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'Don Giovanni' feels right at home in Disney Hall

The Los Angeles Philharmonic's new production of the Mozart opera is an extraordinary achievement, freshly illuminated and site-specific.

May 21, 2012|Mark Swed | Los Angeles Times Music Critic
  • Anna Prohaska as Zerlina and Ryan Kuster as Masetto in the Los Angeles Philharmonic's staged production of the Mozart opera "Don Giovanni" at Walt Disney Concert Hall on Friday.
Anna Prohaska as Zerlina and Ryan Kuster as Masetto in the Los Angeles Philharmonic's… (Ricardo DeAratanha, Los…)

Los Angeles Opera can stop worrying right now.

The Los Angeles Philharmonic's new production of Mozart's "Don Giovanni," which had its first of four performances Friday night at Walt Disney Concert Hall, is certainly getting all the attention at the moment and for all the obvious and all the right reasons. The hall's architect, Frank Gehry, has designed stunning sets. The fashion world, long enamored of Disney, is involved, with powerfully theatrical costumes from Rodarte and hairstyles by Odile Gilbert. Gustavo Dudamel conducts his first staged opera in the States. Christopher Alden's production is shockingly intense. The cast is sensational.

Here is Mozart's opera as a site-specific Disney Hall "Don Giovanni," freshly illuminated. But the circumstances are not without acoustical or musical compromises. This is in almost every way a different "Don" — and decidedly not an opera-house one.

Gehry's sculptural installations are bulky sheets of crumpled white paper. The texture is gorgeous, begging to be touched (forget it, the ushers mean business). If, as the architect has often said, the interior of Disney suggests a ship, then these radiant white paper pillows are perhaps the whitecaps of a choppy sea. They serve as an exciting metaphor for the characters of a complicated plot that ends with the reprobate Don dragged to the underworld. They also make fine hiding places.

The chorus benches behind the stage are covered in folds of billowy black material, and this is where the orchestra is housed on a raised platform. The Los Angeles Master Chorale sits on the sides. The hall's exacting acoustician, Yasuhisa Toyota, has given his seal of approval, and the sound is not bad. But the orchestra feels distant and doesn't have Disney's usual in-your-face vibrancy. The harpsichord underscoring the recitatives is a faraway tinkle. The famous incident in the Act 1 finale, where three orchestras play in three different rhythms, became disappointingly diffuse.

And Dudamel — who conducts even this long opera from memory with probing insight but favors eccentric slow tempos — is also at a remove from the singers, who watch him on monitors placed around the hall. We, on the other hand, watch a welcome new title system that projects translations directly on the wood above the stage.

What is in your face are the singers. They sound vocally naked, and they sound really, really loud. Their voices are bared and, thanks to Alden, whose Long Beach Opera productions in the 1980s and '90s have been some of the company's most memorable, so are the characters' souls.

The production begins with a rapt formality. The Rodarte designers (Kate and Laura Mulleavy) put the men in sparkling white armor coarsened with imaginative tracings. The women wear more elaborate gowns, which become distressed in the second act. The men dispense testosterone, and the women undergo psychic transformations.

Much of the movement is slow and ceremonial. Mobile platforms function like pedestals, and there are long scenes during which characters remain motionless for long stretches. But that doesn't preclude using the stage floor as a surface on which to lie, cower and sing from. Adam Silverman's stark lighting puts everything in severe perspective.

The action is abstract. The emotions are not. The Don of Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecien is pure, distilled menace. He exhibits minimal humanity and is a force of nature. He doesn't seduce women, he mesmerizes them. For good.

The acrobatic Leporello of Kevin Burdette is just as alarming. He has an antic side that he is able to turn on and off as with a paranormal switch. His "Catalog" aria of the Don's 1,003 conquests is no longer crafty patter but, at a slow tempo, an examination of the unbearable essence of the libido.

Carmela Remigio's Donna Anna, Aga Mikolaj's Donna Elvira and Anna Prohaska's Zerlina each becomes a distinct but equally electrifying embodiment of the Don's erotic magnetism. Anna's lover Don Ottavio (tenor Pavol Breslik) and Zerlina's Masetto (bass Ryan Kuster), also fine singers, struggle to maintain their masculinity with these Don-imbued women they are neither strong enough nor smart enough to master. Stefan Kocan as the Commendatore, Anna's father murdered during the Don's attempted rape of her, haunts the stage.

That so much in this production could be accomplished by an orchestra, not a theatrical company, and put together in two weeks is remarkable. But the time constraints may have been why the final banquet scene is utterly but not ineffectively static. This is where the production comes closest to symphonic opera.

This "Don Giovanni," the first in a cycle of three Mozart operas that Dudamel and Alden undertake in upcoming seasons with different designers, is an extraordinary achievement, a once-only production so much of its time and place that there are no plans for recording or filming it.

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'Don Giovanni'

Where: Walt Disney Concert Hall, downtown Los Angeles

When: 8 p.m. Thursday and Saturday

Tickets: Sold out

Information: (323) 850-2000 or http://www.laphil.com

Running time: 3 hours, 45 minutes

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