Messing around with Mozart’s ‘Don Giovanni’

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The emphasis in the Los Angeles Opera's presentation of Mozart's "Don Giovanni" is on the humorous rather than the serious nature of the piece.

The music in Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” is so glorious, it is a pity that the Los Angeles Opera has mounted a production with mind-boggling distractions. This is not Seville where the libertine nobleman has seduced 1,003 women, and counting. This is a geometric box with narrow neon lights going in all directions, panels that open and close, and a convenient pit in the middle of the stage for bizarre entrances and exits.

The costumes, too, are problematic. The women wear elaborate gowns with exaggerated side skirts remindful of Velasquez’s painting of the Infanta. The peasants are clothed in the clown outfits of the Italian commedia dell’arte.

The emphasis is definitely on the humorous rather than the serious nature of this masterpiece. Sexy (!) nuns dance in and out, drawing attention from the singers, and a chalk-faced woman in white, representing death (?), appears when least expected.

The servant, Leporello, prances in during the wonderful overture carrying an hour glass with sparkle dust. At the end of the opera, he spills out the “sand” indicating, if you are clever enough to figure it out, that time has run out for the Don.

Erwin Schrott, the baritone playing Don Giovanni, has been receiving golden reviews for his interpretation of the role. However, he comes across as being over-theatrical, with his stallion-like foot stamping and constant head turns. He does look gorgeous in his red and black tight-fitting prowl outfit.

Don Giovanni is a contemptible roué, oblivious of the pain he causes others. Nonetheless, he is a fascinating character with a devil-may-care lifestyle devoted, as he says, to wine and women. However, he discovers that the devil does care as he is pulled down to Hell in the final scene.

Mozart calls the work a “funny drama” and there are light moments as the “hero” works his schemes and tantalizes Leporello. He attacks a young noblewoman and, when discovered, kills her father. A bed pops out of a panel as he tries to seduce the simple peasant girl Zerlina. Zerlina is dressed in a bizarre costume with feathers tacked onto a skirt frame. The feathers are pulled off one by one. Her bridegroom-to-be, Masetto, is dressed in a silly clown outfit, a pitiable figure.

Well, what is an opera without good singing? Here the cast is quite commendable, all capable of handling the magical arias. Schrott has a strong, deep voice and uses it well. The “seductees” are played by Alexandra Deshorties as Donna Anna, Maria Kanyova as Donna Elvira and Lauren McNeese as Zerlina. James Cresswell is a believable Masetto and Charles Castronova as Don Ottavio does well with his two great tenor arias. (Why must Ottavios wear gowns instead of trousers and always look wimpy?) Kyle Ketelson is excellent as the put-upon Leporello and Kang-Liang Peng is imposing as Donna Anna’s father, the Commendatore.

Hartmut Haenchen proved a capable conductor of the excellent Los Angeles Opera Orchestra. Boris F. Kudlicka was responsible for the unusual sets at the Music Center while Arkadius showed his creativity as the costume designer.

The Los Angeles Opera likes to employ directors like Trelinski who impose their wild interpretations on a work. A little imagination can go a long way but in the case of this “Don Giovanni,” restraint was desperately needed.