LA Opera’s 2023-24 season opener is a sizzler of epic proportions, where cold-heartedly handled love conquests meet sobering consequences, in the emotionally charged Don Giovanni.
Directed with a socially conscious discernment by Kasper Holten and conducted effortlessly by James Conlon, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s staggering music has never sounded so ripe and righteously rancorous, propelled by its ingeniously cast principals who are given ample time to stun collectively and individually throughout a narrative that also boasts a visually compelling production design. Certainly, audiences have never been more thrilled to be whisked away by an opera that, while as entertaining as it is, also reminds how certain mores have duly expired, superseded by an emotional maturity and courage against sexual manipulation.
The timing of Don Giovanni — based on the apparent legend of the preternaturally promiscuous Don Juan — is highly apropos in the wake of the #MeToo movement. Lorenzo da Ponte’s two-act libretto begins by following the nobleman Giovanni (accompanied by his resistant servant Leporello) who, in trying to furtively escape the bedroom of his latest conquest, the engaged Donna Anna, is caught by her father, the Commendatore, who soon finds himself killed by the Lothario. Is it murder or self-defense? That’s a question attendees will have to ask themselves.
Nevertheless, the Commendatore’s passing sets in motion a series of unfortunate events for Giovanni who not only has to contend with Anna and her devoted fiancé Don Ottavio, but the returning Donna Elvira, representative of the ultimate scorned woman, who is determined to punish Giovanni for a bygone betrayal. Additionally caught in the crossfire of Giovanni’s rakish ways are the just-married modest couple, Masetto and his bride Zerlina, who are fast-tracked on the libertine’s licentious nature. Following a masquerade ball, a swap of identities, and an unusual dinner invitation, the Italian opera culminates with a significant message on the cost of improbity.
For those who saw the Grammy Award-winning baritone Lucas Meachem and bass-baritone Craig Colclough in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro last February (Figaro preceded the world premiere of Don Giovanni by only one year in the late 18th century), it was clear that no two men would be better equipped to portray the title role and the comparatively scrupulous Leporello, respectively. The two are equally talented as physically expressive actors as they are singers, regaling the audience with their versatility.
Sporting long hair, and a regal blue ensemble to accommodate his partially bared chest, Meachem evokes a medley of emotions from the observer. On one hand, there is no illusion the subterfuge his character has employed to bed thousands of women is immoral, if not outright horrifying. On the other hand, Meachem’s depiction is so charming, bolstered by flawless comic timing, that we can’t help but find the debauched Giovanni likable against our better judgment when he, entrenched in his own self-delusion, utters statements like, “To be faithful to one [woman] is to be cruel to the rest.” Perhaps therein lies the quandary for his unwitting feminine targets of desire who are abruptly absent of their will to extricate themselves from the hedonist’s carefully crafted web of turpitude. We, the audience, can readily sympathize with the conundrum affecting these women, which further reinforces the brilliance of Meachem’s pitch-perfect performance.
Colclough’s Leporello, who would “rather be a gentleman than a servant,” is the consummate counterpoint to Meachem’s Giovanni. Although Leporello astutely recognizes Giovanni as a “scoundrel,” and demurs to being unfairly used as a patsy, it doesn’t fully exonerate the servant who still obliges the dirty work asked of him by his master who addictively aspires to isolate the females he’s besotted with. Colclough terrifically captures the hands-tied, self-aware Leporello, who elicits laughter with spoken-out-loud inner thoughts (e.g., “She sounds like a romance novel”), and by charismatically mixing in non-verbals with his lines as when Leporello hilariously spills the endless secrets of Giovanni’s tome of lovers or when his complicit persona is mistaken for Giovanni by Isabel Leonard’s Donna Elvira.
The multiple-time Grammy winner, Isabel Leonard, is sensational as the anguished Elvira who is intent on exposing Giovanni. From her first appearance in mournful and rageful black, Leonard is immediately impactful and affecting with her presence and mezzo-soprano vocals, which are capable of identifying and stoking the intended sentiments. This is especially the case when her Elvira has second thoughts about going through with making an example out of Giovanni in “Mi tradì quell’alma ingrata.” Elvira’s dilemma is relatable, but it also makes us more furious with Giovanni for again being so reckless with the hearts of others.
Donna Anna is quite the amoral character for she is legitimately saddened by her father’s death but disguises her own infidelity by concocting a mostly fictional yarn to protect her reputation in the eyes of Don Ottavio. Soprano Guanqun Yu intrinsically understands and navigates the complexities of Anna who is skilled at controlling outcomes in her favor. Still, Anna loves Ottavio, though not as much her betrothed adores her. In the aria “Non mi dir,” which functions as a rejoinder by Anna to Ottavio’s claims of romantic malnourishment or “cruelty,” Yu delivers arguably the most memorable piece of the evening, with one sonorously poignant point after another.
Wunderkind Anthony León keeps up with his co-star at every turn as he is tremendously believable as the tuxedoed and ultra-committed husband-to-be who will agreeably take any action to make Anna happy even if vengeance must be extracted. Furthermore, Ottavio’s passion is fluently conveyed with two rousing solos by León, one in each act.
Playing the naïve Zerlina is Meigui Zhang who makes a sizeable impression in her LA Opera debut. The soprano has remarkable trills and a voluminous vibrato in her voice, which gives her scenes extra substance. For instance, in an Act I duet with Meachem’s Giovanni, her timbre conjures a sense of caution juxtaposed against Giovanni’s intense longing; and in a sensual Act II give-and-take with Alan Williams’ Masetto, Zhang stirringly imparts a desire for her Zerlina to be forgiven for infractions not committed and a willingness to reward Masetto if he can shed his jealous impulses. Having been in his fair share of LA Opera productions, the authoritatively voiced Williams continues to wow with how well he can fully immerse himself in each portrayal — and his Masetto is no exception.
Rounding out the cast is Peixin Chen who is as formidable a Commendatore ever seen on stage, Jennifer Rose whose taciturn maid (of Donna Elvira) is captivating with purely her body language, the ensemble females (in alabaster white, symbolic of broken-hearted lovers) who stalk the environs of Giovanni, and the Jeremy Frank-directed chorus in ball gowns whose modulations are bountiful.
Matching the aural delight of Don Giovanni is its visual magnificence, which can’t be overlooked. This is a presentation that seamlessly joins a 236-year-old classic with the marvel of modern-day technology. As such, the all-inclusive set by Es Devlin is breathtaking as it incorporates blocks of recessed doors stacked atop each other with a section in the center revealing itself as a rotating cube with its own sundry settings. The star of the production design, however, is Luke Halls whose high-definition projections colorfully spell out just how many dalliances Giovanni has enjoyed and insinuate a sense of foreboding by suffusing the stage with a terrifying crimson. Undoubtedly, Halls’ projections do more than just entrance; they supplement the characters. In one scene, when Meachem’s Giovanni announces he will amuse an assemblage of women, images concentrically whirl around him, portending a descent into his self-destruction.
Ultimately, every deceit has its receipt. As disarming as Don Giovanni’s eponymous protagonist is, and as consensual most of his flings may be, he is a beguiling user and abuser of others, unrepentant about the underhanded paths he has taken to achieve his sex-obsessed aims. While audiences may be tempted to rightly chuckle at the satirical absurdities in Don Giovanni, seduction by way of dishonesty is patently wrong. Mozart’s music, as alluring as it is here, is appropriately mottled with haunting undertones — hinting at an inevitable comeuppance. The cast and creative team in LA Opera’s Don Giovanni have intelligently realized the production’s message while ensuring the journey is remarkably palatable for public consumption.
For more information on LA Opera’s production of Don Giovanni at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion (through Oct. 15th), and to purchase tickets, visit laopera.org. Five performances remain: Sun, Oct. 1st at 2 pm; Wed, Oct. 4th at 7:30 pm; Sat, Oct. 7th at 7:30 pm; Thurs, Oct. 12th at 7:30 pm; and finally Sun, Oct. 15th at 2 pm.