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Go big or go home: an ambitious Don Giovanni staged by the Los Angeles Philharmonic

It was not your average Sunday afternoon at Walt Disney Disney Concert Hall.  Gustavo Dudamel was still on the podium for the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s unofficial Mozart Month, but that was pretty much where “business as usual” ended.  The LA Phil had decided that their first-ever complete performances of Don Giovanni would be full-blown productions, not mere stand-and-sing concert versions of Mozart’s opera.

As if that weren’t enough, they:

  • hired Frank Gehry, the designer of Disney Hall and most famous living architect on the planet,  to create the setting
  • populated it with a young, attractive, and vocally strong cast led by Mariusz Kwiecien, one of the most prominent Dons currently around
  • dressed them in costumes designed by Kate and Laura Mulleavy of the noteworthy Los Angeles fashion house, Rodarte
  • handed the whole thing over to Christopher Alden, a director known locally for interesting operatic interpretations

The result was high in style and substance, sounding very good and looking stunning.  It wasn’t a complete triumph, with some aspects which were quirky and frustrating, but you had to appreciate and be impressed by the overall effort.

Pavol Breslik (Don Ottavio) and Carmela Remigio (Donna Anna) in Act One*

The WDCH stage was set so that most of the risers were flattened and covered in white to create space for the action.  Mr. Gehry’s heavy paper “installations” for the stage created a crinkly white landscape for the cast to walk between and hide within.  These were punctuated with four moveable rectangular blocks varying in height between about three- and twelve- feet, on and around which the majority of action occurred.  Behind and about four feet above the white theatrical stage was the orchestra, filling the space where the central choir benches normally reside, with similarly crinkled paper — this time black — covering the back walls, and black fabric covering the extreme sides where some choir benches remained for use by the small contingent of the Los Angeles Master Chorale.

The rough textures and stark black and white colors were an arresting visual contrast to the the warm wooden interior of WDCH, creating an other-worldly setting.  The mostly black and white costumes designed by the Mulleavy sisters matched the setting and added to that atmosphere, and when combined with the very black or very white hair & wig designs of Odile Gilbert, gave the whole production a “Star Wars stormtrooper meets post-modern vampire” look and feel (though the undead Commendatore looked like a dead ringer for Sauron from Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings).

Carmela Remigio (Donna Anna) and Anna Prohaska (Zerlina) and Ryan Kuster (Masetto) during Act Two of Don Giovanni*

Each of the women was given a distinctive look:  jet black inlaid with Swarovski crystal for Donna Elvira, flowing white for Donna Anna, a pixie-ish lavender number for Zerlina (somewhat ironically not in a typical bride’s white).  In the second half, the looks were altered:  Donna Elvira had a subtly different black dress, Zerlina looked to be a in a slight state of dishabille, and Donna Anna’s formerly pure white dress dramatically streaked in blood-red.   It was quite a visual feast.

In contrast, the men (save for the Commendatore) looked largely generic, with very similar white pants, shoes, shirts, and mottled grey breast-plates.  If not for hair color and slight differences of build, they were difficult to tell apart, almost becoming interchangeable.

In many ways, this mirrored Mr. Alden’s conception of them — even if they hadn’t bed thousands of women a la Giovanni, they were all really the same one-dimensional character without much redeeming quality. In fact, there was little-to-no evolution in any of characters in Mr. Alden’s world, regardless of the emotions about which they may have been singing at any particular moment.   The storytelling therefore was stunted and a bit incongruent, with Masetto’s rather striking final interaction with Zerlina particularly curious.

Where Mr. Alden’s ideas worked better were on the small scale, scene by scene, interaction for interaction.  It was oddly compelling to watch Donna Anna pining for Don Giovanni despite just having been assaulted by him and while simultaneously acting reticent towards her fiance, Don Ottavio.  So too was Zerlina’s charming but odd solo dance turn around a stoic cast near the end of the first act.   The characters’ movements and placement throughout the stage were well thought-out, even clever, and made the most of Mr. Gehry’s set design.  Characters often were asked to move in a stylized slow motion, sometimes remaining perfectly still (occasionally in some awkward positions for singing).  It all made the instances of normal-speed action more striking in contrast, all of which combined to heighten the drama. Of course, regardless of how good it may have looked, it wouldn’t have worked unless the singers and musicians did their part, and in this regard, there was a great deal to admire.

Mariusz Kwiecien (Don Giovanni) and Anna Prohaska (Zerlina) sing “La ci darem la mano” in Act One^

Most of all, you can’t have a successful Don Giovanni without a strong lead  inhabiting the title role, and the LA Phil had an ideal one in Mr. Kwiecien.  The Polish baritone has a powerful voice with a rich tone, not to mention an athletic stature and build, all of which he brought to bear to create a menacingly suave portrayal of the Don.  Kevin Burdette’s Leporello served as a perfect foil, showing great comedic physicality and timing, and in doing so, bringing a bit of much needed humor to an otherwise deadly serious production.  Vocally, he met every hurdle thrown his way — including singing while lying on his stomach — with aplomb, and his Catalog Aria was characterized perfectly.

Aga Mikolaj (Donna Elvira)*

The women also were all very nicely cast.   Of the three, my favorite by the end of the night was Aga Mikolaj singing Donna Elvira.  She displayed a sumptuous voice that could be blustery or tender as needed, while imbuing her role with just the right mix of anger and desperation (it appears she had gotten over whatever vocal ailments other writers noted from Friday’s performance).  Anna Prohaska gave Zerlina an appropriate naivité, her lighter voice still able to sing beautifully over the orchestra without ever getting overwhelmed by it or sounding harsh in the process.

Carmela Remigio was a technically impressive Donna Anna, effortlessly hitting all vocal runs and high notes, but while she displayed some breadth of emotional range in her acting, there wasn’t enough range of emotion reflected in her singing.  She was matched on all of those attributes by Pavol Breslik, a vocally impressive but unconvincing Don Ottavio.  Of course, both of them could have been merely following the speak-one-way-but-behave-another concept of the director, but I can’t be sure. Rounding out the cast, Stefan Kocan was booming Commendatore, while Ryan Kuster’s Masetto was earnest and capable, if a little underpowered.

Cast of Don Giovanni, with the LA Phil behind them^

Mr. Dudamel’s pacing was generally on the slower side of average without being outright slow, momentum always more than sufficient.  His textures were relatively thick, even in quieter moments, and when climaxes came in both acts, he pushed them loud and hard without ever allowing the sound to become bombastic.   This was certainly anticipated, as was the fact that it worked better with this opera than it did various times in the past when he conducted some of Mozart’s symphonies.  The orchestra itself sounded great.

The biggest musical challenge was in the placement of the LA Phil behind the singers.  A video feed beamed Mr. Dudamel’s conducting gestures to TV monitors located strategically throughout WDCH so that the singers could follow along.  But while they could respond to him, it was a lot more difficult for him to respond to them since he had no way to watch them.  This one-way visual contact likely limited the spontaneity which is often a hallmark of Mr. Dudamel’s concerts, not to mention contributing to some occasional lack of rhythmic coordination between singers and orchestra.

In the end, the positive aspects of the performance outweighed the annoying ones, and the net result was a production for which the LA Phil can be rightly proud.  They were willing to be bold, in keeping with the orchestra’s collective personality,  and in doing so, made for a stimulating concert-going experience well beyond your average Sunday afternoon at Disney Hall.

Ensemble, climax of Act One (Note stylized horse-head masks on platforms, worn earlier in the scene by Donna Anna, Donna Elvira, and Don Ottavio)*

Random other thoughts:

  •  More on applause:  after one of the first arias, during what would be the first natural pause for the audience to applaud, there was some muted, almost nervous, clapping.  It seemed that the audience didn’t know whether to collectively treat this like an opera (where you’re “allowed” to applaud after big arias) or an orchestra concert (where you’re supposed to sit on your hands until the end, like most performances of oratorios).  The next time around, the applause came enthusiastically but misplaced — right in the middle of Leporello’s Catalog Aria.  Oh well.  Cue the quote about the best of intentions . . .
  • By my unofficial time-keeping, the whole thing lasted 3 hours, 45 minutes with intermissions included — much longer than a typical orchestral concert which usually ends somewhere south of three hours.  Perhaps this is why there were so many more empty seats after intermission and a small but steady stream of people departing throughout the second half.
  • Another potential contributing factor to the rash of early departures:  the fact that the whole thing was tougher to follow than more traditional Don Giovanni productions given the unconventional staging and characterizations, sometimes less-than-comprehensive supertitles,  and general lack of props (why isn’t Donna Anna sure who attacked her when Don Giovanni’s face is plainly visible in the opening scene?)  I heard one person near me praise the concept and the singing, but complain that she kept getting lost as to where exactly in the plot they were.
  • Pictures from Friday’s premiere show Mr. Gehry, Mr. Alden, and the Mulleavy sisters among those taking bows with the performers.  At Sunday’s performance, they did not appear on stage at all.
  • When the opera began with Carmela Remigio standing in her stark white gown on top of a 10-to-12-foot platform, I couldn’t help but be reminded of a barely staged version of Debussy’s Le Martyre de Saint-Sebastien that the LA Phil did over a decade ago back in Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.  It’s most prominent (dare I say only) set piece:  Sylvia McNair standing on top of a tall platform wearing a stark white dress.
  • In the latest variation on a theme of seating arrangement, the LA Phil strings were arrayed (from left to right):  2nd violins, 1st violins, cellos, violas.  That’s right:  2nd violins were sitting closest to the edge of the stage to the conductor’s left.  Basses were located behind the violins instead of their normal position behind the cellos.
  • There are two more performances, Thursday, May 24th, and Saturday, May 26th.

Stefan Kocan (Commendatore)^

Los Angeles Philharmonic:  May 20, 2012; Walt Disney Concert Hall

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

Mozart:  Don Giovanni, K. 527

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
William Skeen, Continuo cello
Chris Bonomo, Eros Mendoza, Jeff Payton, Jee Teo, supernumeraries
Supertitles by Cori Ellison, courtesy of New York City Opera
Photo credits:

  • *Autumn de Wilde
  • ^Mathew Imaging

5 thoughts on “Go big or go home: an ambitious Don Giovanni staged by the Los Angeles Philharmonic

  1. “But while they could respond to him, it was a lot more difficult for him to respond to them since he had no way to watch them. This one-way visual contact likely limited the spontaneity which is often a hallmark of Mr. Dudamel’s concerts…” A great point! Conductors are supposed to follow as well as lead.


  2. Thanks for the review! I’m looking forward to attending Thursday’s performance. About the second violins seated where the firsts usually sit, I saw the Berlin Philharmonic’s performance of Carmen on their webcast – Rattle had them configured the same way.


  3. Pingback: An old-school Don Giovanni: Ildebrando D’Arcangelo stars in LA Opera’s latest production « All is Yar

  4. Pingback: A magnificient “Marriage of Figaro:” LA Phil’s modern staging of Mozart classic is a huge success on all fronts | All is Yar

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