What makes for a good performance of Don Giovanni? Some have called it the greatest drama in opera, and with music by Mozart at the height of his compositional powers, its status as a masterpiece of Classical music is undisputed. Los Angeles Opera’s opening night production had elements both outstanding and troubled. Some distinguished singing proved to be among the highlights, but a trivial production never really came together for an exceptional evening.

For those who are tempted to see this production for the outstanding bass Ildebrando D’Arcangelo, they will not be disappointed. D’Arcangelo uses his sonorous and even bass instrument to portray a cold, imposing villain. His “Champagne Aria” was virtuosic and virulent. His serenade was knowingly seductive with an easy extension into his dark yet clear upper voice. Still, his finest moment came in his final scene as he reserved enough stamina for a terrifyingly defiant scene with the Commendatore. While some may prefer a singer with a more baritone sound, his good looks and distinguished voice made him a formidable Don. The most intriguing voice of the cast belonged to soprano Julianna Di Giacomo. As the tormented Donna Anna, Di Giacomo projected her powerful instrument with plenty of bite and line. It’s a thrillingly large voice with an intelligent musicality behind it. However, her tendency to lose focus and flutter towards the top of her range proved slightly troublesome during her “Non mi dir”. Dramatically, she was convincing with “Or sai chi l’onore” being a highlight of her performance.

Veteran soprano Soile Isokoski was a dramatically sympathetic Donna Elvira who seemed to portray the role with a sad, matronly resignation. While lacking some power in her middle voice, her technique was outstandingly secure and she sang a technically proficient and vulnerable “Mi tradi” with a glistening soprano. Serbian bass David Bizic was a clear audience favorite, with good reason. His “Catalogue Aria” was secure both dramatically and vocally. His performance was fresh and funny. His consistent bass was pleasant, but against the Don of D’Arcangelo, lighter. Andrej Dunaev’s Don Ottavio was somewhat two-dimensional, as the character often is portrayed. His tenor is radiant and somewhat broad and was more suited to the heroic “Il mio tesoro” than the contrasting verses of “Dalla sua pace”. Soprano Roxana Constantinescu was dramatically fiesty as Zerlina but lacked clarity and youth in her sound. Her Masetto, Joshua Bloom, was dramatically adept with a youthful bass sound to convince. The Commendatore, Ievgen Orlov, was imposing in voice and stature. His voice was resonant and robust, not overly dark, with no trace of wobble. He was a dramatic and vocal match for D’Arcangelo’s rake.

On the whole, it was a satisfactory cast. Backed by James Conlon and the LA Opera Orchestra, it wasn’t particularly lean or bouyant musically, but it was swift and lyrical enough to not be bogged down. The orchestra lacked some finesse, but Conlon did well to keep them moving. Tempos were almost never extreme.

Unfortunately, an unattractive and unimaginative production that, while not detracting from Mozart’s drama, hardly added anything to it. Director Gregory A. Fortner did an impressive job of keeping things fluid between scenes with natural and believable stage action taking place during the conclusions of arias. In general, there was much “giocosa”, with the audience getting many laughs from the customary Don and Leporello banter. But the “dramma” was detached and unaffecting. The production had an uneasy time of making this part of the play believable and real. The most dramatic scenes tended towards the most formulaic staging, such as the very plebeian dual between the Don and Commendatore. Furthermore, the costumes and sets were utilitarian as could be. The sets looked cheap and bare. The costumes, drab and generic. One of the most impressively sung and played scenes of the evening, the finale between Giovanni and the Commendatore, was undermined by a Hell of paper flames and disembodied demon hands. The tension and power of the music lost all momentum due to what looked like a Hallowe’en haunted house display.

In the end, it was the production’s inoffensive nature which made the evening unremarkable. While it is nice to see a traditional production of Don Giovanni, its daring and dark story needs a visceral staging in order to give Mozart’s music the impact it can most certainly have. While the singing was wholly satisfactory, even outstanding in some cases, this Don Giovanni fails to live up to its potential.