Q & A: Jacques Imbrailo on ‘Don Giovanni,’ Oviedo & Wide-Ranging Repertoire

By Francisco Salazar

This week, baritone Jacques Imbrailo returns to the title role of “Don Giovanni” for his big debut at Ópera de Oviedo.

The South African singer has performed the iconic role throughout his career with such companies the Perm Opera and Scottish Opera, among others. But his “Don Giovanni” isn’t the only thing he has in store for this coming season. Additionally, Imbrailo is set to appear in a number of works by Britten, Adams, and Dean, among other, continuing a trademark of his of expanding his repertory and consistently diversifying it.

OperaWire recently spoke to Imbrailo about his coming debut in Oviedo and the wide range of repertoire that he will be tackling this season.

OperaWire: You will be doing a new “Giovanni” directed by Marta Eguilior. Tell me about her perspective and what she brings to the table.

Jacques Imbrailo: Marta brings a great energy and sense of humor to the rehearsal process. She believes that Don Giovanni is an out and out villain, a terrible man who rapes women he can’t seduce. We are painting Don Giovanni as a man of sadistic urges to the extreme which includes violent mood swings, rape, murder…etc. He is not a likable rogue who simply charms women into submission, as he is often portrayed, but a selfish, sadistic predator. Marta sees him, not as the romanticized Casanova from the “Da Ponte” period, but as a sexual perpetrator who is not to be glamorized.

OW: Tell me about your interpretation and what you are learning from the production. How has it deepened your interpretation?

JI: I have always found any interpretation where we are supposed to just roll our eyes with a smile at his antics as problematic. Even in a very traditional and “comic” interpretation of the opera his actual deeds and intentions, if we seriously consider them, are criminal and predatory. The women are very rightly distressed, to say the very least, by his actions. I think Don Giovanni should be portrayed as a very real villain and predator regardless of any charm or humor any production may use as a device of characterization. I can believe in him as a character when his actions are fairly judged for what they are and it is easier for me to play him with more conviction as well if I don’t have to pretend like it is all actually just very silly and charming and to be chuckled at.

This production certainly takes that line and even though I find the portrayal I am being asked to do very brutal and uncomfortable, I feel it is right in that it stops us from making Don Giovanni into some kind of anti-hero to be secretly adored.

Does that mean it is the only way to play him? Of course not, but this is my view of the man. It is my job to be able to portrait characters in different ways according to the requirements of different productions and directors and I will do that to the best of my ability even if I have a different personal view of the character. For this production, though I am of a very similar view to the wonderful Marta.

OW: What are the biggest challenges of this opera?

JI: Vocally it is very easy to make him shouty and aggressive all the time. So for me, one of the big challenges is to keep too much aggression out of my voice apart from where it is needed. Don Giovanni has a lot of recitatives to color his character and it is easy to lose the sense of singing when you are trying to be threatening or intimidating. I try to make it as believable and natural as possible so that we can believe the emotions and reactions but still try to maintain beauty of legato singing where I can. For me, it is easier said than done but I try.

The portrayal has its challenges: it is quite a long role so vocal stamina and how to manage your resources through the night is important and a challenge especially if you give yourself over to a physical portrayal – which we are doing here.

OW: How do you humanize a character who is so villainous, especially in this time period?

JI: I’m not sure you do. Not in a positive way anyway. As I’ve said already I think Don Giovanni is not to be redeemed. From a position of privilege, he abuses and demeans women and men even when it is with beautiful words and notes. Especially today when we must be more aware and sensitive to the abuse of power and status – I think it is important to not gloss over the reality of what he does.

OW: What are your favorite parts of this work?

JI: Like everybody, I love the entrance of the Commendatore in the Act two finale. The inevitability of his legato line and the rhythmical drive of the orchestra in that finale is wonderful to me in the way that it sweeps Don Giovanni to his end in spite of his bravura.
The beginning of the Act two finale and the little bit of back and forth between Don Giovanni and Leporello leading into the final bit of terrorizing Don Elvira before the Commendatore arrives is brilliant as well. It is almost like a little synopsis of Don Giovanni’s character and his relationships as a reminder of why he is about to be doomed.

The Don Giovanni serenade will always be a special moment but Donna Anna’s “Non mi dir” steals the show for me.

OW: Your repertoire is so diverse. Where does Mozart fit in and how does it compare to the other operas you do?

JI: I did more Mozart when I was a student and starting out but I have done very little Mozart over the last decade. That has not been by choice but just how things worked out.

“Billy Budd” came along and he continues to be a very good friend to me and also Debussy’s Pelléas and those two roles took up the majority of my time over a period and I had less chance to sing Mozart as a result.

I also sang plenty of other things though and have recently also begun to explore some slightly heavier repertoire: King Alphonse in “La Favorite” in Houston; Vincenzo Gellner in “La Wally” in Vienna and most recently Yeletsky in “Queen of Spades” in Brussels… I firmly believe that if you sing with your own voice without trying to make it heavier or older than it is you can continue to sing quite a wide range of repertoire without compromising your ability to sing any of it.

Mozart is something that I feel I want to sing for as long as I can which will hopefully be for my entire career. I love singing both Don Giovanni and Count Almaviva and am delighted to be returning to both of these Gentlemen in the coming seasons.

OW: What does it mean to sing in Oviedo? What are you excited about singing in this theater?

JI: My family was here for a few days as well and we have really enjoyed walking around the lovely city with its great food and cider. The theatre is wonderful. A gift of an acoustic and especially for the intimacy of the Mozart recitatives and the sharp dynamics of Mozart. I am very happy to be singing “Don Giovanni” again after quite a few years in a production that I find challenging and rewarding in such a wonderful space. The theatre lends itself to great expression and detail. I hope we can do it justice.

OW: This season, you will also be singing works by Adams, Britten, and Dean. How does it feel to transition from Mozart to more modern works?

JI: It takes a lot longer to learn! My musical soul is quite classical and so it probably takes me longer to find my way in contemporary compositions but the worth of a piece doesn’t lie in its style or its period but whether it moves us and whether it is good music.

I am quite drawn to the character of Chou En-Lai in “Nixon in China” which is later this season in Madrid, and I’m looking forward to being a part of Brett Dean’s “Hamlet” again, this time in Munich – from Glyndebourne and the MET, and soon in Munich – Brett’s music is very challenging but very rewarding once you’ve got it into your DNA… I think I’m allowed to mention that I’m in his new opera next season in Munich and am looking forward to getting that score soon….

OW: What other operas are you looking forward to performing in the future?

JI: I am dying to do a production of “Hamlet” by Ambroise Thomas. I sang the role in concert in Washington DC and to sing the role onstage is at the top of my bucket list.

“Billy Budd” is something I will keep singing as long as people are asking me, and as I mentioned, “Eugene Onegin” is now coming into view and also Rodrigo in “Don Carlos” and I’d love to sing that role in both French and Italian…. Athaneal in “Thaïs” has been spoken of lately and I was offered the baritone version of “Werther” but sadly I wasn’t available so I hope someone asks me for that one again… Others I don’t dare to mention yet as I might never be allowed to sing them but who knows!


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