Double trouble for Dmitri and the Don

Dmitri Hvorostovsky, dubbed 'the Elvis of opera', brings his leonine sex appeal to Don Giovanni - and his foil Leporello - in a new film of Mozart's masterpiece. He talks to Michael Church
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An opera film that sets new records for strangeness has just been shown to acclaim in Canada and bought by Channel 4. Put Tom Stoppard's play about the bit-players in Hamlet together with Jonathan Pryce's simultaneous incarnation of Hamlet and the ghost, and you'll get some inkling of what film-maker Barbara Willis Sweete has done with Don Giovanni. She says she wanted to make an opera film that was "not parasitic", and "could contribute something to the performance-history" of Mozart's masterpiece.

An opera film that sets new records for strangeness has just been shown to acclaim in Canada and bought by Channel 4. Put Tom Stoppard's play about the bit-players in Hamlet together with Jonathan Pryce's simultaneous incarnation of Hamlet and the ghost, and you'll get some inkling of what film-maker Barbara Willis Sweete has done with Don Giovanni. She says she wanted to make an opera film that was "not parasitic", and "could contribute something to the performance-history" of Mozart's masterpiece.

Don Giovanni: Leporello's Revenge may not exactly qualify as a masterpiece, but it's a riveting 50 minutes that indubitably takes the argument into new territory.

Leporello is a suave young director showing a film in Thirties Hollywood: Don Giovanni stars in that film as an Errol Flynn-like seducer operating in 17th-century Seville. Donna Anna and the peasant bride Zerlina don't figure much, although Donna Elvira, the hero's duped wife, looms large. Mozart's master and servant roles are replaced by a more equal relationship, but the two baritones still duet together; both are consumed in a fire which starts in the film and mystically spreads to the viewing room. But the remarkable thing is this: they are both played by Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky.

This had not been Sweete's original plan. "My idea was to do a film about Mozart and baritones, showcasing Dmitri and Bryn Terfel, and I'd planned to make Bryn the Don, with Dmitri as Leporello. When Bryn was unavailable we had a problem, because we couldn't think of anybody else to whom Dmitri could be a credible supporting role - his charisma was too big."

Then she began thinking. "It occurred to me that Leporello 'hosts' the opera, stepping in and out of the action like a tour guide. So as an experiment I took all the music that he either witnesses or sings, and it came to just an hour. I first thought he could narrate to camera, then I had the idea of a film-within-a-film. Technically we could now have them sung by the same man."

She'd known the Russian since his win at the Cardiff Singer of the Year contest - where Terfel, ironically, was a runner-up - and with some trepidation asked him how he felt about doing the job."And he said yes - at which point other things came clear. We'd be able to do the mistaken-identity stuff perfectly - no problems convincing an audience that the girl could mistake a short fat man for a tall thin one, as often happens on stage - and we'd also be able to comment on the opera in a genuinely new way. Leporello both comments on his master, and judges him cruelly: at the same time he also is the Don. And he must therefore be cast into hell with him too."

So far, so impressively neat: what happens on screen may be a thinned-down abstract of Mozart's opera, with most of the supporting roles wraith-like, but it throws this Russian's persona into high relief. This is the first bit of film acting he's done since the notorious four-minute erotic video he released to go with his album of Russian songs, and, though he insists he's a stage actor rather than a screen one, the cameras obviously love his face.

No wonder American Elle once dubbed him "the Elvis of opera": with his silver mane, burly build and Slav bone-structure, he seems made to be adored. He exudes a sleepy sensuality: by marketing him as a bad-boy cherub named Dmitri, his record company was merely going with the flow. On the other hand, he is a born recitalist, particularly in the Russian repertoire that he'll be singing at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on 30 November. His tone has that velvety darkness that only Slavs seem able to produce.

He also seems - unless it's an act - disarmingly modest. Set to do Rigoletto in Moscow, he may be realising his dream of becoming a Verdian baritone, but he doesn't want to hurry things: "I want to tackle the mountain-peaks carefully, nothing too fast. I've made mistakes, and want to avoid making more."

Like what? "Darkening my voice, trying to imitate the famous artists I admired." (Chaliapin and Fischer-Dieskau, both of whom he worshipped via LPs in his father's collection in Krasnoyarsk.) "But as I don't work with anyone, and haven't been coached for 15 years, mistakes are inevitable." Then he tells me about his teachers, starting with the tyrant who blighted his life from the ages of seven to 14.

Krasnoyarsk, where he was born 38 years ago, is a medium-sized industrial city, but - this being Soviet Russia - it was well-provided with orchestras and music schools. At his first music school he studied piano, and was convinced he was no good. "When someone is slapping your hands every day, telling you you're rubbish, you start to believe it." In his teens he became a rock singer, purveying songs by the officially-proscribed Western groups who were all the rage at the time.

"I played keyboards and was my band's vocalist. We composed our own rock operas, and played at Pioneer camps. I sang in a high tenor, and somehow miraculously avoided doing my voice permanent damage. Gradually I realised that it was getting thicker and darker, and so loud it was breaking microphones."

At his father's insistence he enrolled at a school for choir conductors - another Soviet staple - where he and 15 other aspiring pop singers took turns to wield the baton for Tchaikovsky and Verdi. Then he went to the local conservatory, where he encountered a gorgon whose ferocity he respected. "She would try and break me down before I went on stage, telling me I was hopeless. She systematically broke my will, until I cried and asked her why. It was to encourage me to fight, she said: 'You're going to share the stage with people who want to destroy you. If you react, you're lost.' Now I know the truth of that." Her conditioning, he thinks, was what helped him to win at Cardiff.

But he's still sensitive to reviews, refusing to read them until his agent has vetted them. "At the beginning I felt no pressure - it just felt like a game which I'd go on winning for a while, and then it would be over. But then came responsibilities, and my first bad reviews." Nothing particularly terrible - a couple of London critics merely expressed disappointment at what they considered an over-hyped phenomenon. But they clearly froze his blood.

"I shouldn't say anything more about critics," he says, as though closing the subject. Then he suddenly launches into a bitter tirade: first at the London critics who lambasted his Sviridov recital as "butchery", and then the Moscow critics - "some people there want me dead" - who echoed that judgment to the point of employing the same words. "Georgi Sviridov was one of the last great Russian composers, and I did all I could to prevent him seeing those reviews - in which he was accused of being pro-Soviet - before he died. I just hope I succeeded."

Constantly on the move and in the throes of a divorce, he has no real home, but Russia - and Siberia - keeps drawing him back. In January he's going to brave the snows of Krasnoyarsk to record some obscure Neapolitan songs with a balalaika orchestra. "If it's dreadful, we won't publish it. But it could be good." On which label? "My own."

This is a cherub with attitude.

 

Dmitri Hvorostovsky sings Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov songs at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on 30 November

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