In preshow publicity, director Christopher Alden has said that his staging of Mozart's Don Giovanni is focused on the score. This is like theater companies saying that their staging of a play by Shakespeare aims to dump high-concept notions or settings to focus on the text — the text in a play by Shakespeare being akin to the music in an opera.
There's something slightly disingenuous about such a claim as it pertains to Alden's Don Giovanni, given the set design by Frank Gehry — the same man who designed Disney Hall, where the show is performed — and given the costumes by international design-celeb sisters Kate and Laura Mulleavy of Rodarte.
(The sold-out opera, presented by the Los Angeles Philharmonic last weekend and on May 24 and 26, is the first in a trilogy of presentations over three seasons dedicated to the music of Mozart and to his librettist Lorenzo da Ponte.)
Alden's "semi-staged" version of the opera falls somewhere between theater and a concert performance. The focus is clearly on the set, costumes and staging as much as on the score. The singing comes through in full glory by a cast of masters. Less so the orchestra, which is positioned at a remove, behind the singers, slightly above Gehry's set, and conducted by L.A.'s resident superstar, Gustavo Dudamel. Adjoining the orchestra on two sides stand (and sit) members of the Los Angeles Master Chorale, men on one side, women on the other, attired in black.
The set pieces or "installations" consist of rolling, jagged and crinkled cascades of white paper, like icebergs floating along the floor, matching the hall's interior, itself shaped in places like an 18th-century wooden galleon. The icebergs are a frigid antithesis of the fiery depths to which the rakish title character is doomed.
In addition to these portable set pieces, which suggest an icy menace (as well as offering the characters places to hide), Gehry serves up three rolling, white, rectangular blocks, each of different heights, interlocking into a looming block of three tiers. From one such block, a character such as Don Giovanni's spurned mistress, Donna Elvira (soprano Aga Mikolaj), or the story's living corpse, Commendatore (bass Stefan Kocan), stands in a statuesque pose, in juxtaposition to an aria or duet occurring on the stage floor below.
Most of the costumes and set offer a sea of white, and the men's costumes in particular appear plucked from an episode of Star Trek. There are notable exceptions — black squiggles across characters' chests; horizontal black straps across Don Giovanni's back; Elvira's gorgeous, sequined black gown; Commendatore's ghost, in a coat of black armor; and the lavender hues and floral designs stitched onto the dress of peasant girl Zerlina (soprano Anna Prohaska), a bride despoiled by Don Giovanni on the night of her wedding. The final, obvious design touch comes from Commendatore's daughter, blonde beauty Donna Anna (soprano Carmela Remigio), whose virginal white gown in Act 1 contains sheaths of red in Act 2: not exactly subtle, but neither is the libretto, which closes as Commendatore leads Giovanni into the fiery pits of hell with the anthem, "Such is the fate of all evildoers." (The English supertitles from the Italian are by Cori Ellison, courtesy of New York City Opera.)
To its considerable credit, Alden's carefully conceived staging contains nothing arbitrary. Yet his decisions have consequences, such as rubbing against the score that was supposed to be the focus. Alden's staging is entirely ceremonial, with every move, every shift of a set piece, even the actors' descents from those cubes — either with the help of railing handles or, if not so high, off the edge of the block — all performed in slow motion. This lends to the presentation a strategically lugubrious tone, as though to underscore the tragedy of Giovanni's plight.
The first consequence of this strategy is to flatten out the motives of Don Giovanni himself (baritone Mariusz Kwiecien). When the character is allowed to be more spry, there are layers of contradiction, and irony, and pathos within his villainy that give credence to Elvira's lament near play's end that, despite all, she feels sorry for him. But here, Giovanni's treachery, played entirely in slow motion, is singular, so that Elvira's line makes no sense, or at least reduces her from a woman of complex emotions to a dupe.
Then there's the apparent effect of the production on the music itself. The score is a kind of chamber music, laced with Baroque flourishes, touches of nimble flippancy amidst sweet melodic arias that tease with romanticism. Conductor Dudamel, so at home with the comparatively emotive strains of music from the 19th century and beyond, nudges the orchestra down-tempo. This makes perfect sense as a match for Alden's staging, but it doesn't take full advantage of the score's more virtuosic passages. What's sacrificed is some tautness and wry elegance of the chamber style.
This problem is compounded by the distance between the orchestra and much of the audience — some of the more intricate orchestral passages are muted by the air. (The opera is staged in the round, with smatterings of audience behind the action, more on the sides and the rest facing the orchestra.)
What doesn't get lost, however, are the voices, which are, bar none, the personification of joy. The buoyancy in soprano Aga Mikolaj's interpretation of "Ah fuggi il traditor" ("Flee the traitor," Donna Elvira cautions Giovanni's mistresses), or soprano Anna Prohaska's soulful "Batti, batti, o bel Masetto" ("Beat me," Zerlina pleads to her groom, furious that she went off with Giovanni), or the dulcet tones of tenor Pavol Breslik's Don Ottavio singing "Il mio tesoro intanto," vowing to his bride, Donna Anna, to avenge the murder of her father by Giovanni.
So does this production serve the score? Yes and no. As a concert performance, is there enough to recommend it? Yes and yes. As an experiment, was it worth the effort? Unequivocally.
DON GIOVANNI | Presented by the Los Angeles Philharmonic | Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., dwntwn. | Thurs., May 24, and Sat., May 26, 8 p.m. | Sold out