecien, the American bass Kevin Burdette as Leporello, Italian soprano Carmela Remigio as Donna Anna and Polish soprano Aga Mikolaj as Donna Elvira.

"I think that we kind of imagine it as they're all the chess pieces, dolls," Mulleavy elaborates. "The male characters are very solid in who they are and don't change so much. But the women go through a vast change. So we approach it as portraying the women as having more of an arc in terms of their costumes, and it's more like a persona, and you understand who they are based on what they're wearing."

The idea behind the Mozart-da Ponte trilogy project originated on a rainy Sunday morning a few years ago in of all places a Starbucks on Friedrichstrasse in Berlin. Dudamel was in the German capital to conduct the Berlin Philharmonic and met up there with Deborah Borda, the Phil's president and chief executive.

Brainstorming over coffee, Dudamel expressed his belief that symphonic orchestras should play Mozart regularly, "for purity of sound," and perform opera occasionally "to be nimble," partly because of the give and take that opera requires between musicians and singers.

"I think you get a kind of flexibility with Mozart's music, in a way that is so clean and in some way easy," Dudamel says. "Sometimes easy things are a little bit more challenging for a musician, because you don't get a lot of information.

"Like let's say post-Romantic, even Romantic music, you get a little bit more information in the dynamics, in tempi and everything," the conductor continues. "In general, I think it's very important for an orchestra to play music of this period — Mozart, Haydn."

From that initial caffeinated chat, the idea was hatched to bring Gehry, Disney Hall's designer and a longtime Phil supporter, into the project to select some of the world's leading architects to design sets for the remaining operas in the trilogy. Dudamel's wife, Eloísa Maturén, a dancer and journalist, then proposed also using A-list fashion designers, selected by Gehry.

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