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2011-03 Interview about Don Giovanni at Clevelands Severance Hall

Leading Man

Simon Keenlyside discusses opera’s most notorious cad

by Elaine Guregian

The London Observer has called him “one of the definitive Don Giovannis of the day.” London’s Guardian newspaper proclaimed his performance a “tour de force” when he sang the role at the Royal Opera. But the Englishman whom the New York Times dubbed “the Ralph Fiennes of baritones’’ has never performed the role of opera’s most famous Lothario on an American stage . . . until now.

Beginning March 19, Keenlyside joins an international cast and The Cleveland Orchestra at Severance Hall for four fully staged performances of the Zurich Opera’s 2006 production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni conducted by Franz Welser-Möst. The performances reunite many in the cast — including singers who performed together at Severance Hall in Così fan tutte in 2010 and The Marriage of Figaro in 2009. Finally, an American audience will be able to experience Keenlyside in a role that he has claimed for his own.

Holding up a mirror

From appearances in Zurich, Vienna, London, Tokyo and elsewhere, Keenlyside has sung in his share of approaches to Don Giovanni, including one where he took on the Commendatore bare-chested, sporting a wig of he-man hair down to his waist, as well as an update where he serenaded a prospective lover by phone at a bar.

“Who cares if he’s got a wig or not got a wig? It’s not about costumes. It’s about real human nature, about showing the cracked mirror of human nature to people,” the baritone said in a phone conversation from his home in London, where he lives with his wife, ballerina Zenaida Yanowsky, and their two children, Owen (age two) and Iona (age one).

Called “one of the most natural actors in opera” by the New York Times, the talkative and thoughtful Keenlyside can’t say enough good things about the acting instincts of Sven-Eric Bechtolf, the director of the Zurich Opera’s production of Don Giovanni coming to Cleveland.

“The joy of the difference between any one production and another is in the details — in the nuances, in the shadows. What I loved about Sven was working with a highly intelligent actor who knew what he wanted in terms of the detail and the nuance. He’s not addressing anything differently. He’s still dealing with the main issues of the challenge to God, the challenge to authority, the abuse of power.”

“Sven could easily, with a giant arm, have swept the whole lot away and had exactly the same process with no sets. Sven is not interested in sets. He’s interested in theater.”

Not that the production’s simple scenery isn’t beautiful, with a gleaming Art Deco sophistication that raises Keenlyside’s depiction of the philandering Don Giovanni to a level of elegant hedonism. (As for the past Mozart/Da Ponte operas presented at Severance Hall in 2009 and 2010, the original Zurich sets were designed by Rolf Glittenberg, with costumes by Marianne Glittenberg and lighting by Jürgen Hoffmann.) Seen in a DVD of his Zurich Opera performances, Keenlyside’s Don Giovanni is a James Bond-like ladykiller who abuses his power every possible way.

It would be easy to take in Don Giovanni simply as beautiful music and “a wonderful, strap-yourself-in story,” but Keenlyside also looks to it for insights about freedom, or lack of it, through the cast of characters around him.
Giovanni is somebody who does “whatever the hell they want, when they want,” he notes.

No easy answers

Very little is black and white in Don Giovanni. Gradually the audience gets to know the characters, beginning with Donna Anna (sung by Eva Mei), whom Giovanni tries to seduce and whose father (the Commendatore, sung by Alfred Muff) loses his life to the Don. “What woman could be attracted to Donna Anna’s upright Don Ottavio [sung by Shawn Mathey]? He’s boring,” notes Keenlyside, suavely managing to make it sound like a fact, not an opinion. Donna Elvira (Malin Hartelius), another of the Don’s traumatized but still-lovestruck conquests, along with Giovanni’s manservant, Leporello (Ruben Drole) and a betrothed pair of servants, Masetto (Reinhard Mayr) and Zerlina (Martina Janková), all help librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte make a variety of political points.

“The freedoms we have now, the shoulders of the people we stand on now, are more than just those of our fathers and grandfathers from the last war. The sexual, political, religious, and economic freedoms were bought hard. Mozart is shouting, but with so graceful a feather, about those injustices,” says Keenlyside, noting that a female servant in Mozart’s time didn’t even have the right to her own virginity; it could be taken by her master, according to the feudal concept of the droigt de seigneur.

Mozart’s unforgettable arias draw the listener’s attention to people, not politics. Bringing to life the relationships of these characters keeps Keenlyside fully engaged.

“You probably will do what you do because that’s your body and what you learned along the way — and made choices about along the way. But I really do passionately think that art and life are in the details, and that is the greatest joy,’’ he says. “On that count, every production is very different.” He takes pleasure in collaborating with conductor Franz Welser-Möst, who — like him — is a stickler for details, yet who also looks for the artistry beyond what’s stipulated on the pages of a score.

“Arias don’t take place in real time in Don Giovanni — nor do soliloquies in Shakespeare. Time is a relative construct. . . . There’s this endless scope for spontaneity and that takes somebody who’s prepared to give you freedom,’’ says Keenlyside. Someone like Welser-Möst. “He’s a stickler for correct note values and details, as Charles Mackerras was, and I like that. If you’re ready on Day One to work, then you can play with things and tinker with things and experiment with things.’’

Over the years since Keenlyside first sang for Welser-Möst on a program in London, he has gotten to know him through performances at Severance Hall and in Europe. “On the face of it, he seems quite stern. He’s actually quite the opposite. If he trusts you . . . then it’s lovely because then he will give you plenty of scope to shift about within the parameters that one’s already agreed on. He’s got this impish sense of humor in music that I like a lot — particularly in Mozart.” Keenlyside says.

A Family man

In demand for operas, recitals, and orchestral appearances, Keenlyside, 51, was named Musical America’s Vocalist of the Year for 2011. But having grown up a third-generation musician (his father, Raymond Keenlyside, was a violinist in the Aeolian Quartet; his grandfather was a concertmaster in London), he claims no need for the trappings of fame, and lately he has pared down his schedule in order to accommodate family life.

“I’m not an ambitious man. . . . As long as I can get good work, that’s what I want, and I’ve got that. When I’m out on the bicycle with my boy, none of it matters anyway,’’ says Keenlyside.

And when it comes to singing opera, Keenlyside concludes, “The joy for me is in the moment.” Get into your costume and go out there under the lights with “a gimlet eye, radar on,’’ fully aware of everything around you. Then, “it’s just fun, telling a story.”

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