May 15th, 2014
Don Giovanni - Christian Gerhaher
Leporello - Simon Bailey
Donna Anna - Brenda Rae
Donna Elvira - Juanita Lascarro
Don Ottavio - Martin Mitterrutzner
Zerlina - Grazia Doronzio
Masetto - Björn Bürger
Commendatore - Robert Lloyd
Conductor - Sebastian Weigle
Director - Christof Loy
Stage - Johannes Leiacker
Costumes - Ursula Renzenbrink
"No-one can seriously take me for a lady's man," he told the daily Frankfurter Rundschau in a recent interview, pointing out that his baritone is probably too light and lyrical, too, and "not necessarily suited for Don Giovanni."
Gerhaher's usual self-deprecation aside, the idea of casting one of today's greatest Lied singers in the role did indeed raise a few eyebrows in the opera world.
If a sexy Hollywood heartthrob with a macho swagger and an unquenchable libido is your idea of a perfect Don, then Gerhaher and Christof Loy's new reading for the Oper Frankfurt won't be for you.
There will be those who, like the critic of the Bayerischer Rundfunk in his first-night review, are looking for a hero who is a "sensual anarchist" and a staging that sizzles with the "gloriously ambiguous irony" of Mozart's score.
They'll miss the seductively saucy banter that normally leaves everyone -- not just Donnas Anna and Elvira-- drooling over our Casanova and his sidekick Leporello in more traditional productions.
But rarely does a review like the BR's so entirely miss the point as it does in this case.
For Loy, the interest does not lie in the dramma giocoso of this "opera of all operas".
It is instead a deeply melancholy -- even depressive -- portrait of an ageing egomaniac staring death in the face and trapped in a hell of his own making.
Like the idea of casting of Gerhaher in the title role, Loy's reading is unsettling because it goes against any ingrained expectations for Don Giovanni. And it can really get under your skin, if you let it.
And shouldn't that be what opera is all about?
The beautifully stark sets by Johannes Leiacker and swish period costumes by Ursula Renzenbrink exude a run-down elegance.
We're in dilapidated baroque theatre with grubby white walls. And the curtain comes crashing down on the overture's opening D-minor chord to reveal Giovanni standing over a lookalike (his alter ego?) whom he has defeated in a fencing duel.
The scene anticipates the duel and murder of the Commendatore -- who also seems to be Giovanni's double -- a few minutes later and returns again, this time much multiplied, at the end as the hell into which the Stone Guest drags Giovanni.
The ageing Don -- confronted with his own mortality by the Commendatore's death -- is reviewing his life in flashback, weary of the role that both society and he has cast himself in and plagued by existential ennui.
And the action that unfolds is his final dance of death.
Gerhaher, ever the intellectual among today's singers, portrays him as an arrogant, unlikeable man, a manipulator, icy on the surface, brutal underneath.
In the few arias Giovanni actually gets to sing, his baritone gleams with characteristic beauty, no more so than in his delicately sung, finely nuanced serenade in Act 2.
But he can be fiery and dramatic, too, as in the Champagne aria (for which he is dressed up as the singer Francisco d'Andrade in Max Slevogt's painting). And his diction is always exemplary.
The rest of the cast is made up of some of Oper Frankfurt's very best singers.
Brenda Rae is wiltingly beautiful as Donna Anna, Martin Mitterrutzner a sweet, light-toned Ottavio and Juanita Lascarro an excitable Donna Elvira.
Simon Bailey's Leporello is fresh and sure-footed, Björn Bürger a powerful, but amiable Masetto and Grazia Doronzio a touching, girlish Zerlina.
Robert Lloyd was an imposing, if sometimes rather ragged-sounding Commendatore.
Frankfurt's GMD Sebastian Weigle drew sensitive and alert playing from the house orchestra, even if they sometimes lacked real Mozartian fizz and sparkle.
Loy must be one of the busiest opera directors around today and his critics like to accuse him of being lazy and formulaic.
But at his best, his stagings can be intelligent and psychologically probing, requiring multiple viewings to catch all the subtleties.
This Don Giovanni, tailor-made as it is for Gerhaher, must be one of the most engaging and compelling of Loy's productions I've seen.
Photos copyright of Monika Rittershaus, made available by Oper Frankfurt.