Opera Review: DON GIOVANNI (Los Angeles Opera)

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by Michael M. Landman-Karny on September 24, 2023

in Music,Theater-Los Angeles


Mozart‘s Don Giovanni — which opened last night at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion — is considered a masterpiece due to its exceptional musical composition, complex characters, well-crafted dramatic structure, emotional depth, cultural relevance, enduring themes, and its influence on subsequent operatic works. Its ability to engage audiences both intellectually and emotionally has cemented its place as one of the most celebrated operas in the history of music.

Lorenzo da Ponte’s poetic libretto of Don Giovanni (Don Juan) revolves around the libertine and seductive Don Giovanni, who leaves a trail of romantic conquests and reckless behavior. The opera explores themes of love, morality, and retribution as it follows Don Giovanni’s encounters with various characters, ultimately leading to a final reckoning.

Los Angeles Opera is staging Kasper Holten‘s production of the opera, previously staged in London, Barcelona, Houston, and Tel Aviv. With a modern and imaginative approach, Holten’s direction breathed new life into the familiar tale while staying true to the essence of the original work. Purists, however, may find fault with Holten emphasizing tragedy at the expense of comedy. Mozart and originally conceived Don Giovanni as a dramma giocoso, a serious drama with comic elements but Holten’s #MeToo POV reminds us that sexual predation is not a joke.

Lucas Meachem in the title role of LA Opera's 2023 production of Don Giovanni

One of the standout aspects of the production is its ability to delve deep into the psychological intricacies of the characters. Don Giovanni is presented not merely as a one-dimensional amoral cad but as a complex individual grappling with his desires, fears, and the consequences of his actions. This nuanced portrayal added layers to the character and enhanced the audience’s understanding of his motivations.

Isabel Leonard (Elvira), Anthony León (Ottavio), Guanqun Yu (Anna)

One of the production’s notable strengths lies in its treatment of the women in the story. There was a focus on the agency on the characters of Donna Anna and Donna Elvira, giving them a more prominent role in the narrative. This shift provided a fresh perspective on the opera’s themes of gender dynamics and power struggles, making the production feel relevant to contemporary sensibilities.

Lucas Meachem (Don Giovanni)

The ensemble scenes in the production were a true highlight. The choreography and staging during moments of crowd interaction or confrontation were meticulously executed, adding a dynamic energy to the production. These scenes not only showcased the director’s keen understanding of the dramatic pacing but also his ability to create visually stunning tableaux.

The production benefitted from a stellar cast that had me reaching for superlatives:

Peixin Chen as the Commendatore

Lucas Meachem as Don Giovanni effortlessly navigated all the intricacies demanded by the Baritone role. He infused his Serenade with a seductive quality, delivered the rapid-fire “Fin ch’han dal vino”  (“Till they are tipsy”) aria with a dynamic spark, and imbued the final scene’s confrontation with the Commendatore’s ghost with a powerful and thunderous intensity. From a dramatic standpoint, his confidence was equally evident. He adeptly portrayed the witty and charming facets of Don Giovanni’s character, while also burning up the stage in moments of explosive brutality.

Isabel Leonard as Donna Elvira

Isabel Leonard‘s portrayal of Donna Elvira was exceptional, with her ripe and resonant mezzo-soprano voice and flexible phrasing making her rendition of “Mi tradì quell’alma ingrata” (“I have been betrayed by the ungrateful wretch”) deeply affecting. This poignant moment was heightened as she found Don Giovanni in flagrante delicto with her maid. The mixture of emotions in her gaze, marked by resignation at yet another betrayal, was heart-breaking.

Guanqun Yu as Donna Anna

International star Soprano Guanqun Yu beautifully interpreted Donna Anna’s emotional journey. Her portrayal captures the conflicting emotions of anger, grief, and determination that define Donna Anna’s quest for justice and revenge following the tragic events of the opera’s prologue. Yu’s ability to convey the complexity of these emotions through her voice and body language is truly remarkable, making her character’s struggles and motivations palpable to the audience. In the aria “Or sai chi l’onore rapier a me volse,” (now you know who wanted to dishonor me), Guanqun Yu’s voice trembled with the raw intensity of Donna Anna’s anguish, while her nuanced phrasing and dynamic control revealed the character’s inner turmoil.

Craig Colclough as Leporello

Bass-Baritone Craig Colclough‘s (last seen at LA Opera as Figaro in Marriage of Figaro) portrayal of Don Giovanni’s servant Leporello was, simply put, a master class. What set him apart from others I have seen in the role was his ability to convey Leporello’s internal conflicts and evolving perspective on his master. As the opera progressed, Colclough’s Leporello transitioned from being a simple bystander to grappling with moral dilemmas and questions of loyalty. This evolution was subtly reflected in Colclough’s nuanced acting and vocal delivery, adding an extra layer of complexity to the character. His performance of the famous “Catalogue Aria” was a true highlight, as he navigates the rapid-fire list of Don Giovanni’s conquests with clarity and precision. Colclough’s delivery not only showcased his technical skill but also his ability to infuse the aria with humor and personality.

Anthony León as Don Ottavio

Rising star Anthony León’s role debut as Don Ottavio was spectacular. In his rendition of “Il Mio Tesoro” (“My Treasure”), a veritable vocal obstacle course, he flawlessly executed every point with a remarkable level of sophistication and grace. His light lyric tenor instrument showed beauty, freedom of tone, and outstanding breath control. León, an LA Opera young artist, has recently won grand prizes in the two of the most prestigious global opera competitions, Operalia and the Metropolitan Opera Laffont competition. While León’s repertoire has so far been wide-ranging (from Baroque to Verdi), the right role choices could launch him into becoming one of the finest lyric tenors of our time, leaving the heavier Verdi and Puccini roles for later in his career.

Guanqun Yu as Donna Anna and Anthony León as Don Ottavio

Bass-Baritone Peixin Chan (last seen in LA Opera’s Aida as the King of Egypt) in the small but significant role of the Commendatore captivated the audience with his exceptionally powerful bass voice and suitably threatening demeanor.

Meigui Zhang (center) as Zerlina

Yannick Nézet-Séguin protégée Meigui Zhang made quite an impression in the small role of Zerlina, featuring a crystal-clear agile soprano with secure high notes, expressive acting and a charismatic stage presence.

James Conlon‘s dynamic conducting was a perfect match for the protagonist’s restless vitality, steering clear of the conventional, ponderous Teutonic interpretation that the score often tends to receive. Conlon brought out the individual character of each aria, ensemble, and instrumental passage. His attention to dynamics, phrasing, and orchestral coloration contributed to a vivid and multi-dimensional portrayal of the opera’s personalities and situations. Conlon’s handling of the ensembles and choral sections was particularly noteworthy. The complex interactions between characters were carefully delineated through the music, and the ensemble scenes were meticulously coordinated.

Meigui Zhang as Zerlina and Lucas Meachem in the title role

Chorus Director Jeremy Frank’s work with the chorus is commendable. Their singing and acting contributions integrated seamlessly into the overall fabric of the production.

Es Devlin‘s set design is a visually striking and innovative interpretation that transforms the stage into a dynamic and multi-layered environment. Devlin, known for her creative and imaginative designs (Adele in Concert, The Lehman Trilogy), brought a modern yet timeless aesthetic to Mozart’s opera, creating a visual language that complements the emotional and dramatic depth of the story. Her set consisted a of two-level rotating cube-shaped house with two sets of staircases. Luke Hall‘s video projections played a pivotal role in setting the scene and ambiance, casting their imagery across every available surface. At times, they contributed subtle hues, while at others, they ensnared characters in intricate, Escher-inspired mazes of ever-shifting patterns.

Alan Williams (Masetto), Craig Colclough (Leporello), Meigui Zhang (Zerlina),
Lucas Meachem (Don Giovanni), Anthony León (Don Ottavio), Guanqun Yu (Donna Anna)

Anja Vang Kragh‘s costume designs, though opulent, regrettably fell short in terms of delineating precisely each character, reflecting neither setting nor social status. Within the opera, where the theme of social class intricately weaves together with the story of a sexual predator, it becomes imperative that the costumes not only mirror the profound essence of each character but also resonate with a keen comprehension of their socio-economic background. Fortunately, the rest of the production subtly renders the social hierarchies. For example, the Don stood at a higher stage level and sang down to his servant Leporello, while the simple chairs at the wedding of the lowly Zerlina and Masetto contrasted with the grand mansion behind them.

Despite minor quibbles, the LA Opera production of Don Giovanni is a masterful reimagining that breathes new life into Mozart’s classic. Through nuanced character portrayals, imaginative staging, and a contemporary POV, this production extracted fresh layers of meaning from the opera’s timeless themes. While it might not be a production that pleases purists, its thought-provoking approach and stunning visuals make it a must-see for those seeking a visual as well an aural thrill at the opera.

photos by Cory Weaver / LA Opera

Don Giovanni
LA Opera
Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 North Grand Ave.
ends on October 15, 2023
for tickets, call 213. 972.8001 or visit LA Opera

Isabel Leonard

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Camille Claudel September 26, 2023 at 10:37 am

Allow me to add a couple of comments to your astute review.

I couldn’t rave more about Conlon’s conducting. I’d like to point out memorable flute solo work by Principal Flute Heather Clark on “La ci darem la mano” and the dreamy solo by principal Cello John Walz on “Batti batti”.

As for the wonderful Meigui Zhang (“Zerlina”), she will undoubtedly soon be singing bigger roles on the world’s most lucrative stages.


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