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'Don Giovanni' Back in Town and On the Prowl at LA Opera

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Less than half a year after the unusual LA Phil production of "Don Giovanni" this past spring, Mozart's murderous cad is back on Grand Avenue, just one block north, in a more straightforwardly traditional staging presented by LA Opera.

Anyone who's gotten to see both of these interpretations, though, may find it hard to reconcile them as performances of the same dramatic work. The Don at Disney Hall was all ethereal Nietzschean malevolence, his gaze blank and pitiless as he pursued his sexual conquests, killed those standing in his way and disguised his faithful servant Leporello as himself just before his victims and their families showed up seeking revenge against him. In the version currently up and running, by contrast, Italian bass-baritone Ildebrando D'Arcangelo's title antihero is a more whimsical sadist, still cruelly indifferent to those he has wronged, but very much amused at the audacity of everything he tries to get away with.

There's a lot to like about this production, originally directed by Peter Stein for the Lyric Opera of Chicago. The story is clearly told, the characterizations are crisp and the action swift, and the lamentations of those devastated by Don Giovanni's appetites never become lugubrious. The tone of the second act does get a little too giocoso, though, as an abundance of easy audience laughs elicited right after intermission somewhat overwhelm the fearsomeness of the Don's ultimate descent into hell.

D'Arcangelo's Don is a perfectly compelling seducer and swashbuckler, imbuing in particular the signature aria "Finch'han dal vino" about getting girls drunk at a party and having his way with (at least ten of) them, with all the appropriate glee of an aristocratic seventeenth-century Spanish frat leader. As Donna Anna, herself raped and her father killed by Giovanni at the beginning of the opera, soprano Juliana Di Giacomo is a coloratura wonder.

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As she was in LA Opera's brilliant "Così Fan Tutte" last season (in which D'Arcangelo also gave a standout performance), Romanian mezzo Roxana Constantinescu as Zerlina, the girl Giovanni tries to whisk away right under the nose of her fiance, is overwhelmingly charming. And in the key role of Giovanni's lackey Leporello, Serbian-Israeli bass David Bizic provides appropriately sardonic commentary on his master's exploits, especially in the famous first act aria wherein he descriptively counts off his master's lovers in one country after another (1003 in Spain, by the way), consistently overcoming the distraction of an absurdly orange costume.

In his program notes, LA Opera Music Director James Conlon, who conducted on Saturday night, seems a bit defensive about presenting a relatively unembellished version of this operatic repertory centerpiece, so unlike the one we saw down the street last May. Despite "the constant enticement to artists to attempt to 'say' something special or unique, to have a 'take' on its meaning all one's own" or "to apply some reductionist interpretation that decides for the public how it should think, feel and react," Conlon suggests, perhaps "simply performing and not interpreting the work (however unfashionable that notion might be at this moment in history) is to render to it the greatest possible service."

Pushing back gently against this assertion, we would insist that no staging of any theater or opera classic can avoid "interpreting" the piece performed and that the production now on view is itself also a distinctive "take" on "Don Giovanni." And if our city's audience gets to experience two notably different takes on this most essential work, both of them charismatically sung and thoughtfully conducted, just five months apart...well, that's nothing but lucky for us, is it?

LA Opera's "Don Giovanni" plays for six more performances between tomorrow night and October 14 (with some cast changes for the last two performances, on the 10th and 14th, when Conlon will also be replaced in the pit by Placido Domingo). Tickets $19 and (way) up, half price for children ages 9-17. For information on day-of-performance senior and student "rush" ticket discounts, call the box office at (213) 972-8001.