A Rake, Sure, but a Thoughtful One
«There was a moment last summer during a performance of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” at Covent Garden when the charismatic Uruguayan bass Erwin Schrott, singing the title role, nearly stopped the show. And not in the typical meaning of that phrase.
This was the first time I had heard Mr. Schrott, dubbed “the Marlon Brando of opera” by some in the international press, and I was wary of the hype. But after observing him in action on that June evening in London, the comparison seemed not that much of a stretch. New York opera lovers can see him as the Don starting on Saturday, when he stars in the Metropolitan Opera’s revival of Marthe Keller’s 2004 production.
He had the audience hooked from the first scene, when Giovanni appeared in disguise, looking like a masked Spanish pirate, his red vest exposing his muscled chest, bent on seducing the vulnerable Donna Anna. His virile, dusky singing deftly veiled the character’s malevolence.
In Scene 2, after having fatally stabbed Donna Anna’s father, the Commendatore, when the old man rushed to her rescue, Giovanni and his servant Leporello arrived on a street in Seville. In lines of agitated recitative the exasperated Leporello reprimanded his master as an utter rogue. Mr. Schrott’s Don laughed maniacally and warned the servant to hush up.
Then, as he breathlessly explained that another rendezvous was imminent, something seemed to distract him. He trailed off into uneasy silence. Crooking his neck, he looked around, squinted, then began singing again. Soon he stopped cold and sniffed the air. Was the singer discombobulated?
A knowing smile crossed Mr. Schrott’s face, and he sang the next line of recitative: “Zitto! mi pare sentir odor di femmina!” (“Hush! I seem to smell femininity!”) Ducking for cover, he waited, and sure enough, Donna Elvira appeared.
This moment usually comes across either as absurdly comic or simply weird. Don Giovanni can smell women approaching?
“Apparently he can,” Mr. Schrott, 35, said during a recent interview at the Met, following a staging rehearsal. Recalling that production, Mr. Schrott said, “I can’t tell you how many times a coach or prompter fed me a word, thinking I had forgotten a line.”
The Russian soprano Anna Netrebko was singing Donna Anna at Covent Garden that night. The two are now engaged; early this month she gave birth to their son, Tiago. While Mr. Schrott appears at the Met, Ms. Netrebko is at home with the baby in her Vienna apartment. Mr. Schrott also has a 10-year-old daughter, Iara, who lives in Uruguay with her mother, his ex-wife.
Opera buffs should not expect the pair to become the next love couple, appearing regularly together in productions. “We actually want to try to avoid it,” Mr. Schrott said. “She has her career, I have mine.” Of course, he added, “if it happens naturally, fine.”
Mr. Schrott is gratified to be considered a dynamic actor and smoldering stage presence. But he emphasized that the basic craft of singing is crucial at this stage in his career. He is determined not to let himself be pushed into vocally inappropriate roles, he said, even if it means restricting his repertory.
Mr. Schrott has sometimes been faulted for letting musical details slip when he becomes swept up in the moment of a performance. But he has taken that feedback to heart. Coaches at the Met, where he made his debut in 2000 as Colline in “La Bohème,” report that he is disciplined and focused.
Mr. Schrott’s career developed slowly, which was fine by him. After three years at a conservatory in Uruguay, he continued his studies for a year in Buenos Aires. With a fellowship in hand, he went to Italy for training and worked with mentors, notably the baritone Leo Nucci, whom he had met in South America. His breakthrough came in 1998 when, after hedging about entering Operalia, the competition run by Plácido Domingo, he won it — both the jury prize and the audience prize.
For years he was content to sing supporting roles. “It was beautiful to take a character who is not the big deal in the opera, but to make something of it,” he said. “That is really being an artist.”
Bigger roles came his way, including Mephistopheles in “Faust,” Banquo in “Macbeth,” Mozart’s Figaro and a major challenge, Pharaoh in Rossini’s “Moise et Pharaon,” at La Scala in Milan, with the perfectionist Italian maestro Riccardo Muti conducting.
Decca has just issued Mr. Schrott’s first solo recording, a program of arias by Mozart, Verdi, Meyerbeer, Gounod and Puccini, with Riccardo Frizza conducting the Orquestra de la Comunitat Valenciana. For a singer so naturally spontaneous, the recording process — which requires performing passages over and over to get them right — was initially a “nightmare,” he said.
At first he was worried, he said, that the sound of his voice — “my ideal sound, my inner sound, what my ear hears” — was not coming through on the recording. Actually, the engineers have ably captured the heft, warmth and chocolate-tinged colorings of his voice. He may have felt constrained singing before microphones in a recording studio. But his performances have plenty of his trademark impetuosity, and by the end, he was pleased with the results.
Don Giovanni is becoming his calling card, though he also sings Leporello, as he did to acclaim this summer at the Salzburg Festival, which gives him dual insights into the roles. “I think Leporello understands Don Giovanni better than Giovanni understands himself,” Mr. Schrott said. He sketched out two frameworks for comprehending their relationship, which he considers a co-dependency.
In one, Leporello is an older, more overtly comic character. You could imagine him having worked for Giovanni’s father; when the father died, Mr. Schrott explained, he entrusted his bored, reckless son to his faithful servant. The other is to consider Leporello and Giovanni as having grown up together, servant and master in the same household.
“They played games when they were kids,” Mr. Schrott said. Leporello is jealous of Giovanni’s wealth and elegance, and the beautiful women. But inwardly he pities his master’s amorality and emotional emptiness.
Mr. Schrott much prefers this second concept, as does his colleague Ildebrando D’Arcangelo, the Italian bass who is singing Leporello in the Met’s production. That was clear during the recent staging rehearsal in a basement studio of the house.
Working with the director Gina Lapinski, Mr. Schrott and Mr. D’Arcangelo sorted out the attitudes of the two characters during the final scene at Giovanni’s castle. During the previous scene the Don had rashly invited the statue of the Commendatore, which had spoken to him, to join him for supper.
Beneath all the banter and horseplay you sensed the tensions and mistrust between this master and servant. The most fascinating interplay, though, came when the mezzo-soprano Susan Graham, singing Donna Elvira, burst into the scene. What Elvira yearns for here has always seemed elusive. Getting on her knees, she says that she wants to prove her love for Giovanni one last time. Does she actually want him back? Or does she only want him to repent and change his ways?
Ms. Graham explained to her colleagues that as she sees the character, Elvira’s romantic fantasy is over. She wants to be proved right and for Giovanni to renounce his ways. Mr. Schrott answered that Elvira may believe this rationally, but that passion and love are beyond reason. Elvira is still desperate.
When Mr. Schrott approached the kneeling Ms. Graham with a seductive gleam in his eyes, Ms. Graham said, “That’s too much, too romantic.” So he tried again, this time flashing an enticing yet blank look that barely concealed his contempt and lust. It worked.
Afterward, Mr. Schrott cautioned that when he gets onstage in this scene, despite all the painstaking work, anything can happen in the moment. “Taking risks is part of the job,” he said. “Making choices. You have to.”»