The Los Angeles Philharmonic's production of the Mozart-Da Ponte opera "Così fan tutte" arrives on stage at the Walt Disney Concert Hall on Friday with a hard-edged futurism and a note of nostalgia.
It's the third production in as many years to unite the orchestra under the baton of kinetic music director Gustavo Dudamel with staging by director Christopher Alden, one of opera's revisionists known for injecting contemporary urgency into his productions.
It's also the finale in a trilogy of late 1700s operas composed by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart with Italian librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte for which the L.A. Phil enlisted world-class architects and fashion designers to create costumes and sets.
In this case, the two-time British Fashion Council's designer of the year Hussein Chalayan, renowned for blurring the line between art and wearable architecture, supplies its wardrobe. The firm of Pritzker Prize-winning Baghdad-born British architect Zaha Hadid is responsible for "Così's" curvilinear, shape-shifting stage — not to mention a near CIA-level of secrecy leading up to the opera's opening.
And in an era when opera performers are required to negotiate nosebleed heights, avant-garde choreography and restrictive costumes, the L.A. Phil's "Così fan tutte" requires its singers to take certain fashion precautions lest they suffer grave physical injury while walking what is quite literally a slippery slope during performances.
"It's a very intensely raked set — the women have to take off their fabulous high-heeled shoes in order to go up the steep parts of the ramp," Alden said with a laugh. "But we've made that part of the show! The shoes sit on the stage and take on an iconic status."
Viewed another way, the opera's four-performance run marks the culmination of a grand experiment: six years of cross-cultural imagineering and thinking outside the orchestra pit that predates Dudamel's rise to prominence as "the Dude."
Indeed, the impulse to bring architects and fashion designers into the opera world is just one of many initiatives that has helped define the L.A. Philharmonic as arguably the most forward-thinking major orchestra in the world.
"At the beginning, I was thinking, 'It's for the soul of the orchestra.' To enrich the spectrum of how to think and interpret music," Dudamel explained of tackling the Mozart-Da Ponte trilogy inside Disney Hall, a space that wasn't designed for traditional opera productions. "Right now, I think our soul is very big. The orchestra has changed. And this wonderful city has been so supportive of all these crazy things. We have to be very proud of what we are doing here."
Over what has become an infamous coffee stop on a rainy Sunday at a Berlin Starbucks in 2008, Phil President Deborah Borda, Vice President of Artistic Planning Chad Smith and Dudamel began dreaming up projects the incoming maestro could take on when he reached Los Angeles (including the ambitious Mahler cycle that became a crowning effort of the Venezuelan conductor's tenure with the orchestra in 2012).
Talk of Mozart led to a more focused discussion about the composer's Da Ponte operas. And that led to chat about experimental staging — "something very L.A. Phil," Borda recalled — ultimately resulting in an early morning phone call to Frank Gehry, the trail-blazing architect who designed Walt Disney Concert Hall and a longtime Angeleno orchestra stalwart, about designing the set. His introductions to pals Jean Nouvel, the Pritzker-winning French starchitect, and Hadid — described by the New York Times in 2006 as "architecture's diva, the most precocious talent in her profession" — established the trilogy's parameters.
Gehry admitted he was "terrified" of failure going into the project but pointed out the L.A. Phil's marriage of high design and centuries-old opera is no empty exercise in style over substance.
"It's not making new just to make new," Gehry said. "It's making new to relate to what's going on in the world. It's important to keep up with that. And it's something Gustavo is fiercely interested in. As part of the Philharmonic family, it's why I stick with them."
Although certain elements remained constant throughout all three productions — Alden's stripped-down, nearly propless theatricality and Dudamel's bracing vision all staged beneath the torquing metal curves of Disney Hall's roof — the orchestra's Mozart-Da Ponte cycle can be boiled down to a tale of three cities: Los Angeles, Paris and London.
In 2012, "Don Giovanni" was an L.A. affair with Gehry creating a tableau of iceberg-size construction paper crumbles for the set while Pasadena-raised sisters Laura and Kate Mulleavy (behind the hot-haute fashion line Rodarte) handled the production's other-worldly costumes. A year later, two Parisians — Nouvel and couture all-star Azzedine Alaia (who was born in Tunisia but maintains an atelier in Paris) — injected vibrancy and color into the Phil's staging of "The Marriage of Figaro." And now, the London-based Hadid and Chalayan bring a high-tech vision of the future to the wife swapping, mistaken identity and surprise reveals of "Così fan tutte."
Described by Vogue magazine as "fashion's arch avant gardist," Chalayan first collaborated with Hadid on "The Remote Controlled Dress" for the architect's 1999 exhibition at London's Millennium Dome. But after he costumed a celebrated production of Handel's "Messiah" at New York's Lincoln Center and several European modern dance performances, Hadid called on Chalayan again for her L.A. Phil effort.
In turn, the designer focused on the opera's "changeability of the characters" — particularly "Così's" male protagonists Fernando and Guglielmo (portrayed respectively by Alek Shrader and Philippe Sly), who set the drama in motion. They disguise themselves as Albanians to trick their fiancées Fiordiligli and Dorabella (Miah Persson and Roxana Constantinescu) into a wife swap to settle a bet on whether all women are essentially unfaithful.
"There's a transforming element in the clothes," explained Chalayan, who developed a laser-cut "3-D fabric" with custom embroidery for the production.
"You see a classical suit or coat. And then they become something else, with other textures coming out as they perform. There's interplay between classical shapes and this experimental edge. Things happen to the clothes that you wouldn't expect, necessarily," he said.
Transformation and ambiguity also play key factors in Hadid's set: a 14-foot high, pearl-hued, nautilus-like landscape encircled by a slanting runway that changes shape according to what's being enacted and even mechanically transports performers "in orbital relationship to each other," in the words of Zaha Hadid Architects senior designer Saffet Kaya Bekiroglu, who is in Los Angeles to oversee the set's construction and installation.
"It's pretty experimental," Bekiroglu acknowledged. "But we're in Hollywood, where movies are made, so I think people will be open to it. It's totally Zaha."
Hadid, however, stands out as the only architect in the trilogy not to travel to Los Angeles. Unlike Gehry and Nouvel, who fine-tuned their installations in person until the last possible minute, Hadid was prevented from overseeing her set's truck-in from a gigantic rehearsal space in Los Angeles' Historic Filipinotown to Disney Hall because, as Bekiroglu explained, "she had a conflict." The architect will also miss the opera's four performances thanks to her busy schedule.
For Borda, the orchestra's president and chief creative officer, the trilogy's culmination is bittersweet: the end of a long artistic journey but also a long-held dream.
"I feel nostalgic," Borda said. "Artistically, it's fulfilled its promise in so many ways we didn't expect. We're a very different organization now in terms of setting up these productions in our hall and taking on these collaborations across artistic genres to get to a new and invigorating place in the 21st century. It's woven into the DNA of the organization. It's who we are."
For his part, Dudamel is already eyeing future challenges. Among them, a production of Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg's "Gurre-Lieder," an exceptionally demanding, seldom-performed cantata requiring an eight-part mixed chorus, several choirs and a gigantic orchestra.
"It's made me excited to think more and think bigger," Dudamel said of the Mozart-Da Ponte trilogy. "With all humility, we are doing so many things that are going so well. With the same humility, we have to stay strong and do more things in the future. Like a symphony with many movements."
'Cosi fan tutti'
When: Friday, 7:30 p.m., Sunday, 2 p.m., May 29, 7:30 p.m., May 31, 2 p.m.
Where: Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand St., Los Angeles