Since 1630 many notable artists have taken Don Juan on, on page, onstage and onscreen: Moliere, Lord Byron, John Barrymore, Douglas Fairbanks, Errol Flynn, Johnny Depp, Roger Vadim, Brigitte Bardot, etc. But for my ducats, the 1787 opera composed by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart with libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte is the best interpretation of this legend of the great lover that emerged from Spanish monasteries. And LA Opera’s production of Don Giovanni is among the best works I’ve seen and heard gracing the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. The story concerns two of Mozart’s leitmotifs, sexuality and class struggle, which recur throughout his oeuvre, along with the usual disguises and mistaken identities that are operatic mainstays. Don Giovanni (Italian bass-baritone Ildebrando D’Arcangelo) portrays the grand seducer, who has an insatiable appetite for women of all sizes, ages and nationalities, deploying a combination of guile, charm, looks, wealth and a heavy dose of deception to “love ’em and leave ’em.” According to what may be the prototype of the proverbial “little black book,” Don Giovanni (as Don Juan is called in Italian) has bedded more than 1,000 Spanish senoritas — and one supposes senoras — alone. During a scene at a feast in his villa, the rakish nobleman boasts that he plans to bed at least a dozen peasant girls before the night is over. The action follows Don Giovanni during what Henry Miller called his “crazy cock days,” until, as the title of Errol Flynn’s autobiography put it, the Don’s “wicked, wicked ways” eventually catch up with the feckless womanizer whose biggest crime is being a serial, heartless liar. As for class conflict, this is embodied in Mozart’s opera by at least two characters. The Don’s not so faithful servant Leporello is performed with great comic panache by Belgrade bass David Bizic who steals scenes like a clownish kleptomaniac in an auspicious American debut. Leporello is one of Mozart’s resentful servants, like the title character in The Marriage of Figaro and Despina, the worldy maid of the noble sisters in Così Fan Tutte, Mozart’s rumination on female infidelity. (Da Ponte also wrote the librettos of both Mozart masterpieces, which were mounted in recent years by L.A. Opera with glorious productions that made viewers seem as if they were walking on air; Romanian mezzo-soprano Roxana Constantinescu’s portrayal of the frisky, saucy servant girl in the latter is especially memorable.) Adding to Don Giovanni’s class struggle subtext is the aggrieved peasant Masetto (Melbourne bass Joshua Bloom), whose gripe with the not-so-noble nobleman is similar to that of Figaro’s, as Count Almaviva intends to deflower the barber’s intended, Susanna, on their wedding night. Masetto suspects the attention the Don showers on his betrothed Zerlina (Ms. Constantinescu in a return engagement; although the role will be played by German-born soprano Micaëla Oeste on Oct. 10 and 14), such as in the lovely duet “Thy little hand, Love,” is not exactly motivated by Don Giovanni’s pure altruism in celebrating the couple’s impending nuptials. At one point Masetto leads an armed lynch mob of peasants intent on killing the libertine, which briefly suggests a showdown between the 99% and 1%. (Mozart’s class struggle observations made him as much an Enlightenment philosophe as Rousseau and Voltaire were.) The dazzling Ildebrando has a Brando-esque sexuality and swagger. With his overflowing locks and costuming by Munich designer Moidele Bickel in a skin tight black leather outfit, his Don is a cross between Zorro and a heavy metal rock star, as Mr. D’Arcangelo cuts a swashbuckling swathe across the stage. He also plays straight man to Bizic’s uproarious Leporello, in a slapstick-like performance that would be at home on the vaudeville stage or on the silent screen (although then, alas, we could not hear him croon and lament at his master’s abusiveness and mischief). Bizic’s comical Leporello — reduced to the social status of a leper by the madcap lechery of his out of control patron, who blithely, chronically places his long suffering servant in mortal danger — puts the buffoon into opera buffa. As Donna Anna, Santa Monica soprano Julianna Di Giacomo conveys the anguish Don Giovanni has caused her, first by seduction then by killing her father, Commendatore (Ukrainian bass Levgen Orlov). The outcome of this duel in the first scene of Act I determines the arc of the action, as Anna’s (sung by soprano Angela Meade on Oct. 10 and 14) husband-to-be Don Ottavio (Russian tenor Andrej Dunaev) seeks vengeance. Finnish soprano Soile Iskoski’s sexually conflicted Donna Elvira (no, not the TV vampire) epitomizes the hell that hath no fury like a woman scorned. Betrayed by the philandering nobleman, Elvira seeks to become an early warning system for his would-be future conquests by exposing his deceitful treachery, yet still yearns for the Don’s embrace. Austrian Ferdinand Wögerbauer’s so-so sets only come alive in the third and final scene of Act II. Both the cemetery and inferno sequences are imaginatively, spookily rendered and are hoots to watch, especially the latter’s fiery special effects, which are stagey and quaint in today’s high tech CGI world. Along with Orlov’s spectral presence, the finale of Don Giovanni rather appropriately sets the stage — literally — for Halloween. Director Gregory Fortner, who helmed last season’s showstopping La Boheme, again does yeoman’s work, as does the baton twirling maestro James Conlon (multi-talented Spanish tenor and LA Opera General Director Plácido Domingo replaces him at the conductor’s podium on Oct. 14). Fight director Ed Douglas also merits singling out; from the first scene’s duel to the denouement, this action packed spectacle is a joy to behold. And, but of course, to listen to. Mozart’s polyphonic music is especially textured in Don Giovanni, which ranges from low comedy to high tragedy. The vibrant Constantinescu’s Zerlina’s “Dearest, shall I tell you” and Di Giacomo’s Donna Anna’s “Beloved mine, do not say” are movingly delivered, bravura arias. When I think that Mozart died at only age 36, I feel like howling at the moon, gnashing my teeth, frothing at the mouth and rending my garments, not only for him, but for music lovers who might have had double the inventory to enjoy had this artist lived out his natural life span. But at least we have eternal joys like LA Opera’s production of Wolfie’s sonorous, sumptuous Don Giovanni to transport us, ever so briefly, to the realm of the angelic — if by way of a devilish rogue. Don’t miss it. Don Giovanni is being performed at 2:00 p.m. on Sundays Sept. 30 and Oct. 14 and at 7:30 p.m. on Oct. 3, Oct. 6 and Oct. 10 at LA Opera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave. For more info: (213)972-8001; www.laopera.com.
Don Giovanni Opera Review: Wolfgang’s “p***y* riot
Ed Rampell is an L.A.-based film critic/historian and author named after Edward R. Murrow, in honor of the broadcaster's exposé of Senator Joe McCarthy. As a film critic and historian Rampell co-wrote Made in Paradise: Hollywood's Films of Hawaii and the South Seas and Pearl Harbor in the Movies and Progressive Hollywood: A People’s Film History of the United States. He has written for Variety, Television Quarterly, Cineaste, New Times L.A., Islands, Action Asia, Travel Age West, Skin Inc., Porthole, Far East Traveler, Asian Diver, L.A. Times, Toronto Globe & Mail, Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, San Jose Mercury News, Pacific Business News, E The Environmental Magazine, L.A. Reader, and is a staff writer for the Los Angeles Journal.