Several weeks ago I went to Frank Gehry’s office and he showed me a sketch model of his set for Don Giovanni, a seeming cluster of scrunched-up paper balls. He said, jokingly, something along the lines of, “critics have said my buildings are like crumpled paper; well, this set will be crumpled paper.” As it turns out, he wasn’t joking. His set was that sketch model, writ large, to tremendous psychological effect. That’s according to Bennett Stein, aka The Good4NothingConnoisseur.

I had no idea the Disney Concert Hall doubled as an atom-smashing supercollider. Talk about the ultimate mash-up in search of the god particle buried deep, we hope–within the depraved human heart. This opera dies or flies on that very hope. Saturday, May 26, 2012, I caught the 4th and final LA Phil tradition-shattering rendition of the crown jewel of operas, Mozart’s “Don Giovanni.” I’m not an operaphiliac, per se–I’m more of a rock ‘n’ roller actually–but I have attended many an opera in LA, New York and Paris and respect the form in a big way especially when it delves so fearlessly into a taboo like the dark side of the reptile brain that makes us one with the beasts.

And thusly, much to my chagrin, I did not enjoy discovering that I, everyone I’ve ever known, and all those seated around me in the Disney Hall’s sumptuous sonic womb, has a piece of the Don inside. Think you’re immune? Lucky you–but you know you’re face to face with a seriously effective piece of art when you start confessing things to your own self. During the famous “Catalogue Song’ crooned by Don Giovanni’s manservant, Leporello, about the Don’s  2,065 conquests I got to pondering my own much humbler catalogue of gals I’ve conquered, mistreated or cruelly dismissed—and the ones that returned the favor. All’s fair in love and war I mumbled to myself as I slid into emotional shock–my soul searching was the effect; the intersection of high design and transcendental music, the cause.

Design-wise I expected rococo deco meets streamline moderne or a Bauhaus look or something nautical for the Seville, Spain of the 18th century tale for the baroque equivalent of Warren Beatty to preen and spray about in. I was floored to find Don-world spun as full-immersion moon-base brig with constricting no man’s land mazes for characters driven by greed and vanity to pace back and forth in (see top photo). Thanks, Don Gehry for locking us in with the performers in your high-tech insane asylum. This is ground zero of the real hunger games, by the way, where our flesh-eating hearts are five times bigger than our stomachs.

You feel plunged into the white fog dry ice-scape of George Lucas’s film THX1138, as if injected with the serum of fascism chic, forcibly held down, eye lids propped wide with Clockwork Orange-like clamps, jabbed in the vein with S.E.A.L. team Gehry’s crew of creative rascal’s meditation on how, underneath it all, we’re all just serial killers behind the smile. The theme of the opera, expressed visually via design at every turn, is that we homo sapiens are a dangerous species of toxic nuts. Nice to meet you, air kiss, air kiss… as the anesthesia of the swaying, soothing Mozart tunes flow over you in stark contrast to the horror and pathos of the Don’s story. The whole thing’s a trick. Here’s the proof…

Frank Gehry literally this time creates palace interiors, sentry posts, verandas and groves from mountainous clumps of crumpled white paper, all to enhance despair and desolation. You feel dropped into a waste dump, brimming over with sanitized spiritual emptiness, unfit for human habitation, and yet this is how we have made our collective bed, the artists seem to suggest. The costume design by Rodarte, sisters Kate and Laura Mulleavy, is so disturbingly meticulous I was driven mad trying to decipher the spider webbing code script on each of the man characters’ white uniforms. The women, the donnas, if you will, were gowned in perfectly de rigueur elegance: Donna Anna in virginal wedding day white; Donna Elvira in the funereal black of the callously abandoned; Zerlina, (2nd photo, just above) the coquettish village Miss Hot Stuff though sported a ravishing lavender and pink spring blossom-bedecked hippie macramé swing skirt ensemble—she looked like a flute of purple Dom Perignon, especially when she danced on the table for all the masquerade guests.

But the men, I was dumbfounded to find, were all corseted in variations on the straight jacket. A veritable Bond villain’s security detail each in full harness, each in white pressed slacks, long sleeved white tee, white Doc Martens, chest plates of hard glossy white or grey graphite, protective cod pieces cupping the shoulders. And the give-away, the straight jacket straps buckled to the tightest setting on each of their backs. Exactly what you’d expect for the most violent inmates in a state nuthatch for the criminally insane. For sure the look was shone through the hybrid lens of Marquis De Sade’s hottest fantasy and George Orwell’s worst nightmare.

Right there your pulse resets to high alert, your flight or fight hormones squelching. Here it comes, the apocalypse. I knew it like a certainty. Of course the Don had black straps on the back of his upper body armor to visually link him to the blackened, tumor-encrusted statue spirit of Don Pedro, the Commandant, who the Don murders at the top of ACT I after raping his daughter, Donna Anna. The commandant (aka the commendatore) is the externalized symbol of karmic vengeance as it rots your soul; think portrait of Dorian Grey befouling away in the closet. Guess what? Turns out we all have one of those shadowing us everywhere we go, I set to fretting. Was this the intent of this group of top tier collaborators? To fill us with fear and distrust of our own selves? I reeled, I wanted to call my lawyer, be ready to press charges or countersue, something. I was in a state.

Then the mystery of Christopher Alden’s direction: it was “Cold War” 50’s Sputnik “Space Race” all the way with the body language of “The Day The Earth Stood Still?” Something in the stiff-gaited acting suggested a bot age spin on “Last Year At Marienbad.”  It all had to be by design. And I just had to suss it out. And there’s Gehry’s crumpled paper wads suggesting the zero atmosphere of the 1969 moon landing—clumps recalling the space foil collars on the feet of the lunar module as Dudamel and orchestra by 180° contrast sat enveloped in black moody but warm waves of crumpled black metal foil calmly performing a comic opera about the worlds most mythic sex addict.

And along comes our proxy to hook us into the experience of bearing the guilt the don generates karmically, incrementally. The device for this trick is the Don’s footloose man, Leporello, who right out of the gate is a tortured, self-loathing lowly dog of a wingman. He’s the perfect pander for the egomaniac Don. You feel for him and lo, your fortress is breeched. It was a cinch to distance myself from all the pompous, self indulgent characters, but Leporello, this hapless schlep, the slapped around personal assistant and enabler-in-chief to the dark lord, steals your heart and your cool. The program states that the mellifluous bass of Kevin Burdette’s Leporello is “a tour de force of vocal splendor and comic timing.” That together with his Doc Martens, his oil slicked blonde hair, high yet sunken cheek bones, and bony knock-kneed staggering around as if knifed or shot up with tequila, almost falling down and boom—I had it, I suspected exactly who they just might be intending to evoke….

None other than Iggy Pop, the ever tortured, twisted weirdo punk clown who sings and moans endlessly of guilt, loneliness and failure, but always in the most comedic, endearing and Leporello-like way. Don Iggy is always putting over the most painful raw stuff of modern experience, but he slips it to you disguised as punk buffoonery. Take any of his lyrics… “Corruption,” for example, he croons, sounding exactly like Leporello, “Corruption rules my soul, corruption chills my bones.” Or “Now I wanna be your dog,” etc. What gives it away? The pigeon toed signature Iggy Pop stance, like a crippled beggar with outstretched hand, pleading for alms or sympathy from any stranger in the audience. Iggy “Leporello” Pop. Talk about an epiphany.

There I sat numb with tragic irony, softly weepily giggling, muttering to myself, “I am Don Giovanni, I am Leporello, we all are,” taking in the massive swollen warm ochre wood tones swooping like pregnant woman bellies and such that is the Disney Concert Hall interior, all undulating to Mozart’s music to help the moral of the sex addict fairy tale go down. And for one night you’re all wised up to the likely consequences of your own cruelty. Forewarned is forearmed. Much obliged, Don Gehry, Rodarte, Don Dude-ster and band, and mind blowing hair and make up designers, Odile Gilbert and James Kaliardos respectively, and boomy, baritone Mariusz Kwiecien in the Don’s skin, and dishonored sopranos, Don Mozart, and archetype of accessory to sin, the ever lovable, laughable Leporello. Let us bid good night to you all, but first… show me the way to the next whiskey bar. Oh, don’t ask why…

All Photos: LA Phil’s production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni at Walt Disney Concert Hall led by Gustavo Dudamel, in collaboration with Frank Gehry, Rodarte and Christoper Alden. Photo credits:Autumn de Wilde

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  • bennett stein

    So if there's no fat lady in Don Giovanni does that mean it ain't ever gonna be over? Looks like the LA Phil was scarily clever, or devious, if you will, even in the casting of this design-centric opera production.

  • https://www.facebook.com/robertmward Robert Ward

    Great post. Glad you survived it.

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