No character in Mozart’s operas is more perplexing than Don Giovanni. What do we make of him? Is he history’s most dashing and romantic lover, or does that mask of nobility conceal the face of an insatiable sexual predator? Is he the swashbuckling matinee idol Errol Flynn, or the rapacious movie mogul Harvey Weinstein? Should we judge him by the theatrical and operatic traditions of 1787 or the socially conscious perspective of the present?
In his program note for Los Angeles Opera’s season-opening production of Don Giovanni (which had its first performance Saturday at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and runs through Oct. 15), Music Director James Conlon writes that Don Giovanni “portrays burning social issues that our contemporary society is grappling with: the victimization of women and the suppression of the rights of the unprivileged at the hands of a more powerful social class. ... Mozart’s moral position concerning the protagonist is clear and, despite much of the literary musing of subsequent centuries, remains unmistakable. The moral decay, the cruelty, and the malignant antisocial narcissism of the man we know as Don Giovanni merited a powerful and definitive punishment.”
Drama was certainly there in Conlon’s conducting. His sustained emphasis on the ominous D-minor chords that begin the overture felt as much like Verdi as like Mozart — a premonition of La forza del destino, perhaps. And Conlon maintained a skillful balancing act throughout, shifting between moments of buffa humor, soaring lyricism, perfectly balanced ensembles, and emotionally wrenching arias, particularly from Guanqun Yu as Donna Anna and Isabel Leonard as Donna Elvira.
Would that the production directed by Kasper Holten had focused more clearly on the sentiments expressed in Conlon’s essay and conducting. Instead, the guiding light here seems to be a comfortable, crowd-pleasing experience that favors easy laughs over dark character complexities and contemporary social relevance.
Designed by Es Devlin (who is equally comfortable working with London’s Royal Opera as she is creating a stage spectacle for Beyoncé), this Don Giovanni quite literally paints itself into corners. Her Rubik’s Cube of a set consists of two floors of rotating rooms and stairways, onto which Luke Halls provides frenetically layered graffiti-style projections, including the myriad names of the Don’s former conquests — the infamous list. The set is also meant to represent each of the opera’s locations, which forces Holten to make some very bizarre and awkward adjustments, particularly during the confrontational scene in the cemetery. He also introduces a succession of somnambulant female ghosts who haunt the halls, presumably Don Giovanni’s lovers who chose suicide over disgrace.
Tall and with movie-star looks, baritone Lucas Meachem cuts a dashing presence as the Don. His vocal power is somewhat less commanding. As directed by Holten, he comes across more like a randy frat rat than a demonic force. His messy “palace,” with its tossed food platters, resembles the clutter of Animal House.
Costumed like one of Samuel Beckett’s tramps in Waiting for Godot, bass-baritone Craig Colclough is a bumbling Leporello, more irksome clown than unwilling co-conspirator. His voice is resonant but not as large as the role can handle.
It is in the character of Donna Anna that Holten’s direction finds complexity. His staging of the opening scene clearly indicates that Donna Anna has been a willing partner in her own downfall. So, when she sings her passionate aria of explanation, “Or sai chi l’onore” (Now you know who tried to steal my honor), to her ardent if ineffectual suitor, Don Ottavio (tenor Anthony León), it comes across as a carefully crafted lie designed to salvage her reputation. At the same time, she is guilt-ridden over the death of her father, which resulted from her indiscretion. On opening night, it was Yu’s performance that shone most brightly.
Some singers grab hold of Donna Elvira’s fiery arias at full throttle, but this was not the case with Leonard on opening night. Her vocal control and dramatic impact seemed slightly off. Her most heartfelt expression came in her tearful “Mi tradí quell’alma ingrata” (That ungrateful soul betrayed me).
León’s Ottavio might have not lived up to his character’s threats of manly revenge, but his graceful, pure, floating tenor made the audience resound with approval for his star-turn aria, “Il mio tesoro” (To my beloved).
Bass-baritone Alan Williams blustered earnestly as the bridegroom Masetto, opposite soprano Meigui Zhang’s half-willing, half-resistant portrayal of the bride Zerlina. The stentorian ghostly summons of the Commendatore were justly sung by bass Peixin Chen.
At this point, traditionally, Don Giovanni is embraced by demons and dragged down to suffer the torments of the inferno forever. And perhaps, as Conlon writes in his essay, this is the “powerful and definitive punishment” the character deserves. That, however, is not the damnation to which this production condemns him. Surprisingly, a decidedly unrepentant Don finds himself back among the living. And as the ensemble rejoices at his demise, he wanders among them as a ghost, slowly realizing his fate is to spend eternity lusting for women he can never touch. There is a poetic justice in that.