L.A. Opera general director Placido Domingo talks often about bringing his company into line with the innovative staging ideas practiced in other corners of the operatic world. The company’s current “Don Giovanni,” a co-production with the Warsaw-based Polish National Opera, proves him good as his word. This may not look like any version of Mozart’s stormy masterpiece within living memory, but the sounds are mostly wonderful, the innovative stage biz mostly delightful.
Director Mariusz Trelinski has located the opera somewhere on the edge of sanity. With practically nothing in the way of stage furniture — except for an open-sided coffin that rises and falls midstage — Boris Kudlicka’s setting is a large box, pierced with openings for doors and windows, the black walls occasionally becoming mirrors to turn a handful of stage actors into a mob. There is gadgetry galore — a zany ballet to personify the “thousand and three” (so far) victims of the amorous Giovanni, a mobile, dancing forest around the Don’s latest game of hide-and-seek. Giovanni works his oily seduction on the innocent Zerlina while pushing her firmly toward a bed of garish crimson.
It all works. Costume designer Arkadius has decked out his principals — the heroines and their swains who occupy the Don during the course of the opera — in a consistent color scheme: paired yellows for the bumpkin lovers, formal black-and-green for the nobles, a rich, mournful blue for the jilted Elvira. The period is Mozart’s own, wildly exaggerated with the women’s gowns on panniers nearly as wide as the stage itself. The groupings, against the blacks and the mirrors of the stage walls and with the Don himself in a clashing, insidious shade of red, tend to ravish the eye.
The musical matters accomplish much the same for the ear. Thirty-year-old Uruguay-born Erwin Schott, as Giovanni, is a find: a lithe, insinuating, menacing figure with a voice of similar character. The women who bring about his downfall form a first-class and nicely differentiated ensemble: Andrea Rost as the majestic if somewhat frazzled Anna, Adina Nitescu as an Elvira totally unhinged in the clash of love vs. hate, Anna Christy as the peasant maid Zerlina, pert and insinuating. As the comic servant Leporello, Rosendo Flores is a tad underpowered vocally but atones for it with some expert and hilarious footwork. Tenor John Matz is the mellifluous Ottavio; both he and Schrott have been top winners in the Domingo-run “Operalia” vocal competitions in recent years.
Kent Nagano, newly anointed as the company’s first-ever music director, has paced Mozart’s miraculous score with fine regard for the expressive values of his splendid cast. This “Don Giovanni” is the first installment in the company’s announced restaging of all three of Mozart’s great settings of Lorenzo Da Ponte’s texts, looking forward to the composer’s 250th birth anniversary in 2006. “The Marriage of Figaro,” again with Nagano on the podium and with Erwin Schrott in the title role, is slated for May 22, 2004. True Mozartians are, understandably, already impatient.