Los Angeles Philharmonic’s strange but wonderful “Don Giovanni”

Carmela Remigio as Donna Anna. Photo by Autumn de Wilde. LA Phil’s production of Mozart’s "Don Giovanni" at Walt Disney Concert Hall led by Gustavo Dudamel, in collaboration with Frank Gehry, Rodarte and Christoper Alden.

Review by David Gregson of the Thursday performance, May 24.

LOS ANGELES PHILHARMONIC: Mozart/da Ponte Trilogy: “Don Giovanni”

So, what was all the fuss about? Tickets for this Disney Hall “Don Giovanni” seemed to be very hard to come by — but neither the superstar conductor, Gustavo Dudamel, nor the celebrated “barihunk” playing Don Giovanni, Mariusz Kwiecien, were necessarily the main draws. Both proved to be fabulous, however, with Dudamel leading a polished Los Angeles Philharmonic in a robust traversal of the score, and Kwiecien singing with surprising force and a pleasing resonant sound I have not heard from him before.

Some people bought tickets just to get a glimpse of the exotic costumes by RODARTE — or to be precise, by Kate and Laura Mulleavy whose high fashion designs are currently in vogue. Some of these creations proved to be perfectly stunning; others not so much. The men were all in white and looked a little like spaceship captains, except for the darker Commendatore when he was coming to dinner in his petrified form. The women were given a number of highly glitzy ensembles that could be the talk of any Paris catwalk.

Certain culture lovers were no doubt curious to see what Disney Hall’s architect, Frank Gehry, was going to put on stage inside the building he conceived. Gehry is currently wearing the hat of a predictably demented set designer. His decorations were craggy white clouds like mountains of crumpled bedsheets — although at the back upstage, the clouds were as black as night. Much of the evening seemed to be a visual statement on the contrasts between black and white. Good versus evil are obvious associations. Odd that the orchestra itself seemed swamped in the black fabric.

Still other people may have wanted to see what Christopher Alden is up to. Alden is “the ax murderer of American opera” according to a friend of mine who detests his work, as well as that of David Alden, Christopher’s twin brother. The epithet may seem extreme, but Christopher Alden is indeed an imaginative avant-garde stage director who never does the obvious thing and very often subverts the natural dramatic interactions intended by composers and their librettists. In fact, anyone seeing “Don Giovanni” for the first time last night in this Alden “semi-staging” is surely confused this morning as to what the story is about. Characters did not always interact, and there was a lot of crawling over and standing on large white boxes. However, it was simply very intriguing to this seasoned “Don Giovanni” lover, and it had the refreshing advantage of being totally unlike any “Don Giovanni” I have seen before. For the most part I found it visually stunning. Being prepared for Alden weirdness is always a help, I must say, to one’s receptivity. One must forget protestations and just go with the flow.

Because this is Disney Hall, an acoustically perfect concert venue not designed for operatic productions, the event was promoted as a “semi-staging.” In fact, it was thoroughly staged as far as I am concerned. The orchestra was shoved way upstage (back toward the organ gallery) and the usual place for the musicians was taken over by a really stunning cast of singers who utilized every inch of the playing area available to them. I am told these singers were hard to hear in some parts of the theater, but my orchestra seats were perfect. I did, however, suspect the use of amplification from time to time. That did not worry me, however, and I have no idea if electronic enhancement was used at all.

The singers were thoroughly remarkable, without exception. Of course, in a highly stylized presentation such as this one, judging acting really comes down to the way the performers move and what sort of emotions they convey vocally. Don Giovanni’s other half, Leporello, was superb basso Kevin Burdette, who sang wonderfully despite having been instructed to stagger around the stage like a puppet tangled in his strings. Now, here’s some deep Regietheater symbolism for you, but Burdette pulled it off brilliantly. He could have a career as a dancer.

Soprano Aga Mikolaj as Donna Elvira. Photo by Autumn de Wilde. LA Phil’s production of Mozart’s "Don Giovanni" at Walt Disney Concert Hall led by Gustavo Dudamel, in collaboration with Frank Gehry, Rodarte and Christoper Alden.

Soprano Carmela Remigio as Donna Anna was compelling in a superbly vocalized performance, matched and exceeded only by brilliant soprano Aga Mikolaj as Donna Elvira. Her fabulous black frock added greatly to the visual impact of her performance, especially in the opera’s (many) final pages. Tenor Pavol Breslik was a touching, smooth toned Don Ottavio, and soprano Anna Prohaska made a memorably attractive and engaging Zerlina. Handsome basso Ryan Kuster was the sympathetic Masetto, while bass Stefan Kocan was a suitably commanding Commendatore.

It’s a shame this production was not video-graphed — or at least recorded for CDs. Musically it was one of the finest performances of Mozart’s masterpiece that I have heard live in many years.

Opened Friday, May 18, 2012, 8:00PM
Sunday, May 20, 2012, 2:00PM (Sunday 1)
Thursday, May 24, 2012, 8:00PM (Thursday 1)
Saturday, May 26, 2012, 8:00PM (Saturday Evening 1)
Walt Disney Concert Hall
111 South Grand Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90012

Los Angeles Philharmonic
Gustavo Dudamel, conductor
Christopher Alden, director
Frank Gehry, installations
Adam Silverman, lighting design
Kate and Laura Mulleavy of Rodarte, costume design

Mariusz Kwiecien, Don Giovanni, baritone
Kevin Burdette, Leporello, bass
Carmela Remigio, Donna Anna, soprano
Aga Mikolaj, Donna Elvira, soprano
Pavol Breslik, Don Ottavio, tenor
Anna Prohaska, Zerlina, soprano
Ryan Kuster, Masetto, bass
Stefan Kocan, Commendatore, bass
Los Angeles Master Chorale, Grant Gershon, music director

James Darrah, assistant director
Odile Gilbert, hair and wig design
Raphaël Cornillon, hair and wig assistant
James Kaliardos for NARS Cosmetics, makeup concept
Barbara Donner, stage manager
Melissa Sardella, assistant stage manager
Azra King-Abadi, assistant lighting designer
Caren Levine, rehearsal pianist and continuo

Mariusz Kwiecein as Don Giovanni and Anna Prohaska as Zerlina. Photo by Autumn de Wilde. LA Phil’s production of Mozart’s "Don Giovanni" at Walt Disney Concert Hall led by Gustavo Dudamel, in collaboration with Frank Gehry, Rodarte and Christoper Alden.

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