Mozart's Don Giovanni: A Man for All Seasons : Music: The opera could serve as a contemporary study of class entitlement run amok. The Music Center Opera's production premieres tonight.

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Did he or didn't he? It's her word against his, and the accusation of rape--committed sometime after 2 a.m.--hangs heavy. For these are not quietly obscure people, but important figures of power and influence.

The setting--if you guessed a place from today's headline, strike it--is 18th-Century Seville. The issues, however, haven't changed. Mozart's "Don Giovanni," which bows tonight at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, courtesy of the Music Center Opera, could serve as a contemporary case study of class entitlement run amok.

"Every member of the audience should be uneasy," says baritone Thomas Allen, who portrays the legendary Lothario in this Jonathan Miller production, first staged 18 months ago in Florence. "And so should the cast, because he's unpredictable. No one knows what his next move or scheme will be--only that it is but a hair's breadth away and dangerously violent and centered on his preoccupation with ladies."

Allen, who has sung the sword-brandishing title character in nine different productions during the last 15 years, speaks about an evolving character, one he has discovered "from the inside"--not through action or props or Big Concepts "a la Peter Sellars."

And director Karen Stone, marking her second "Giovanni" with Miller (the first was for English National Opera) and supervising this one alone, agrees.

"Mozart and (his librettist) Da Ponte provide the material. All we needed to do was illuminate it, keeping the original period. The opera is written according to those 18th-Century relationships. The subtleties of class distinction, for instance, and who is allowed to behave how, are woven into the text."

When Masetto has to endure the Don's attempted seduction of his fiancee, says Stone, all the poor peasant can do is stare at the ground and grumble. If things were equal, Masetto would look him in the eye and tell him off.

"But for Jonathan Miller, the revolution was not just between servants and aristocracy," says Stone. "It was led by the middle class, the enlightened intellectuals like Ottavio, who would arrest the Don, not destroy him."

As for being true to the opera's intent--a dramma giocoso or serious comedy--the director says that aspect of irrepressible mockery is indeed underlined.

"We've framed the big moment of Donna Anna's arrival (following the alleged rape) as giocoso. It becomes fright fused with humor, a breathtakingly fast, exhilarating change of gears."

Designer Robert Israel, whose semi-abstract sets consist of giant, looming flats with labyrinthine corridors, says that they afford Giovanni "the quick getaways needed by someone who lives in the fast lane.

"He goes from one opening, so to speak, to another," says Israel, "and we've kept the whole thing fairly dark since from start to finish it's night time."

Elsewhere, credibility is the byword. Stone, who holds a regular post with the Bavarian State Opera in Munich, says that the Don "must be sexy."

There are lots of possible interpretations, she says--"everything from an old sadist to a young hedonist, which Jonathan, who thinks the character was turned on early to sex by a nanny, prefers him to be.

"Ultimately Giovanni must persuade us that he's good at what he does. After all, he's spent three days and nights locked up with Elvira and she's now tracking him. Yes, he may be a commitment-phobe, but he is a very accomplished lover."

Brushing aside what today's feminists might think of her notions about womanizing, the 35-year-old Stone insists that this concept of the Don allows the women in the opera their intelligence.

Zerlina, his new object of seduction, is not witless, the director explains: "She goes along gladly with this con man and not because she doesn't know better. We all fall for him. So does his alleged rape victim, Donna Anna. On the very same night that he steals into her room (an assignation?), her father is murdered.

"Not only does this set off enormously guilty feelings, but it even triggers a memory block. She can't remember exactly what did happen."

All these characters are astute, according to Stone and others. Allen sees Zerlina as quite conscious of what the Don could mean to her. "She's like an insect that's just lighted on a plant," he says. "In other words, an opportunist looking for the perks that come with an aristocrat's attention."

To what extent these nuances can project is anybody's guess. Stone, who is making her local debut, admits that although every raised eyebrow could be seen and reacted to in rehearsal studios, on a large stage things tend to dissipate.

"And that's especially a concern in my department," says Israel, who had to rebuild his sets for the 3,200-seat Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, since the original Florentine designs were for the small Pergola, an 800-seat house.

"Having another shot at it, though, allows me to fix little mistakes," the designer says.

But no one doubts that the major points of this opera--regarded by many as the literature's most brilliant--will get across. Human nature is immutable: Power can translate into sex appeal and generate abuse.

As for the dastardly deed with which the work begins, Allen votes against it: "Did Giovanni really rape Donna Anna? I don't think so. That's why his fascination for her remains."

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