My first performance of Mozart’s greatest opera—the story of Don Juan’s many conquests and moral descent, universally acknowledged as one of the most important works of Western civilization—was unforgettable. It was May 1981 and the Metropolitan Opera on tour in Dallas, a matinee revival of Don Giovanni in the legendary 1957 Herbert Graf/Eugene Berman production, originally starring Cesare Siepi in the title role with Karl Böhm conducting, as commissioned by Sir Rudolph Bing. That afternoon in 1981 the young James Levine conducted the young James Morris as the don, the even younger Kathleen Battle as Zerlina. The legendary and much loved Donald Gramm performed his signature role of Leporello just two years before his untimely death. Was there anywhere to go but down from that height? The many productions of Don Giovanni I have attended since paled in comparison.
But things are looking up.
Gustavo Dudamel’s fully staged production at Walt Disney Hall of Don Giovanni with the Los Angeles Philharmonic—their first complete performances in their almost 100-year history—is a sleek, stylized contemporary edition for the 21st century (heard the 24th May 2012). A mark of Dudamel’s ambition, opera has taken a prominent place at the Philharmonic, alongside the impressive array of premieres, commissions, international composers and soloists. A fully staged production of Marriage of Figaro comes next season, and concluding the Mozart-Da Ponte cycle, Così fan tutte—arguably Mozart’s most sophisticated opera—is last. The scale of the Philharmonic’s ambition can be measured with the resources they’ve thrown at this production. An all star (if once again, young) cast, costumes by the hot fashion house Rodarte, sets by Frank Gehry, all as directed by Christopher Alden. And not to forget the hot, young conductor, Gustavo Dudamel, at the helm.
Alden is fresh from his critically acclaimed interpretations of this opera and Così for New York City Opera. While I didn’t see either of those productions, as I understand them, Alden employed a veristic approach, sometimes tied precisely to the text, sometimes not, but always with a modern sensibility. Here, the result was a highly stylized, no props, almost futuristic presentation in black and white. For example, when the Don kills the Commendatore just minutes into the first act, rather than using a sword (or in the case of the NYCO production set in the 1930s, smashing his head against a wall), Don Juan merely cuts the old man’s throat with a gesture of his hand. I’m sure that Alden was both inspired and constrained by the production design and the limitations of the hall, not intended for staged productions. Whether he intended to or followed the pace set by the abstract set design of Gehry’s, I can’t say, but Alden streamlined the story into a timeless, placeless account of emotions (and there a lot of them at play in this libretto). It was an interesting and very contemporary take on an age-old story.
Frank Gehry, architect of the very concert hall—one of his finest achievements—in which the opera was performed, furnished the set design. As an architect, his renown is such that there’s no need to repeat his career’s work here. For all it’s contemporary surface and his earlier emphasis on unconventional materials, it is rooted in tradition. Perhaps that is the point of the design for this Mozart outing. Done all in black and white, at first glance from the front of the hall, it was not overly interesting. Limited by what is an in-the-round concert hall with no orchestra pit, wings or fly-way, Gehry had to create a simple unit set. Here he used paper to create backdrops and wings and to set a mood (see photo at top). There is really nothing more sculptural and pliable than crumpled paper (it is a very stiff, thick paper). Here Gehry manipulated it to achieve his signature look of malleable form. But seen from a bird’s-eye perspective, from my seat behind the stage near the top, the maze of low paper walls transformed into a rat’s maze for the unfortunate characters to scurry in and out of. Furthermore, I found this design particularly intellectually engaging. By using paper, Gehry referred back to the very roots of theatre, of opera and of ceremonial events in the Renaissance and Baroque, the use of ephemeral architecture to create monumental triumphal arches, banqueting halls, and stage sets. More to the point, a revelation occurred during the famous Catalogue Aria (“Madamina, il catalogo è questo…”) sung by Leporello early in the first act. In it, Don Giovanni’s put-upon servant recites the many, many types of women he’s had, in the many, many countries (“just in Spain alone, 1003”!!), all recorded in his book. Then I realized that Gehry’s set are comprised of the sheets of paper torn from Don Juan’s book of conquests, crumpled and tossed away like the people he uses and discards. It is a brilliant concept, beautifully executed. Adam Silverman’s stark lighting made the main area of monochromatic white even starker and bright. Another interesting concept at play in this production of a dark tale in stark white. It is quite a coup-de-theâtre. This is the very first time I’ve ever seen this opera not performed in deep shadow and underscored Mozart and Da Ponte’s titling the work a dramma giacoso or comedic drama.
While Los Angeles-based Rodarte (the Mulleavy sisters) produces over-the-top, sometimes historically influenced design, I rather liked what they came up with. The men were minimally costumed in vaguely Jean-Paul Gaultier straps and armor in black and white, while the women had extravagant gowns, the most notable being crazy, jilted Donna Elvira’s jet black dress with beaded crown and train. It was a number worthy of Sarah Bernhardt (surely evoking one of those fin-de-siècle extravaganzas).
I had never sat behind the orchestra stage, and while occasionally a voice was blunted as they sang mainly towards the front audience, I was almost directly in front of Dudamel. He and the orchestra were situated behind the stage action where the chorus risers normally were and had been removed. I had the extraordinary experience of watching him engage with the players. Last month, the 85-year-old Herbert Blomstedt conducted the Philharmonic in a sublime performance of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, without a score. He’s been conducting the piece near to half-a-century, so this was a result of many years of experience. Thursday night the 30-year-old Dudamel conducted the nearly four-hour Don Giovanni without a score. As we can’t ascribe this to decades of experience with the piece, it was either insanity or brilliance. Happily, it was the latter. From my vantage point, I saw him sing or mouth the words of each aria or chorus, entirely engaged. He literally knows the score. His normal dynamic conducting was slightly toned down for a more refined 18th-century style, he generally kept the tempos brisk, and he conducted a smaller orchestra.Yet Dudamel elicited from the orchestra a robust sound (certainly from where I sat). The recitatives (the expository text sung between arias) were accompanied by period-perfect harpsichord and baroque cello. Throughout the evening, Dudamel struck a perfect balance of a modern orchestra with a sensitivity to period.
The cast was uniformly young, handsome, and fine. Towering above them all surely is the Don of our day—and given his youth—for some years to come, Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecien. Having just starred in this role in the Metropolitan Opera’s new production of the opera, Kwiecien exudes sex appeal, athleticism and menace. A domineering character in Alden’s production, where he literally in the second act manipulates his man servant Leporello like a puppet, Kwiecien has a redolent and powerful voice. Kevin Burdette was an excellent sidekick, both dramatically and vocally. His “Catalogue Aria” was a highlight, as he stumbled from towering white page to page, reading off the women’s names. The Don Ottavio, who is a bit of a push-over since his fiancé Donna Anna keeps veering towards her rapist, Don Juan, was sung by Pavol Breslik. His “Dalla sua pace” in the first act was taken by him and the conductor at an exaggeratedly slow tempo, underscoring Breslik’s excellent breath control, further confirmed in his beautiful rendition of “Il mio tesoro” in the second act. Of the three women roles—Donna Anna, daughter of the murdered Commendatore; Donna Elvira, the several times spurned pazza; and country innocent Zerlina—it is hard to say who was better. Donna Anna was sung by Carmela Remigio, her coloratura was impressive with a purity of tone, both in evidence in her “Mi tradì.” Aga Mikolaj as Donna Elvira played it crazy and her dark dramatic soprano was evocative. The Zerlina—Ana Prohaska—was really charming. I think the best music, certainly the most sympathetic, was written for her and her duet with the Don, “La ci darem la mano” was perfect. Stefan Kocan as the Commendatore was especially sonorous for such a young singer.
At a young age I had the privilege of experiencing an Old World Don Giovanni from the Met, a holdover from another time. Thursday night I heard at the Los Angeles Philharmonic a production of this opera that was of and for today, just like the great city for which it plays.