Los Angeles Opera’s indefatigable music director, James Conlon, always has something provocative or insightful to say, both in his pre-opera lectures and in his program notes. In the case of Mozart’s ever-provocative “Don Giovanni,” he doubled down: Instead of one page in the program, he took two. And toward the center of his essay, he tipped his hand: “Could it be that simply performing and not interpreting the work (however unfashionable that notion might be at this moment in history) is to render to it the greatest service possible?”
L.A. Opera’s new “Don Giovanni” at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion followed that manifesto to a fault Saturday night. No regietheater this time.
This was anything but the reportedly abstract, slow-paced “Don” that the L.A. Philharmonic staged last May, nor the contemporary-European-flavored, fiber optic-light-framed “Don” that L.A. Opera fielded in 2003 and ’07. It was (gasp!) a traditional, mostly literal production -- and a very effective one in which aristocrats looked aristocratic, peasants were peasants, and Mozart’s score towered above all.
Mozart and his librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte, ambiguously called “Don Giovanni” a dramma giocoso, a comic opera with a dramatic core. If anything, this Peter Stein production -- as borrowed from Lyric Opera of Chicago and directed here by Gregory A. Fortner -- tended to lean more toward giocoso but ultimately the dramma was served.
The backdrops were massive, grubby-looking walls that tried to evoke old Seville, and the blue curtain seemed a little cheesy, but they had the effect of providing a blank canvas that concentrated our attention on the lively comic acting and the incredibly fertile score. They also lowered our expectations so that the coups de theatre in Act II -- the vivid depiction of the cemetery and one of the most genuinely scary descents into Hell that I’ve ever seen -- came as even more of a surprise.
Fortunately, the cast was anchored by a strong master-and-servant pair. Ildebrando D’Arcangelo inhabited the title role -- not only here but also in an absorbing, just-released, all-star Deutsche Grammophon CD set, the start of a seven-opera Mozart cycle led by Yannick Nézet-Séguin. D’Arcangelo was an intense, graceful though not exactly elegant Don, his voice all smooth, dark honey with a dangerous edge, his long, lank hair sometimes giving him the not-inappropriate look of Paganini. Serbian bass David Bizic made an impressive U.S. debut as an ingratiatingly comic Leporello, masterfully pointing out the words in a perfectly paced Catalog Aria.
Julianna Di Giacomo’s Donna Anna stayed in a state of high anxiety, contrasting with Soile Isokoski’s lighter timbre as Donna Elvira and Roxana Constantinescu’s earthy, seductive Zerlina. Andrej Dunaev rendered Don Ottavio’s two big arias in gentlemanly fashion, Joshua Bloom’s Masetto was every inch the country bumpkin, Ievgen Orlov’s Commendatore looked nightmarish in Act II but could have sounded more imposing.
The cast had a slightly rough, clashing blend in the ensembles but that, too, could work to the opera’s advantage, with all of the complex differences in character and temperament laid out before us.
Most of all, this performance belonged to Conlon, who whipped up the tempos in the right spots and molded the accompaniments for many of the arias with a loving hand -- Zerlina’s “Vedrai, carino” in Act II was especially beautiful. He favored a full yet mobile modern-instrument orchestral sound and a harpsichord for the recitatives, which I like better than the now-fashionable fortepiano. (Plácido Domingo wields the baton in the last two performances.)
For someone who is new to “Don Giovanni,” this production would make an excellent introduction. For those who prefer a lot of regie in their theater, amazon.com awaits.
Los Angeles Opera: Don Giovanni; Dorothy Chandler Pavilion; 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown L.A.; 7:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 3, 6 and 10; 2 p.m. Sun. and Oct. 14; $19-$276; (213) 972-8001 or www.laopera.com. Running time: 3 hours, 25 minutes.