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The Don's Early Might 

Dirty business afoot

Wednesday, Nov 28 2007
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Dirty Business Afoot

Don Giovanni,” the question ran, “is it the world’s greatest work of art, or merely Mozart’s greatest opera?” The late Winthrop Sargeant raised it, but left it dangling, in the old Life magazine in its juiciest days as pop-culture avatar. The Don Giovanni question — greatest vs. near-greatest — had already been argued for more than a century, and continues to resonate — currently at the L.A. Opera — today and beyond. Whether calling for superlatives or not, and the current production certainly merits a couple, the opera came into the world unlike anything previously seen or heard on an operatic stage, and the strength of those differences remains awesome, 220 years later.

No opera before its time, and few since its time that come readily to mind, begins by holding its audience in relentless grasp over perhaps 20 minutes of continuous energy: the overture that breaks off for Leporello’s first music, which then is interrupted as the Don is pursued to midstage by Anna, then by the Commendatore’s intervention, the duel, the old man’s murder and the Don’s escape — all without stopping at a full cadence. It’s one of Mozart’s unparalleled methods for simply suspending our breath over extended time spans.

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That is one of my favorite Don Giovanni moments, and it’s one that at least allows us time to follow its unfolding over several minutes. Another, in the second act, comes as a more sudden shock. Five of the characters, all of them angry at Giovanni for one reason or another, believe they have him cornered in a dark courtyard and are prepared to inflict five varieties of bodily harm upon their supposed captive. But that supposed victim turns out not to be Giovanni at all, only his schmuck of a servant, Leporello, disguised in his master’s cloak. The harmony has been sailing on in an agitated but steady C minor, but then Leporello reveals himself. The group onstage recoils in shocked surprise and, as the harmony reflects this in a sudden jolt downward from C to A flat, we too recoil. Mozart’s operas are full of these harmonic shocks, every one delicious in a different context. By Beethoven’s time, that kind of harmonic shock begins to appear in instrumental music as well — as early as the Opus 2 piano sonatas.

Anyone who really gets transfixed in the experience of a Don Giovanni performance is bound to end up disturbed. Our instincts lead us to expect a certain classical symmetry, overlain in Mozart’s case by a passion that shows itself in an amazing richness of harmony. In this opera, Mozart goes further. Music breaks off, leaving us in suspense. Another magnificent moment occurs when the wronged Elvira, who has apparently been trudging the streets of Seville bewailing her betrayal by the Don to anyone who will listen, comes upon Giovanni and Leporello while grinding out her torch song. Impolite to the last, the men break into her song, turning it into a freeform ensemble (and a magnificent one at that). The whole concept of operatic form moves forward at this moment; even Beethoven a generation later, who admired Figaro and Così, found Don Giovanni immoral.

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It is, which means that it maintains the crude power to inspire great performances. The first truly great complete operatic recording of anything came with a Don Giovanni performance at the 1936 Glyndebourne Festival, originally a schlep on 23 shellac discs, now still available — the last time I looked — on three CDs. Fritz Busch conducted, and the precision of his ensemble work remains untouched; John Brownlee was the suave Don, and Salvatore Baccaloni, before he became overly aware of himself as an Italian clown, was a beautifully antic Leporello. Ina Souez, who ended up running, and singing in, a gay bar in San Diego, was the incomparable Anna. After 70 years, the sound is amazingly clear; this set is to me the rock upon which any Mozart collection should be based.

But there have to be others. Of the three Mozart operas that Peter Sellars has monkeyed with and reset into contemporary landscapes, the Don Giovanni, relocated to New York’s East Harlem, with Lorraine Hunt’s Elvira to set your transistors afire and Eugene Perry punctuating the “Drinking Song” by hurling bottles against a brick wall, becomes an exact updating of the work’s pristine violence. At the other end, but comfortably in place, is Harmonia Mundi’s new recording under René Jacobs, wisely and beautifully sung throughout, the paradigm of Mozart performance in our time. Owning all three (especially with the Sellars on DVD) is no excess.

Director Mariusz Trelínski has located the opera somewhere on the edge of sanity, with little in the way of stage furniture — except for an open-sided coffin that rises and falls midstage and at the end divulges the moldering corpse of the Commendatore — hardly the “statua gentilissima” of Lorenzo da Ponte’s script. Boris Kudlicka’s stage is a large black box, pierced with openings for doors and windows, the black walls occasionally becoming mirrors to turn a handful of stage actors into a mob. There is gadgetry galore — a zany ballet to personify the “thousand and three” victims enumerated in Leporello’s “Catalog Aria,” a dancing forest around the Don’s latest hanky-panky. Giovanni works his oily seduction on the innocent Zerlina, while pushing her firmly onto a bed of garish crimson.

Costume designer Arkadius has decked out his principals — the heroines and their swains who occupy the Don during the course of the opera — in a consistent color scheme: paired yellows for the bumpkin lovers, formal black-and-green for the nobles, a rich, mournful blue for the jilted Elvira. The period is Mozart’s own, wildly exaggerated with the women’s gowns on panniers nearly as wide as the stage itself. The musical matters, under the excellent German conductor Hartmut Haenchen, accomplish much the same for the ear. Uruguay-born Erwin Schrott returns as Giovanni, lithe, insinuating, menacing with a voice of similar character. The women who bring about his downfall form a first-class ensemble: Alexandra Deshorties as the majestic if somewhat frazzled Anna, Maria Kanyova as an Elvira totally unhinged in the clash of love vs. hate. As the comic servant Leporello, Kyle Ketelsen delivers some expert and hilarious footwork, with singing to match. Stylistically, in fact, both servant and master seem adrift in a whole 'nother opera — the one by Mozart.

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