Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond
In Space, No One Can Hear You Sing
May 19, 2012
The opera education of Gustavo Dudamel entered its latest phase on Los Angeles concert stages this weekend. When the Venezuelan PR sensation took over the musical reins at the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 2009, it was popular to note how much of the standard orchestral repertoire the young conductor was already intimately familiar with (often to the point of outright memorization) from his time with the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela. The exception to that rule of course was opera, and since his tenure here began, Dudamel has jumped on most of the available opportunities both at the Hollywood Bowl and the Walt Disney Concert Hall to lead concert performances of the most basic staples of an opera season. We’ve seen him lead Carmen and Turandot, and this year at the Bowl he’ll give a whirl at Verdi’s Rigoletto for the first time as well. So when the L.A. Phil announced a little over a year ago that the orchestra would embark on a three year “project” of semi-staged performances of the three Mozart/da Ponte operas, the point largely went without saying. The orchestra management then spent much of the next year breathlessly repeating the starry names it had lined up to help with this endeavor like Maiusz Kwiecien, Frank Gehry, and fashion’s sisters Mulleavy of Rodarte.
Well all the talk finally translated into some fairly surprising if not necessarily revelatory action on Thursday when the assembled forces opened the first production in the series, Don Giovanni. The biggest and best news is that the orchestra under Dudamel sounded great. Mozart is a composer that has provided substantial hurdles to our maestro. Some of the most tedious and grotesque music to come out of his tenure here so far has involved mangling the music of Austria’s favorite son. But the possible musical outcomes of Don Giovanni raised intriguing questions in that Dudamel has repeatedly shown himself to be a first-rate opera conductor. His relative lack of familiarity with many of the scores combined with his typical deference to collaborating musicians tends to tamper down the interpretive excesses prone to derailing his orchestral performances. I’m happy to report his first Don Giovanni was lively and mostly well paced. It was big band, mid-20th century Mozart, certainly not the kind of thing Rene Jacobs would be caught doing on any given day. But given the reality of the musical resources involved it was a brisk, well-detailed and outright inspiring performance from Dudamel and the orchestra. Hearing them play should erase any doubts anyone might have about the sense of doing such a cycle of operas over the next few seasons.
Unfortunately, the staging elements of the show will likely have the opposite effect. Calling the show semi-staged really isn’t accurate. All-but-completely staged might be more in order. American director Christopher Alden was hired to coordinate activities with set (and concert hall) designer Frank Gehry, lighting designer Adam Silverman, and costumes from Kate and Laura Mulleavy of Rodarte. Given the names, the show looked like what you might guess it would, but there was admittedly quite a bit more of it than you might expect. The full expanse of the WDCH stage was flattened out with the orchestra view bench seats removed for the evening. The orchestra and Dudamel filled the bench space, with the cast and set occupying the orchestra’s typical dominion up front. The orchestra was surrounded by a black wall of asymmetric crags of crumpled paper. But everything upfront was starkly white. In fact, outside of four costumes everything in the performance area was a shade of white and lit in a way to emphasize the starkness of it all. The set consisted of four or five white risers of various heights that could be wheeled around and mountains worth of giant sized wads of crumpled up white paper big enough to hide under. Walls of the stuff created paths for characters to enter and exit or just hide inside. One’s first reaction was that the production team had created the first Don Giovanni set in an office wastepaper basket. But when the principals arrived in their form fitting white jeans, boots, and white glossy plastic encrusted outfits one realized this wasn’t so much set in a wastepaper basket as it was Takovsky’s Solaris. With the men all garbed in modern updates of the original Starfleet uniforms and Alden’s direction, which called for blank, disengaged stares into nothingness and choreographed posturing like some down-market Robert Wilson, the show had a distinctly outer space feel. Stark lighting would suddenly fill the stage as if Tarkovsky’s slowly rotating spaceship had come into view again of some distant sun. Performers, including four or five set movers, slowly wandered on and off with little regard to when those entrances and exits might normally be expected in the libretto. Characters more often sang about one another than actually to one another. For instance, most of Zerlina’s original seduction by Don Goiovanni is carried out with her staring directly into Masetto’s eyes. Don Ottavio spends most of Act II supine at the front of the stage for reasons that are never made clear.
There were moments of levity, but these were few and felt like they had crept in from the libretto against the director’s will. The costumes for the women were decidedly post-apocalyptic and definitely straight off the runway providing the only moments of color, albeit in the most predictable and cliché ways. Donna Elvira is in heavily sequined black as if to emphasize her age and position while Zerlina gets a subtly lavender number with ornate headdress. Donna Anna originally all in white with a blond wig, returns in a shredded gray dress with bright red accents in case you missed the attempted assault in Act I. And if all of this isn’t obvious enough for you, Alden keeps most of the women up above it all on the risers as if on pedestals throughout much of the evening. Performers are splayed across these white steps like a 90s Calvin Klein ad, which pretty much captures the emotional depth of the interpretation. It’s not that any of these elements in and of themselves are unattractive. In fact the whole thing does come off as rather an unusual surprise. The bigger problem is that it doesn’t have much to offer in terms of interpretive insight overall. In fact the disparate elements of the design often seem blissfully unaware of one another as if each artist came to the table with their own ideas and said “there it is, take it or leave it.” One can draw unmistakable connections between each design element and its creator, but the show never feels that it has a single vision or purpose of being.
The vocal cast for the show consisted of names largely unfamiliar to an opera-going public with one very big exception – the Don Giovanni of Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecien. He’s undoubtedly one of the best in the world in this part and he did not disappoint with one delicate, warmly sung scene after the next. Not an ounce of bluster or crooniness, this was a Don to remember. The other well-known face in the cast was tenor Pavol Breslik as Don Ottavio. His U.S. engagements are not as frequent as Kwiecien’s and his tone tends to the dry side, but he delivered two lovely arias here and excels as a young if frustrated lover. Of the women in the cast, most impressive was Aga Mikolaj as Donna Elvira who gave a rounded yet agile voice to the spurned lover. Carmela Ramigio sang a Donna Anna that didn’t quite completely navigate around some unwanted softness in parts of her range. Anna Rohaska sang Zerlina with pluck and good consistency and the athletic if restrained Leporello here was Kevin Burdette. He gets probably the worse deal in the show with a part that calls for broad comedy and playfulness in a production that works hard to stop him from expending precious air and water on such commodities at the space station.
In a way it’s exciting to see the L.A. Phil go for opera in such a big way. The evening doesn’t skimp on ambition. It’s a long night at three and a half hours and the 8 pm curtain will get you out pretty close to midnight with only one intermission resulting in a fairly high abandonment rate at the intermission. And while it’s not your same old stale everyday Don Giovanni, the start of Dudamel’s Mozart opera experiment could stand for something a little deeper that actually feels a bit more like Solaris instead of just looking like it.