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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Opera Review
By Jon Magaril
For the second time in six months, a musically ravishing Don Giovanni has set pulses racing at the Music Center. The phenomenon, while fitting for an opera about a serial seducer, is a rarity for Los Angeles. It presumes an audience large and open-minded enough to support two wildly divergent productions of an opera in the same year. It's a welcome development that bears repeating.
LA Opera's production is all about high fidelity. It takes its cues, musically and theatrically, from a crystalline reading of the original. Conductor James Conlon in his program notes asserts, “Could it be that simply performing and not interpreting the work (however unfashionable that notion might be at this moment in history) is to render to it the greatest service possible?”
These sentiments separate this from last April's LA Phil production which was high concept in every aspect. Christopher Alden's direction used deliberate movement, in Robert Wilson mode, to transfixing effect. Frank Gehry's set looked like piles of crumpled white paper or bedsheets, both evoking the lothario's voluminous set of conquests. Mythifying was the guiding principle, with mobile white plinths placing the ladies and Giovanni on pedestals.
Peter Stein's production, which originated at the Lyric Opera of Chicago in '04, keeps things mostly on the level. Gregory A. Fortner has taken the reins but follows Stein's dictum: "All the drama, all the theater, lies in the music." The approach proves captivating. The music is of course glorious. And it's played and sung with impressive prowess.
The prevailing tone here matches librettist Da Ponte's description, dramma giocoso (jocular drama). Ildebrando D'Arcangelo's Giovanni shows us a good time. Could anyone be better named for the part? His supple bass-baritone never betrays a moment of effort. His physicality remains loose and laid back. His demeanor, louche. The character's seductiveness centers on his supreme comfort in his own skin.
Masterfully in sync with Conlon, D'Arcangelo turns the “Champagne” aria into a propulsive ride that never careens out of control. His Giovanni may be an aristocrat but he seems more at home with the peasants. “La ci darem la mano,” wherein he attempts to seduce Roxana Constantinescu's charmingly earthy Zerlina, establishes a genuine rapport.
He's most playful with his lackey Leporello (the Serbian-born Israeli David Bizic in a phenomenal US debut). The second act gets off to a delightfully comic buffa start with "Eh via buffone," in which master and servant trade coats – and personas. Effervescent stage business contrasts the smell of each man's cloak and the gait of their walk. Because Fortner stages most of the action so simply, showier moments like this pop.
Giovanni never changes. He sings as a form of public display. The others' more introspective arias typically take place downstage in front of a star-lit evening sky of a curtain. This creates a sense of intimacy with a scene partner, if present, and us. Charmingly old-fashioned, it also allows the set to change behind it. They sing as Shakespeare's characters soliloquize - to navigate the trail of their own feelings en route to an epiphany.
Stein made his name directing landmark German productions of Shakespeare and new plays. This production, his US debut and first Mozart, was created for a starry cast list including Bryn Terfel, Susan Graham, Karita Mattila – and D'Arcangelo as Leporello. If Stein had been present here, his experience with actors may have inspired this lesser-known but talented roster to dig deeper to more revelatory effect.
Fortner nonetheless guides his cast to solid work that never pushes. Finnish star Soile Isokoski as the love-and-hate-struck Donna Elvira compellingly binds the extremes of her affections by occupying a middle-ground of delicate shifts.
Home-town coloratura Julianna Di Giacomo and Russian tenor Andrej Dunaev make the most stirring sounds as the aggrieved Donna Anna and her dutiful paramour Don Ottavio.
The staging brings lucidity to the relationships and text. While largely straightforward, it's unafraid to contradict the letter of the lyrics. In Zerlina's aria “Batti batti bel Masetto,” she asks her fiance to beat her so she may prove her love for him. Constantinescu's disarming performance makes clear she's learned from Giovanni how to seduce.
The moralizing of the concluding sextet is offset by an earthiness in keeping with the overall tone. Here, Leporello and Donna Elvira trade looks and smiles, which give doubt to her stated decision to get herself to a nunnery.
The design follows suit. All departments showcase solid colors, primarily in earth tones, with telling exceptions. Ferdinand Wogerbauer's sets consist mostly of stucco walls. Flat facades, with square window cut-outs, create hard angles for hiding and espying.
Moidel Bickel's costumes, appropriate to the original period, use muted colors and blacks, except for Leporello's orange get-up. It keeps us focussed on the servant, whose outlook seems most in line with the production's wry perspective.
Just as the limited visual language threatens to bore, the production springs a vivid surprise. The cemetery, set aglow by Duane Schuler's lighting, is bewitchingly beautiful. The descent to hell disarmingly uses techniques and materials available to the eighteenth century original.
A low-key approach requires pin-point accuracy to score a knockout. The performance I attended, while never logy, had to overcome some imperfections – especially with the set. At one point the blue curtain wouldn't close. A flat didn't slide off and needed to be raised mid-scene. After Giovanni was swallowed up, the restoration of the stage floor created a noisy hell for the sextet.
More importantly, the sword fight between Giovanni and the Commendatore (Ievgen Orlvo), which sets the plot in motion suffers from an indistinct take and perfunctory execution. It's onwards and upwards from there, culminating in his rising from the tomb with a commanding righteousness.
Last spring at the LA Phil, Don Giovanni dazzled with its cool dreamscape. But there are many paths to fulfillment. The LA Opera's production enthralls with warm and clear-eyed grace.