What? An opera sweepstakes going on in the city formerly known as opera-poor?
Well, try this: at Disney Hall a posse of arts-elite collaborators led by Gustavo Dudamel and the LA Philharmonic put on a new, fanciful, hyper-stylized production of "Don Giovanni," while across the street the LA Opera trotted out its old Herb Ross staging of "La Bohème," both houses doing bang-up box office at the same time.
Not bad at all.
But now we get to the interesting parts. Frank Gehry's deservedly famous Disney is a favorite tourist attraction. It was built, to acoustic perfection, as a concert hall, the one that would showcase the Philharmonic in all its splendor and provide the proper venue for sending out its glorious sound.
Aspirations do grow, though. And along the way Dudamel et al hatched the idea to "stage" opera: the Mozart-DaPonte trilogy in three successive seasons, for starters, beginning with "Don Giovanni." Nothing standard, of course, because the hull-shaped hall has no proscenium - it cannot accommodate the trappings of scenery, etc. Nor, importantly, is there an orchestra pit.
So they opted for a contemporary realization with creators who are adept at experimental ventures, director Christopher Alden chief among them. And there could hardly be a better choice -- we knew him from his revelatory work years ago at Long Beach Opera, a master at deconstructing a set piece like this, but not one to go in for the usual hijinks.
Even without Rodarte, whose sumptuous-to-sleek costumes are a Baroque eyeful in themselves, and even without Gehry's "installations," crumpled paper icebergs and giant cubes that provide platforms for the singers to cavort on and climb around, Alden brilliantly makes the case for the characters' inner drama - their floating urges, their undersea lusts. These nobles and peasants are no longer cardboard cutouts.
Now we know that Donna Anna openly acknowledges her guilty pleasure with the Don, why she kisses and caresses him while her fiancé - three's a crowd - stands breath-close to them. She's acting out what she feels and will not suppress, rather than just playing a wronged woman vengeful over her father's murder. And, earlier, after their night together, the Don slithers elegantly along a cube's side wall as Anna languishes on top of it, still in her erotic throes. So we actually see him as a louche lingerer. And Alden, defying the moralistic "crime does not pay" meme, even brings him back at the end -- triumphantly alive.
Over and over they all reveal themselves, in elongated episodes. When Zerlina sings "Batti, batti" to her bridegroom Masetto, she reverses her plea for punishment and beats him instead, frustrated with his non-assertive manner. And Leporello, while "cataloging" his master's many conquests, goes up on his toes and down on twisted knees, to show how hard a task it is to follow the philanderer. Everything Alden maps out telegraphs a value; there are no typical operatic stances here. And that's the beauty of this show.
But then there's the rest - beginning and ending with an irony: the world-class Philharmonic, with its inspired maestro, Dudamel, are consigned to the rear, out of good-hearing range, and nearly covered by the ersatz set. Not surprisingly, the sound has little presence. This, in a hall storied for its vibrant sound.
What's even worse, the singers and conductor have no chance at all for the electric connection, phrase by phrase, that sparks the best opera performances - the swoop and sweep of single-breath music-making that depends crucially on eye-to-eye proximity between stage and orchestra leader.
There's got to be a better way.
But the cast did not disappoint - even while we knew how many notches higher its performances would go under normal circumstances. The men were strikingly lean and virile in their space-suit whites, with hair fashionably slicked back. Mariusz Kwiecien, in the title role, epitomized those features, sometimes brutally, and sang with dark luster to match the persona of history's most obsessive womanizer.
So did the others come through. Kevin Burdette's basso power served up Leporello as both a cowering servant and willing conspirator. Tenor Pavol Breslik, as the good guy Ottavio, did take too many liberties in "Dalla sua pace" (and nearly came to grief, as a result), but recovered in "Il mio tesoro," while Ryan Kuster's Masetto was a tad complacent as cuckolds go.
The women looked delectable in their costumes - all ruffled, be-feathered whimsy. But Carmela Remigio's soprano was not quite up to Donna Anna's outpourings - Aga Mikolaj clearly had the edge here, not to mention the coloratura chops, as Elvira. So did Anna Prohaska excel -- injecting a pert, even defiantly off-center portrayal of Zerlina underlined by her radiant voice.
What we're left wondering is whether the LA Phil has, perhaps inadvertently, set up a strange rivalry with its neighbor the LA Opera - given future plans that indicate more of the same. At any rate, the traffic does get heavier, the more the merrier and all that. Come September, watch for a proscenium-style "Don Giovanni" across the street, bearing the exalted directorial name of Peter Stein. But don't count on that hand to be much in evidence . A relative rookie will direct traffic.