By Robert D. Thomas
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News
Los Angeles Philharmonic; Gustavo Dudamel, conductor
Mozart: Don Giovanni
Sunday, May 20, 2012• Walt Disney Concert Hall
Next performances: May 24 and 26
(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.
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’ performance of Don Giovanni that I saw and heard yesterday afternoon 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-plus 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 supernumerary 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.
(c) Copyright 2012, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.