A staging of Don Giovanni that honored the rubrics of Lorenzo da Ponte’s dramatic outlines, and nothing more, would probably rank these days as downright retrograde. Such backward steps certainly do not figure in the 17-year history of the Los Angeles Opera. Its first production — by Jonathan Miller in 1991, all in gray on Robert Israel’s Stonehenge of a set – moved Mozart’s sublime drama into a bleak region somewhere beyond the edge of the world. Now, in a second go-around that opened on May 31, bleak has been changed to black.

Mariusz Trelinski’s production hailed from Warsaw’s Polish National Opera, with unit set by Boris Kudlicka [‘v’ over the ‘c’] and costumes by Arkadius. Of scenery there was none; black walls, streaked with multicolored thin bands, surrounded a pit midstage. Up out of this black hole an open-sided coffin rose and fell. Into that hole toppled the murdered Commendatore in the opera’s opening scene Out of that hole emerged that Commendatore at the dénouement, quite a bit the worse for wear, not the majestic statue of Da Ponte’s script (and Mozart’s music) but a mouldered, ragged mess. A bevy of dancing trees momentarily eased the bleakness in the first-act finale. For the great Act Two sextet the walls became mirrors and the six singers became a thundering herd. For the second-act finale the Don had to make do without a dining table

To a kindly disposed observer, the evening added up to a display of clever but wilful stage tricks; surrounding stage action with mirror walls is as snazzy a showbiz effect as  ticket price can buy. The problem so often, and emphatically here, is the danger of ending up with a show that is merely about itself – and a show, furthermore, that insults the audience’s ability to be thrilled by the wonders in this greatest, most subtle of all classic operas. It seemed to insult as well the superior musical forces gathered for the occasion: the probing, exquisitely detailed performance led by Kent Nagano – appointed a few days before as the company’s first-ever Music Director – and a close-to-flawless young cast which, under respectful direction, might have made this Don Giovanni a Los Angeles milestone.

Erwin Schrott was the Giovanni, Uruguay-born, young (30), lithe and elegant in bearing and voice – a young Siepi, say. (Both he and the Ottavio, John Matz, are recent winners of Plácido Domingo’s Operalia, lending luster to their own names and to the competition as well.) Rosendo Flores was the burly-voiced Leporello, agile in the footwork if not always in voice. The women – the fast-rising Andrea Rost as the fearsome Anna, Adina Nitescu as an Elvira with exactly the right frazzled edge to her outbursts, Anna Christy as the milkmaid-sweet Zerlina – formed an ensemble close to flawless; Fedor Kuznetsov, was the Commendatore and James Creswell (from the company’s resident-artist training program) was the sturdy Masetto,

So much talent, so ill-used! More Mozart is on the Los Angeles Opera’s agenda: a Figaro next season (again with Schrott) and a Così the season after, heading toward the Mozart 250th-year celebration in 2006. Mozart remains indestructible; it would be better if people stopped trying.

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