(Revised) OVERNIGHT REVIEW: Los Angeles Philharmonic’s “Don Giovanni”: Wonderfully performed, wave of the future?

By Robert D. Thomas

Music Critic

Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily
News

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Los Angeles
Philharmonic; Gustavo Dudamel, conductor

Mozart: Don Giovanni

Sunday, May 20, 2012 Walt Disney Concert Hall

Next performances: May 24 and 26

Information: www.laphil.com

 

60311-DG Photo.jpg

(L) Mariusz Kwiecien as Don Giovanni and Stefan Kocan as the
Commendatore in the opening scene of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s production
of Mozart’s Don Giovanni at Walt
Disney Concert Hall, led by Gustavo Dudamel in collaboration with Frank Gehry,
Rodarte and Christopher Alden. Photo from L.A. Phil.

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When the Los Angeles Philharmonic announced that this season
would include performances of Mozart’s, Don
Giovanni,
my first reaction was “Huh?” (and I don’t mean the PGA Tour
golfer).  When you consider that
Walt Disney Concert Hall was built as a symphonic orchestra space (no orchestra
pit, no proscenium, no curtain, no back stage for sets) that would seem to rule
the hall out from an opera point of view.

 

Of course, Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Phil did find an
ingenious way to present Wagner’s Tristan
und Isolde
several years ago using videos by Bill Viola and inventive ways
to move soloists around using aisles and balconies. Moreover, semi-staged or
opera-in-concert performances are always a possibility (earlier this spring the
Pacific Symphony used that format for performances of Puccini’s La Boheme). But fully staged opera?

 

One thing I’ve learned from yesterday afternoon’s
performance of Don Giovanni was to
never bet against the imagination of Gustavo Dudamel and the rest of the Phil’s
creative team, which in this case included Christopher Alden, Frank Gehry, Kate
and Laura Mulleavy of the design firm Rodarte and several others. They pulled
off the seemingly impossible feat with panache and ingenious skill.

 

The performance was highlighted (as is usually the case with
Mozart) by the music. In an article in last week’s Los Angeles Times (LINK),
Dudamel said that one reason for choosing to present Mozart operas (coming
seasons will included the other two Mozart-DaPonte operas, The Marriage of Figaro and Cosi
Fan Tutte)
was his belief that symphonic orchestras should play Mozart
regularly, “for purity of sound,” and perform opera occasionally
“to be nimble.”

 

This performance certainly validated Dudamel’s thinking. The
orchestra played with supple, buoyant brilliance throughout the entire three
hours (the generously sized ensemble included Caren Levine on harpsichord and
William Skeen on continuo cello). Moreover, we’re watching Dudamel grow up as
both a Mozartean and an opera maestro before our very eyes.  Conducting as usual without a score,
Dudamel’s pacing was a model of clarity and precision and the balances between
orchestra and the singers were exemplary.

 

The cast was uniformly strong, led by Mariusz Kwiecien, one
of the world’s premiere portrayers of the Don. His voice has amazing range in
this taxing role and he certainly looks the part of the rakish Don, as well. In
fact, the entire cast was lean, athletic and great looking — all necessary
prerequisites for Alden’s director concepts.

 

Carmela Remigio and Aga Mikolaj displayed lustrous voices as
Donna Anna and Donna Elvira, and Anna Prohaska wasn’t far behind in her portrayal
of Zerlina. Kevin Burdette sang powerfully as Leporello and Pavol Breslik’s
ringing tenor made for a magnetic Don Ottavio. Ryan Kuster was stylish as
Masetto and Stefan Kocan menacing as the Commendatore. The Los Angeles Master
Chorale had 24 singers on either side of the orchestra providing the chorus.

 

The surprise was Gehry’s  “installations” (Philspeak for “sets”) which featured
large clumps of what looked like wadded-up paper that also had the feeling of
the famed architect’s designs for Disney Hall the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in
Spain. The floors were covered in black or white panels.

 

The Phil took out all of the bench seats behind the
orchestra and Gehry divided the stage essentially in two. Instead of a pit, the
back half used a platform swathed was in black paper sculptures to hold Dudamel
and the orchestra. Because they were dressed in all black, they seemed to
disappear into the background during the first half. (Whether it was a change
in lighting or just that I had gotten used to it, the orchestra and Dudamel
appeared brighter after intermission.)

 

The front half of the stage used white paper sculptures
essentially as a unit set to frame the action, and rolling platforms and stairs
that director Alden moved about expertly to (sort of) simulate the scenes.
Supernumeraries almost never get a mention but part of the fun all day was to
watch Chris Bonomo, Eros Mendoza, Jeff Payton and Jee Teo shift the platforms,
moving almost in slow motion (think of the glacial movement from director
Robert Wilson that can either be fascinating or maddening to watch, depending
on your predilections toward that director’s staging).

 

The costumes by the Rodarte duo accentuated the black and
white motif; the only colors were a lilac dress for Zerlina and red strips to
the white of dress of Donna Anna in the second half. Wigs by Odile Gilbert added
to the costumes’ stylized look.

 

To solve the logistical problem of having the orchestra
behind the “stage,” five flat screen TVs trained on Dudamel were arrayed around
the hall so the singers could follow the conductor’s beat. There were also two
screens (in the front and back of the hall) for English translations of the
text.

 

Not everything worked perfectly — Alden’s tendency to
channel Wilson got tedious, my above comment notwithstanding — but most of the
concept was stimulating and thought provoking. The Disney Hall acoustics
allowed singers to be heard clearly, even from a side seat, and Alden took
advantage of that by having singers sing on their backs frequently for reasons
that weren’t always clear. He also had cast members climbing up and down stars
and platforms (including one sequence where Burdette as Leporello had to roll
from one platform to another.

 

All of this proved to be a stunning show, but can opera
become a regular part of the Phil’s repertoire?  Every arts impresario knows that Mozart sells big time, so
it’s no surprise that the combination of Mozart’s music with Gustavo Dudamel
conducting created sellouts for the four performances. However, this had to be
a big financial hit for the orchestra. With the bench seats removed, the Phil
had less than 8.000 seats for sale (vs. more than 12,000 seats for four
performances in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion) and the expenses had to equate
to what LA Opera will spend next fall when it mounts a version of Don Giovanni beginning Sept. 22.

 

Although the performance was a sellout, many people didn’t
return after the intermission (one report said the same thing happened Friday
night). The Marriage of Figaro is
about as long as Don Giovanni; will
that length cut into ticket sales for next year’s offering? And how many operas
are both big-ticket sellers that can also lend themselves to this minimalist
concept of staging? Will the design team next year be able to repeat the
success of this effort (or even improve on it)?

 

All of that is for the future. If you’re one of the
fortunate to have a ticket for the final two performances, come prepare for a
unique, stimulating experience and, since both are evening performances with 8
p.m. start times, figure that you won’t get out until close to midnight. It’s
time well spent.

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(c) Copyright 2012, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved.
Portions may be quoted with attribution.