One message the Music Center Opera’s “Don Giovanni” made abundantly clear at its opening last Monday night: babies do not come from storks. From Giovanni’s first entrance, fresh from his aborted attack on Donna Anna’s virtue, still buttoning up his trousers and retrieving his boots from Leporello, to Zerlina’s calming of her angry sweetie by removing his belt as she sings her lovely aria, the carnal byplay in Mozart’s dark comedy becomes the dominant tone. When, at the end, Mozart’s anti-hero goes off to his deserved doom among the eternally damned, he is actually carried off by a bevy of maidens. We are left to guess, therefore, whether he has gone to damnation or a juicy reward. For the most part, the opera comes across; it would take a lot to destroy this riveting masterpiece. Jonathan Miller created the production last year, at the Florence May Festival; the local restaging, by his assistant Karen Stone, presumably maintains Miller’s outlines. It is, in fact, pure Miller: diabolically spirited, too clever by half at times, irritating and stimulating by turns. Two performances remain, this coming Tuesday and Friday nights. Robert Israel, who worked here on Miller’s “Mahagonny” in 1987, is again the designer and his work, again, is vintage Robert Israel. Like the “Mahagonny” set, the new one again looks most of all like a theatrical warehouse, with free-standing wall units, predominantly gray (as opposed to “Mahagonny’s” predominant beige) pierced with doorways, carving the stage into angular performing spaces that sometimes cramp the action, but just as often surround it with uncharted emptiness. Lighting designer Duane Schuler’s sudden changes of tone, presumably attempting to reflect the violent clashes of mood in the work itself, become wearying. If it is possible for just the look of a production to add up to informational overload, this is it. Yet “Don Giovanni,” of all the masterpieces of the lyric repertory, can absorb this kind of treatment, and more drastic permutations as well. The cast in this instance is of enormous help, not only because the singing is, of itself, on a high level, but because the performing forces so keenly reflect the inner life of the opera. This is emphatically true of the three women, all of them superb singers but also neatly differentiated in manner and tone. As heard at the first performance, Karen Huffstodt’s Anna was a splendid study in self-indulgent, shrill frazzlement, wallowing in the delight of her own grief, yet wise enough to realize that her wimp of an Ottavio suddenly seems terribly small to a woman who has felt Giovanni’s caress. Rachel Gettler’s Elvira provided the perfect counterpart: thoroughly unhinged by her brief encounter with Giovanni, her mania pouring out in sharp, jagged melodic fragments. Balancing them both was the adorable and infinitely wise Zerlina of Gwendolyn Bradley, fully aware that those flashing eyes of hers, that melting smile are no less potent a seductive force than the blandishments of Giovanni himself. Thomas Allen was a superb Giovanni, sleek, insinuating, childishly self-centered, the supreme embodiment of everything you’ve ever read or wondered about the character’s twisted psyche; Kevin Langan’s wonderfully earthy Leporello was, again, a superb counterbalance. Local luminaries Jonathan Mack (his phrasing still eloquent but his once fluent tenor sounding rather tired these days) John Atkins and Louis Lebherz rounded out this superior vocal ensemble. Once again, however, some of this valuable effort was fogged over by Lawrence Foster’s workaday leadership on the podium. The orchestra that had soared and glowed in last month’s “Trojans” now sounded merely competent. Time and again the onrush of Mozart’s genius in this incredible work seemed to falter, as if the performance itself — not the individual singers — had run out of breath. The opera deserved better and so did the audience. line
There is a temptation to find parallels between the Mozart opera and “Pioneers,” the performance artwork by the Paul Dresher Ensemble that drew undeservedly small crowds to UCLA’s Royce Hall last weekend. The similarities have to do with dramatic archetypes in both works: the self-destructive mania of women stripped of reason by carnal yearnings, the mindless macho destructiveness of the rogue male, the wanton urge of the haves to despoil the have-nots. But the parallels are tenuous, and “Pioneers” stands on its own. If you saw the previous members of the trilogy (both done at UCLA in recent years), “Slow Fire” and “Power Failure,” both also dealing through extended metaphor with the destructive force of the materialist obsession, you only need to know that “Pioneer” is the best work of the three, the surest theatrically, the most attractive musically. The work is hung up with exploration, with the need to get someplace first, to be the first on the block to own, to buy, to flaunt. Dresher’s kaleidoscopic electronic score, played behind a wonderfully lit scrim, was fleshed out with a few hilarious pastiche ballads by Terry Allen. The singers included the Dresher stalwarts Rinde Eckert and John Duykers, plus the marvelous vulgar raunch of Jo Harvey Allen, the good ol’ Texas gal who told all those hilarious lies in David Byrne’s “True Stories.” If you weren’t there the loss is yours. line
At the Music Center this past Thursday the Philharmonic began its season by celebrating the end of the world — Richard Wagner’s world, that is, in its apotheosis in the final music of the mighty “Ring” cycle. The phenomenal soprano Jessye Norman was the center of the celebration, in all the volcanic majesty of her sight and sound. She is a phenomenon of our time, a force of nature beyond reckoning. She could also stand to pay better attention to diction, both in Wagner’s “Immolation” music and in Beethoven’s “Ah Perfido.” So much sound, so little meaning! Christof Perick conducted, in one of those rare and valuable instances in which one orchestra in a community “borrows” the leader of another. Perick, soon to take over the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, is clearly a splendid local catch: an ardent young musician full of old-world sensibilities. German conductors are in right now, as witness the latest acquisitions in New York and Philadelphia. Perick’s own contributions to the program began with the Beethoven First Symphony and continued with the familiar orchestral excerpts from Wagner’s music drama, all nicely set forth, large-scale and exuberant. The orchestra, after its month off, sounded rested. The omens are excellent.

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