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OPERA

Like Depp with a deep voice

He may resemble Johnny Depp, but baritone Erwin Schrott's world is the stage, not the screen.

June 12, 2003|Donna Perlmutter | Special to The Times

The handsome guy ambling down the hallway of Los Angeles Opera's offices seems to have made a wrong turn. Hollywood is a few miles north.

In fact, this Johnny Depp look-alike, his tousled hair falling about his face, reels backward with pleasure when told of his resemblance to the movie star, and even ticks off some film titles: "Edward Scissorhands," "Ed Wood," "Don Juan de Marco." He's seen them all.

Erwin Schrott -- currently playing the original Don Juan on the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion stage -- does not call to mind a cautious careerist watching his baritonal P's and Q's, despite a career in such high gear that he has dates through 2008 at Covent Garden, the Vienna State Opera, Chicago's Lyric and the Met.

"Oh, my God, I am in Hollywood," says the Uruguayan-born singer.

To encounter Schrott in the new production of Mozart's "Don Giovanni," by contrast, is to discover the serious artist underneath this eager persona: someone who can epitomize the commanding nobleman gone bad, the corrupt conniver who quickly becomes bored with his conquests, the antihero with one scheme after another up his sleeve. What's more, Schrott inhabits the role with enormous charm, casual insolence and physical ease. Onstage, he wears his hair slicked back, exposing a deep widow's peak. When not menacing his women, his Don Giovanni imparts wily humor through body language: As a seduction signal, he paws the ground like a bull ready to attack. He ends an aria with an intimidating pirouette that lands in the next victim's space. And he shades his rich, chocolaty voice with multiple levels of insinuation.

While these performances, ending June 22, mark his Los Angeles debut, the 30-year-old has just come from his benefactor Placido Domingo's other company, the Washington Opera, and a "Don Giovanni" staged there by a different director.

"They are very un-alike," he says of the two productions, sipping from a bottle of spring water and sprawling in a club chair in the Pavilion's Grand Hall. "But I have my own idea of who Giovanni is. He's part of my internal, intellectual base by now because I've been reading about him for years and understand him very well."

Lest anyone get the wrong idea, Schrott says that all this study has been aimed strictly at grasping the character's musical realization. "I'm not him. He's not part of me. In fact, I don't like him very much. I say of him, poor guy, such a lonely person. He did not have a good life as a child. No love from his mother or father. So he cannot feel love for himself or another. The only thing he can do is to show his power.

"In the end, he knows what awaits him, a date with death. He senses something is coming and that it's out of his hands. And that's the hardest part -- to show the audience these terrible things inside him, things he doesn't exactly know."

Still, Schrott says it wasn't difficult in Mariusz Trelinski's highly stylized, unsentimental production, shared by Los Angeles and the Polish National Opera, to portray the Don's contempt for one of his intended conquests, the peasant girl Zerlina. Jumping up from the chair, he gets into character and sings the rapid-fire lines that accompany his action: plucking feathers from her plumed skirt before backing her onto a crimson bed.

"He's being cruel now, not playing and having fun as he did earlier, not even enjoying the final phase of this seduction but showing her 'how big I am' -- a moment so supreme for her, but for him nothing to get excited about."

In John Pascoe's staging for Washington, Schrott was asked to take a very different tack.

"There, everything was passion," he says, standing to puff his chest and then thump it with his palms. "Yes, in the bullfighter, flamenco style. Everything on the stage was sex -- the clothes, the body, the hair, always wet and wild. Lots of touching and kissing."

The singing actor's biggest compliment on his powers of persuasion, he says, came in comments from women in the audience saying they felt they "had been in the arms of Don Giovanni all night."

Erwin Schrott -- an unlikely name for this hot young South American -- was something of a prodigy. His restaurateur father and mother, who are both fourth-generation residents of the Uruguayan capital, Montevideo, and who have Swiss, Spanish, Portuguese and German forebears, started their son taking piano lessons when he was 6.

From then on it was clear to him that his life would be that of a musician, he recalls, "even though I went to university with the idea of becoming a lawyer."

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