Gehry, Rodarte Team Up for Spooky Mozart in L.A.: Review

Carmela Remigio as Anna in "Don Giovanni." The costumes are by Kate and Laura Mulleavy of Rodarte. Photographer: Autumn de Wilde/Los Angeles Philharmonic via Bloomberg

Frank Gehry, Gustavo Dudamel and -- hold on to your suspenders of disbelief -- the Rodarte sisters of “Black Swan.”

The unlikely combo conjured up a spookily beautiful production of “Don Giovanni” at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles on Friday. (The two remaining performances are tomorrow and Saturday).

I thought I was done with the Don, especially after the Metropolitan Opera’s dreary staging last autumn, which sucked the life out of Mozart and much of the audience.

Looking back, I think I’ve seen maybe eight productions, starting with Cesare Siepi whose getup -- Spanish doublet, tights and puffy shorts -- set a standard for traditional shows.

In these, the doomed sex maniac laughs at fate, slaps goofy servant Leporello on the back a lot, and throws his goblet into the wings after tossing off that anthem of happy-go-lucky boozers: the Champagne aria.

Not so in L.A., where Don Giovanni spends a fair amount of the evening with his eyes closed, dreaming.

Working with director Christopher Alden, Gehry created a metaphorical landscape devoid of Seville’s balconies, potted geraniums, gaily costumed peasants, tapas plates.

Imposing piles of crumpled paper cover the playing space, creating an abstract realm where Don Giovanni enacts scenes of his life. The shapes look like crags, fissures, icebergs, depending on the lighting (which could have been much more dramatic).

The Great Gehry

Gehry, of course, designed this spectacular hall for the Los Angeles Philharmonic and there’s no proscenium arch or pit.

To make room for the opera, he crumpled more paper, this batch colored black, and relocated the orchestra to risers high up at the back of the stage. Dudamel and his players, also dressed in black, are barely visible to us, though the maestro appears on two video screens in case the singers need a down beat. Even in this difficult situation, the supremely gifted Venezuelan conducted without a score.

Remarkably, coordination was near perfect.

As the overture started, we saw Donna Anna standing high up on a pedestal, then slowly slumping into a dream in which she loosens her bodice and seems to command the appearance of her seducer.

From across the stage, Don Giovanni slowly inches toward her.

Like an expressionless zombie he pulls himself up the rungs to her pedestal.

As staged by Alden, it’s a powerful image of unspoken, even unsung, desire.

No Laughs

The trancelike state conjured up by Alden is surprisingly effective throughout the opera, albeit short on laughs.

If you think about the individuals, except for Don Giovanni, they hardly ever do what they promise to: Donna Elvira won’t cut out Don Giovanni’s heart as she promises in her entrance aria; the hapless Don Ottavio can’t do more than state his intentions for revenge. They are stuck in their own aspic.

Kate and Laura Mulleavy of Rodarte, the fashion house they started in 2005, inject the perverse extravagance we expect from the women who stitched up those scary tutus and evil head-toppers for “Black Swan.”

Swarovski Crystals

Especially the women are lavishly costumed. Elvira’s black gown glitters with Swarovski crystals. Zerlina is a vision of spring with green pompons and what might be a salad platter in her hair.

The men are all in white, from their breastplates to their boots, except for the doomed commendatore, who wears black.

Men are all the same and they don’t change either, the sisters seem to be saying, playing off of Don Giovanni’s presumption that one woman is just like the next, maybe plumper.

L.A. has fielded a splendid cast of fit Mozarteans, most thin enough for the runway on which we might admire more closely the detailed stitching. (Astonishingly, there are no plans for a telecast.)

Even when utterly inert, Mariusz Kwiecien, as Don Giovanni, was a compelling presence and vocally glorious.

Sidekick Kevin Burdette made an amusing entrance as Leporello, crawling into view from underneath a heap of paper. When he sang the “Catalog” aria listing his master’s conquests -- in Spain alone, 1,003 -- he might as well have been walking through crumpled up drafts of the manuscript. Not long out of Juilliard, Burdette already presents a major voice.

Aga Mikolaj (Elvira), Carmela Remigio (Anna) and Anna Prohaska (Zerlina), all three fearlessly balancing atop fashionista killer heels, sang with color and confidence.

Pavol Breslik (Ottavio) was the vocal revelation of the evening, dispatching his two arias with remarkable breath control and gorgeous tone.

Borda, Dudamel

“Don Giovanni” is the first in a trio of Mozart productions linking major architects and designers. Next up: “Marriage of Figaro” with Jean Nouvel and Azzedine Alaia. Then Zaha Hadid ponders “Cosi Fan Tutte,” with a designer yet to be named. Alden directs all three.

This unconventional series is the brainchild of Dudamel and the imaginative dynamo who hired him and has made this orchestra great: its president, Deborah Borda. What a pity neither is available in New York City.

(Manuela Hoelterhoff is executive editor of Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)

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