Archive for September 2012

Well-Sung, Intelligently Staged “Don Giovanni” in LA

Ildebrando D’Arcangelo as Don Giovanni reclining on the prompter’s box. Photo by Robert Millard.

Review by David Gregson: September 30, 2012

Intelligently stage directed for maximum humor, logic and sense by Gregory A. Fortner, wonderfully conducted by James Conlon at the head of his well-honed orchestra, and for the most part extremely well sung by an international cast including the dashing Italian and dark sounding bass-baritone, Ildebrando D’Arcangelo in the title role, Los Angeles Opera’s new Don Giovanni is much, much better than it looks.

The production utilizes the least interesting sets for this piece that I have ever seen in over 55 years of opera-going, and it is most certainly the dullest looking Don Giovanni ever mounted by the LA Opera — but, quite frankly, that did not bother me one iota personally. I was more concerned with what the first-time audience was thinking: “Hey, I thought we were gonna to see something’! Isn’t this supposed to grand opera?”

“Well — this certainly IS a minimalist production,” remarked my seat companion. “The company must have run out of money.”

At least everything is sunny looking, just like the real Seville, I thought. All stage directors should be required to travel to Seville and see  just what it actually looks like before transforming this sunniest of all Spanish cities into Gloomsville. Don Giovanni, The Marriage of Figaro, Fidelio, and even Carmen and The Barber of Seville are usually dark and dreary so the audience can better appreciate the deep dreadful seriousness of the plots as interpreted by Regietheater geniuses who know better than we do.

Roxana Constantinescu as Zerlina and Ildebrando D’Arcangelo as Don Giovanni. Photo by Robert Millard.

This delightfully bright “minimalist” stage design had one central door; adobe colored wall units that moved about and represented the streets and interiors; a klutzy malfunctioning fore-curtain (was it dark blue?); some windows dropped in from nowhere for one scene; a dining table that immolated in red-paper flames the end; and Duane Schuler’s lovely lighting on certain blue and orange aspects of the mise en scene (not to mention his sun-bright peasant scenes). It all worked well for me. If I am not mistaken, this is the first Don Giovanni in decades NOT to receive an aggressive Regietheater interpretation. One almost might say, it was just what Mozart and his librettist Lorenzo da Ponte had intended if they had had to work on a budget. And what’s more, when everything came to its conclusion, the audience seemed to love it. In fact, there was a great deal of merry laughter just where merry laughter is asked for.

David Bizic as Leperello and Ildebrando D’Arcangelo as Don Giovanni. Photo by Robert Millard.

Whether they will love it enough to recommend it to their friends is another question. A great masterpiece like this one really doesn’t need sets or costumes (as fine as the latter by Moidele Bickel are) — and that’s the truth. I hope people will go.

Another problem, surely temporary: the night I saw the opera (Friday), there were many mysterious and alarming bangs and crashes, and one had the sense of stagehands running around trying to prevent some impending disaster. Curtains wouldn’t close and flats flew away at the wrong time. It was like amateur hour at the LA Opera.

But the performance was quite another matter. Don Giovanni‘s eponymous anti-hero was as genuinely masculine and dashing as anyone could desire, and he is a superb singer and stage performer. By an amazing coincidence (hmm!), a brand-new Deutsche Grammophon CD release of “Don Giovanni” has hit the market, an astounding all-star affair recorded in 2011 at the Baden-Baden Festival. So, you can make up your own mind how good this man is. I have yet to hear the disc (and, since everybody on it is so good looking, am truly astounded it is not a Blu-ray DVD). The set features Luca Pisaroni (Leporello), Diana Damrau (Donna Anna), Joyce DiDonato (Donna Elvira), Rolando Villazón (Don Ottavio), Konstantin Wolff (Masetto), Mojca Erdmann (Zerlina), and Vitalij Kowlowjow (Il Commdetore), all under the baton of the (to me) fabulous young Yannick Nézet-Séguin.

No, I am not paid by Amazon for this “plugola,” but DG’s PR people did send me a lovely copy of the CD the other day. Can’t wait to hear it.

LA’s cast is first rate. California soprano Julianna Di Giacomo has the power and finesse to bring off every important scene and aria, and she grew in strength the Friday night I saw her. When the final moralizing chorus arrives (after Don Giovanni’s demise), I could not take my eyes and ears off her and her “boyfriend,” Don Ottavio, the simply superb Russian tenor Andrej Dunaev, who had earlier carried off the two difficult arias (feared by most tenors), “Dalla sua pace” and “Il mil tesoro.” For her part, Di Giacomo brought off an exemplary “Or sai chi l’onore” and a gorgeous “Non mi dir.” Pathos and anger work well for her.

I wish I could say the same for the Donna Elvira of Finnish soprano Soile Isokoski, possessor of what seemed to me a very sweet, very pretty voice, but not an especially large one. Perhaps she was ill. She tired noticeably Friday, and by the time of the very important “Mi tradi” her flowing tone had slowed to a trickle. It was like a candle flickering out. I wanted more oomph all the way through in this very meaty role. It’s fun to be furious all night long and run around intruding yourself angrily on everybody’s business, but this Elvira did not seem quite up to it all.

Julianna Di Giacomo as Donna Anna and Ievgen Orlov as the freshly murdered Commendatore. Photo by Robert Millard.

The world abounds in wonderful Leporellos, but I would count Serbian bass-baritone David Bizic among the best. He brought a special lightness of touch to the part, and his body movements had a unique dance-like quality with which he seemed to be having a great deal of fun. He must make an interesting and original Don Giovanni, a role he will most certainly be singing soon if he hasn’t already. One was scheduled in his bio online.

As the “innocent”peasant girl Zerlina who seems quite open to dangerous flirting, Romanian mezzo-soprano Roxana Constantinescu was delightful and excellent in her exchanges with Don G and her beau Masetto — but it’s a role one tends to forget just a little, no matter how good the singer. For my generation the singer most often recalled was Spanish mezzo-soprano Teresa Berganza. In any event, poor Constantinescu will be replaced as Zerlina (October 10 and 14) by the attractive American soprano Micaëla Oeste. Rising superstar diva, soprano Angela Meade, by the way, replaces Julianna Di Giacomo as Donna Anna on those same dates, but I would be surprised if Meade amounts to a substantial upgrade in vocal and dramatic quality. In any event, I will not be hearing those October performances. It would require another drive up to LA from San Diego — even though the great Domingo will be taking over conducting duties on those dates as well. Conlon, I suspect, is the better of the two conductors; I think Domingo may be taking over to boost attendance (but I am only speculating on this.)

Australian basso Joshua Bloom has a lot of fans in these Western parts, although he is making a smash success as Zerlina’s frustrated lover, Masetto, in his LA Opera debut. He is partly a product of San Francisco’s Merola program, and I have enjoyed his work before in Santa Fe and with the LA Philharmonic. He is a joy to watch and listen to and brings a totally believable and sympathetic character to the stage. He is far more than a source of comic fun. He is both the boyish lover and the mature male.

I like Il Commendatore coming to dinner and dragging Don Giovanni down to hell — a simple but rarely simply accomplished stage action thanks to Regietheater these days. Ukranian bass Iebgen Orlov would seem to be the perfect choice for this part, but Friday he seemed slightly underpowered. Once again, perhaps he was not feeling his best — and yet I would count him an excellent Commendatore. The cemetery scene, by the way, had more stuff in it (monuments and memorials and such) than the entire rest of the opera — and the Commendatore was recumbant on his slab, something I have in fact NOT seen before. But this set was frustrating in that a sort of low partition rose up several feet in front of the audience’s view, making it necessary for the singers to jump on top of it if more than just their torsos were to be seen.

To indulge in an odious comparison of leading Giovannis, I think the deeper voiced Ildebrando D’Arcangelo has an edge way over baritone Mariusz Kwiecień, an artist whom I admire greatly, but not in this part. Both men know how to be sweet, seductive, gentle, harsh, cruel, ironic and nimbly athletic, but I find D’Arcangelo more convincing. There are certainly a bunch of baritonal types in competition for the Giovanni Crown these days — all of them good in their different ways. I would say Gerard Finley, Bryn Terfel, Simon Keenlyside and Christopher Maltman are the chief contenders.

When all is said and done, this Don Giovanni, costumes and all, was better than the highly touted Dudamel/Frank Gehry/Rodarte version done only last May (!) just across the street at Disney Hall and reviewed here at Opera West.  But it’s a shame that the very same Mozart masterpiece has to be in a sort of timeframe competition with itself. More coordinated planning is needed between the LA Phil and the LA Opera.

Oh — well OK. The Kate and Laura Mulleavy of Rodarte costume designs (at least for the women, if not the men) were truly memorable in that LA Phil Giovanni. A little last-minute walking back. Very fashionable this election year.

Soile Isokoski as Elira, with Don G (D’Arcangelo) and Leporello (David Bizic) around the corner. Photo by Robert Millard

Don Giovanni: Ildebrando D’Arcangelo
Donna Anna: Julianna Di Giacomo*
Donna Anna (Oct. 10, 14): Angela Meade*
Donna Elvira Soile Isokoski
Don Ottavio: Andrej Dunaev*
Leporello: David Bizic*
Zerlina: Roxana Constantinescu
Zerlina (Oct. 10, 14): Micaëla Oeste*
Masetto: Joshua Bloom*
Commendatore: Ievgen Orlov

Conductor: James Conlon
Conductor (Oct. 10, 14): Plácido Domingo
Production: Peter Stein*
Director: Gregory A. Fortner
Scenic Designer: Ferdinand Wögerbauer*
Costume Designer: Moidele Bickel*
Lighting Designer: Duane Schuler
Choreographer: Peggy Hickey
Fight Choreographer: Ed Douglas

Los Angeles Opera

Saturday September 22, 2012 07:30 PM
Friday September 28, 2012 07:30 PM
Sunday September 30, 2012 02:00 PM
Wednesday October 03, 2012 07:30 PM
Saturday October 06, 2012 07:30 PM
Wednesday October 10, 2012 07:30 PM
Sunday October 14, 2012 02:00 PM

Three hours and 25 minutes, including one intermission.
Evening performances: 7:30-10:55 p.m. (approximately)
Matinee performances: 2:00-5:25 p.m. (approximately