Review: Mozart and malice: The LA Opera premiers their 2023/2024 season with Don Giovanni

By Charlize Althea Garcia, Oct. 10, 2023

Man and wife. Man and…mistress(s)? Don Giovanni, one of the raunchiest operas of the 18th century, premiered at the LA Opera Sept. 22.

The opera was originally set in 17th century Spain, roughly a century before Mozart’s time. Don Giovanni, the early modern-era version of a present-day playboy, trekked the land of Seville looking for his next conquest, Donna Anna. He soon found his defenseless target and attempted to rape her, but her father, the Commendatore, interrupted him and demanded his daughter back. To escape, Don Giovanni killed the Commendatore and fled the murder scene. Donna Anna rushed to tell her fiancé, Don Ottavio, vowing to avenge her father.

Drama lives and breathes in every corner of this opera buffa. But while the opera’s unusual story is undeniably engaging, its production design does not produce the same awe-inspiring reaction conjured up by its plot.

The curtains revealed what looked like an enlarged Rubik’s Cube that had been dyed to one drab color. It was a multi-functional set with two floors that rotated throughout, displaying the many interiors and exteriors of the opera. Though clever in its versatility, the set was bare in detail. While detail-oriented spectators may dislike this simple scenery, such a sight would undoubtedly please any minimalist.

The costumes, in contrast, were unsuccessful in drawing out a visceral reaction. Undoubtedly pleasing aesthetically, their signification in representing the era and the characters’ personalities was obscure. The costumes worn by the male characters were scattered across the Edwardian and Georgian era, and costumes worn by female characters were from the Victorian era with Donna Elvira’s gowns emulating a resurrection of Gone with The Wind’s costume designer. Confusing but charming.

Donna Elvira, one of Don Giovanni’s pitiful lovers, made her appearance with angered cries toward the lustful swindler. Don Giovanni called his apprentice, Leporello, to extinguish Elvira’s fiery claims and again, fled the oral “murder” scene. Leporello then performed the aria, “Madamina, il catalogo è questo,” which roughly translates to Leporello listing all the women Don Giovanni has slept with in hopes to ease her pain — more than 2,000 women. Craig Colclough, who played Leporello, presented a potent performance in his exhibition of his mighty bass-baritone voice. Most especially with the orchestra performing one of the staple pieces of the composition; an air of stateliness is breathed into every lyric and note played.

Soon after, a group of peasants celebrated in a tavern near Don Giovanni’s castle. The engagement of Zerlina and Masetto caught the attention of Don Giovanni who eyed his next victim.

Zerlina, played by soprano Meigui Zhang, posed as a deplorable character that annoyed me during the beginning of her performance. As Masetto and Zerlina join in holy matrimony, Don Giovanni attempted to seduce her seconds after. Zerlina easily falls for the shameless fool, welcoming his devious advances. Zhang performed the duet, “Là ci darem la mano,” eliciting dumbfounded reactions from the audience, both for Zerlina and Don Giovanni’s paltry adulterous actions and the confusingly lulling duet of the warm soprano and prodigious baritone.

Don Giovanni, a prime psychological manipulator of his time, convinced the wedding party to celebrate in his castle with a masked ball. Deep in depression and craving vengeance, Anna and Ottavio, with the help of Elvira, appeared with plans to kill Don Giovanni. As they looked for him, Zerlina screams as Giovanni makes his attempt to rape her, interrupting the party and alerting her newlywed husband. Disguised with a mask, Giovanni successfully convinces the party that Leporello was the attacker.

Anna, Ottavio, Zerlina, Elvira and Masetto captured “Giovanni” but soon realized the mistake. Anna, played by soprano Guanqun Yu, wept her sorrows in “Non mi dir, bell’idol mio.” Yu instilled a softness in the passionate aria that inspired sympathy from the audience. That sympathy soon turned to a clamor of praise as Yu sang the runs with utmost precision.

Elvira then ran to Giovanni in desperation to persuade him to repent and change his ways. Pride continued to supersede his morality as he objected and laughed at her. Abruptly, a booming voice wanders his halls, warning Giovanni of retribution. Giovanni invites the voice to dine with him and is confronted with the Commendatore in a ghostly form, sending him to hell.

A white light shines on Don Giovanni, symbolizing divine justice sending the transgressor into rightful condemnation.

Themes of supernatural intervention, adultery, sexual assault and amorality carried this opera into the 21st century. Truly a head-scratcher, one can question its aptness in both the social climate of today and the art of storytelling. Regardless, the LA Opera successfully tells the story with its exceptional voices and noteworthy musicians.

Feature image and photos courtesy of Cory Weaver, LA Opera

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