Even before the overture started at last night’s LA Philharmonic performance of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, it was clear this wasn’t going to be Gustavo Dudamel’s Don Giovanni. The 31-year-old music director seemed quite pleased to be taking a back seat to Walt Disney Concert Hall architect Frank Gehry, who created the sets for the production, and the fashion-house team known as Rodarte, who designed the costumes.
Since there’s no curtain at Disney Hall, upon entering the auditorium, the wow factor of Gehry’s sets was instantaneous. Giant heaps of paper floated on stage like rumpled icebergs among larger stark white plywood boxes. Before the overture began, a woman (Donna Anna, we would learn later) climbed atop the tallest of the boxes and proceeded to writhe around sexily throughout the duration of the overture.
In fact there was a healthy dose of sexy writhing, fondling, and thrusting in director Christopher Alden‘s staging. (A couple of week’s ago I ran into Gustavo Dudamel at the Hollywood Bowl and he told me the production would be “really dirty and crazy!” He was right.)
Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecien was a powerful Don Giovanni. I like my DGs a bit on the raw side and Kwiecien’s voice had just enough of an edge for me.
I’m not sure if Gustavo or LA Phil VP of Artistic Planning Chad Smith gets the credit, but the rest of the production was perfectly cast. As often happens with Don Giovanni, there were no superstars in supporting roles to steal the spotlight from our title character, but all were uniquely suited to their characters. American Kevin Burdette (Leporello) was masterful in the recitatives and dialogues. His acting chops were the best of the bunch. What he lacked in vocal purity (“Madamina, il catalogo è questo” was a bit gravelly), he more than made up for in comedic timing, masterful movement, and hilarious facial expressions. (Burdette’s marionette-like choreography when Leporello imitates Don Giovanni’s voice to seduce Donna Elvira in Act 2 was the gag of the night.)
Another casting highlight was Carmela Remigio as Donna Anna, who seduced even those of us in the audience with the aforementioned writhing and self-groping at the top of the show. Her milky tone and flawless technique proved she was more than just a bombshell. “Non mi dir,” in Act 2 elicited the biggest cheers of the night.
Anna Prohaska was a sweet and earnest Zerlina. Stefan Kocan a robust and menacing Commendatore. Pavol Breslik (Don Ottavio) and Ryan Kuster (Masetto) were the weakest of the cast; and Aga Mikolaj (Donna Elvira) sounded like she was battling a bit of a head cold, so I’ll reserve judgement on her performance.
Now…about those Rodarte costumes. Like the Gehry sets, they were all white with a few exceptions. Donna Elvira wore a black Swarovski-bedazzled gown with a long train. And Zerlina was the only character not clad in black or white.
Her flowing, tuile gown of lavender had green and purple flowers sewn into the skirt. To my eye, the dress Donna Anna wore in the second act–an artfully tattered deconstruction of her pure white Act 1 gown, splashed blood-red–was an absolute masterpiece. The Commendatore’s costume at the end looked a bit like a cross between the Oakland Raiders mascot and something the members of the rock band Kiss would wear, but it definitely had the creepy factor necessary for the scene.
Gustavo Dudamel coaxed a crisp, clean performance from the musicians of the LA Phil, who we get to hear play opera all too rarely. The distance from the orchestra–which was seated behind the stage, just underneath the organ (no pit at Disney Hall), and was wrapped in a black version of Gehry’s paper crumples–to the singers in front of them proved to be not much of an ensemble challenge. There were TV monitors scattered all around the hall with the “conductor cam” view on screen, so the singers could see Dudamel just fine from any angle.
Dudamel appeared to be having a blast all evening. Now nearly three complete seasons into his tenure, we’re getting used to seeing him conduct things from memory. You know: Mahler symphonies, the Verdi Requiem, no big deal. He did so again last night. Which, when you think about it, is awfully impressive. A three-plus hour opera, with all the intricacies of transitions from recitatives to dialogue to arias solidly etched in his mind. This guy lives and breathes music. It’s kind of like Kobe Bryant. We’re so used to his super-human performances on the basketball court sometimes we take his performances for granted. Dudamel is becoming Kobe. His efforts on the podium are so masterful so often. But through it all last night, Dudamel didn’t make things about him. He never does.
What could have easily been Dudamel’s Don Giovanni wasn’t. It wasn’t even Gehry’s or Rodarte’s or Christopher Alden’s. It was, ultimately, Mozart’s Don Giovanni. And what a special performance it was.
Additional performances of Don Giovanni at Walt Disney Concert Hall take place May 20, 24, and 26. Tickets are in very limited supply.
Notes: William Skeen joined the LA Phil on baroque cello for the recitatives, providing a delightfully colorful and, at times, improvised continuo. Frank Gehry and Kate and Laura Mulleavy of Rodarte were all in attendance and joined the cast for curtain calls. Lighting designer Adam Silverman kept with the black-and-white theme by employing nothing but varying shades of white in his design, to stunning effect.