The hero of Mozart's "Don Giovanni" would seem to have it all: looks, money, a palace and more women than even he can handle. Yet his manservant Leporello gets the "Catalog" aria, by general agreement the best of their solos, and unlike his master lives to tell their tale. So which, in the end, is the better part?
The score calls for basses in both roles. Many baritones can encompass them too, though Leporello's music, a whisker heavier and lower than Giovanni's, can give them trouble.
Then there are the matters of prestige and physical type. In the past switching seems to have been rare if not unheard of. Today the number of international stars who do so keeps growing. Among those in their prime, Ildar Abdrazakov, Ildebrando D'Arcangelo, René Pape, Erwin Schrott, Bryn Terfel and Marco Vinco come to mind.
For almost two centuries the double likeness of Giovanni and Leporello was more or less set in stone: Giovanni was the archetypal man in tights, Leporello round (though underfed) and rumpled. Today, for all the talk of singers' having to look their parts, the balletic physique is no longer a must, tights are pretty much out of the picture, and Giovanni can be cast as much for brawn and menace as for period elegance and charm. And servants, as in real life, come in all shapes and sizes.
In 1979 Joseph Losey made a daring choice in his sinister though sumptuous movie of the opera, casting the aristocratic José van Dam, an A-list Giovanni, as Leporello, opposite the glowering Ruggero Raimondi. Yet a year later, when Sherrill Milnes, another ranking Giovanni, heard that his junior colleague Samuel Ramey was trading down to play the valet, he wondered why.
At a party, Mr. Ramey said recently, Mr. Milnes expressed surprise. " 'Yeah,' I told him," Mr. Ramey said, " 'I've always thought Leporello had better music.' And Milnes said, 'Just remember, Don Giovanni gets the bigger paycheck.' I don't think that's true anymore."
Mr. Ramey sang his first Leporello opposite the Giovanni of Justino Díaz in a John Cox production at New York City Opera in October 1980, seven months after the production's premiere, in which they were teamed the other way. In a new Franco Zeffirelli production at the Metropolitan Opera 10 years later, Mr. Ramey and Ferruccio Furlanetto switched in less than a month. On April 13 Mr. Ramey returns to the Met as Leporello in a reprise of Marthe Keller's production of 2004, joining the Giovanni of Peter Mattei.
As to which role he prefers today, Mr. Ramey is on the fence. "Both characters are great fun to play," he said. "My favorite moment in either part is the recitative when Giovanni expounds his philosophy about women: 'If you're faithful to one, you're being cruel to all the rest.' And the biggest test for me in either part is Giovanni's serenade later in the same scene, because it's high and soft." This from a virtuoso who made his name tossing off brilliant roulades in Rossini; the aria in question, "Deh vieni alla finestra," lilting and simple and accompanied by a mandolin, is almost a folk song.
Leporello's catalog — the one he opens for the inspection of Giovanni's mortified wife, Donna Elvira, in the great aria "Madamina" — records that his master has had 2,065 mistresses, 1,003 in Spain alone. Yet Giovanni's most intimate relationship is with the voyeur who is keeping score. "What an opera!" Mr. Terfel has written. "Two men constantly at the center of the action — tumbling, rolling, throwing each other into skirmishes without any inhibitions. After a night of 'Leporelloing,' I feel as if I've played in a rugby international."
For a while in Act II Giovanni swaps clothes with Leporello, the better to woo a lady's maid, as Leporello is dispatched in disguise to entertain the inconvenient Elvira. The bond these men have formed only God or the Devil can put asunder, as happens at the climax of the opera, when Giovanni is dragged, screaming, to hell.
Inevitably many have thought of them as aspects of a single personality. That conceit underlay Barbara Willis Sweete's hourlong film abridgment of the opera, "Don Giovanni Unmasked," starring Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Leporello, the producer, star and director of a black-and-white movie-within-the-movie in which he plays Giovanni. Leporello becomes what he beholds, at the cost of his soul.
"We always knew Dmitri would do Don Giovanni," Ms. Sweete said at the time, "so I was looking for a Leporello of the same stature. And then I thought, if there's no one of his stature, let's get him to do both. Don Giovanni could be Leporello's fantasy, an alter ego."
Nearly 30 years ago Peter Sellars cast Eugene Perry as Giovanni and Herbert Perry, Eugene's identical twin, as Leporello, but with quite different intentions. "What was great was that we didn't have to ask if the other characters are mentally impaired," Mr. Sellars said recently. "The mistaking of Giovanni and Leporello became real and understandable."
Theatrically the disguises give the players brilliant opportunities. But Mr. Sellars sees a much deeper purpose in Leporello's brief taste of the glamorous life when he steps out with Elvira.
"Left to his own devices and given the means," he said, "Leporello might go Giovanni's path. But the better you get to know the people you serve, the more you don't want to be like them. Being the object of Elvira's love is a tremendous test for his emotions. She's asking for real love, which Giovanni spends his life running from.
"In the end the transformation of Leporello is what the opera is about. Giovanni is static. He never learns a thing. Leporello goes through the whole range of emotions Giovanni is cut off from. He's a feeling, thinking person."
Mr. Schrott — lately Giovanni in Giovanni's hometown, Seville, and Leporello in Mozart's birthplace, Salzburg — has come to similar conclusions.
"Leporello has more colors," he said. "He's more alive. He feels the whole range of human emotions. Don Giovanni stays the same all the time. Yes, he can sing a serenade, or a joyful song while drinking Champagne, but he is all surface: a cruel joker whose jokes end in death. Leporello doesn't really understand his master even if he has to go along with his commands. He calls Giovanni a gentleman, but realizes eventually that he's a gentleman in name only."
Musically, Mr. Schrott added, all the parts in "Don Giovanni" are wonderful. "If it were up to me," he said, "I would sing them all, including the women."
Mr. Vinco, tracked down in Tokyo, where he was rehearsing Leporello for a contrarian staging by the Italian actor Gabriele Lavia, sees the difference between Giovanni and Leporello in metaphysical terms. "Don Giovanni isn't Casanova but a superman," he said. "He exists on a different plane from ordinary people. His element is mystery. He lives to conquer God, feeling neither love nor pity nor guilt. Leporello is exactly the opposite: a simpleton, a nice guy who feels all the human feelings."
Lately, Mr. Vinco said, he has come to see "Madamina" in a new light. With its leering descriptions of Don Giovanni's conquests and its disclosure of his "overriding passion" for "the young beginner," the showpiece can seem a barrage of cynicism, but not necessarily. "Rather than making fun, I think Leporello feels a deep sadness. It's as if he were grasping Don Giovanni's character for the first time."
Mr. Abdrazakov, who claims descent from Genghis Khan, prefers the part of Giovanni. "Inside, I feel more aristocratic," he said. "So the character feels natural to me." He lends a certain nobility to Leporello as well. "I don't like to see him made a clown, he said. "He's a friend to Don Giovanni, his shadow."
Paulo Szot, who skyrocketed to stardom as Emile de Becque in the current revival of "South Pacific" (a part written for Ezio Pinza, a Giovanni for the ages), has Giovanni in his repertory and is tempted by Leporello.
"I don't know how the part would fit me vocally," Mr. Szot said. "You never really know until you try. But as a character I think he might be more interesting. Don Giovanni needs him for everything but sex: to give him food, to give him drink, to share his feelings with. To understand the existential layers of the men's thoughts and actions, you really have to explore both sides of the coin."