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Chapter Five—Don Giovanni: The Impossible Opera
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Chapter Five—
Don Giovanni: The Impossible Opera

Even if you know no Italian and are unblessed with supertitles, a staged version of Da Ponte and Mozart's Don Giovanni is likely to be comprehensible. This is partly because its story has remained part of popular mythology. We continue to call a man who shares its hero's style and obsessions a "Don Juan." If you are the least bit aware of the myth, you will expect to see a heartless, dashing womanizer who, after plowing his way through hundreds of females, gets his comeuppance at the cold hand of a stone statue—the murdered father of one of his females—which drags him off to hell.

Beyond that, much of the opera's action is likely to be fairly clear on stage: the opening duel and death, the villain's flight, the daughter's bereavement and vow to revenge. Even the first-time viewer will probably figure out that Donna Elvira is one of Giovanni's previous conquests, now discarded and bitter. And the explanation his servant provides of her insignificant place in his master's "catalogue" is as easy to translate as anything in foreign-language opera:

In Italia, sei cento e quaranta,
In Almagna [Germany], due cento e trent'una,
Cento in Francia,
In Turchia novant'una;
Màin Ispagna . . . mà, in Ispagna son già mille e trà!
[640 + 231 + 100 + 91 + 1003 = 2065]
. . . cameriere, cittadine . . . contesse, baronesse,
marchesane, principesse . . .
d'ogni grado, d'ogni forma, d'ogni età . . .

The seduction of the young peasant maid ("of any rank, of any shape, of any age") and the jealousy of her fiancéfollow logically. This is Don Juan in action,


going for number 2066. A few of the scenes that follow may be somewhat bewildering: the costume-changing bit with Leporello, the entry of three masked people in long capes and hoods, the lengthy sextet. But Giovanni's own music—his honeyed tempting of Zerlina, his mandolin serenade, his energetic song about drinking and dancing—all seem perfectly in character with his myth. Once we realize who the statue is, the cemetery scene, with its challenge and invitation, and the final supper and damnation (with all of Leporello's frightened and comic asides) make good dramatic sense.

This is not to say that Don Giovanni rolls along as smoothly as a well-made play. Not many operas do. Fans usually attribute this defect, if it is one, to what one might call "lyrical interruptions." However refined their interest in drama, most opera lovers still enjoy gorgeous singing, all by itself, enough to put up with numerous interruptions in the plot. And Don Giovanni has what may be the greatest number of sublime lyrical interruptions per hour of opera of any major repertory work.

Some of these interruptions result from the fact that the company Mozart was writing for in Prague had three sopranos of almost equal importance, all of whom expected two star-turn solos (his Donna Elvira in Vienna demanded a third) as well as a decent share in the ensembles. For the Prague Don Ottavio, Mozart composed the opera's single most demanding stretch of show-off vocalise: Baglioni was obliged to sing one five-bar, sixty-note roulade in a single breath. When that proved too much for Morella, the tenor in Vienna, Mozart wrote for him an equally lovely alternative that was easier to sing. Nowadays, when no self-respecting tenor would admit to being unable to manipulate the Big Dipper runs of "Il mio tesoro," or agree to relinquish the melting intervals of "Dalla sua pace," the action stops dead twice while this stiff, handsome dummy in black velvet and Spanish lace struts his stage-center stuff and wins his expected bravos.

Not all of the lyrical interruptions are as antidramatic as Don Ottavio's. Some of the showstoppers—Leporello's catalogue aria, his master's "Deh vieni" serenade and "Finch'han dal vino" (the so-called champagne aria), Zerlina's two plangent appeals to her mate, Masetto's brief outburst of defiance—are well integrated into the action. With the exception of the tedious sextets, most of the songs Mozart and Da Ponte write for more than one person further and enrich the drama, rather than stop it in its tracks.

The lovely A-major duettino in which Don Giovanni wins Zerlina is a little drama all by itself. It starts with the achingly sweet intervals of his first appeal, which are answered about an octave higher in a charming expression of Zerlina's internal confusion ("Vorrei, e non vorrei"—"I want it, and I don't want it"). After a coy transition, and some twists on the fiddles, come faster and faster exchanges as the two grow closer and more heated. Her notes descend; the woodwinds press as she weakens ("Non son piùforte!") until finally, after a last pause of dying conscience,


she is pulled into breathless 6/8 harmony and cries along with him, "Andiam!"—"Let's go!"

The intercutting and blending of the musical lines, the very repeats and progresses duplicate the irresistible—and clearly sexual—movement from his to hers to theirs. Much as I abhor heartless seducers, and suffer for poor Masetto, so emotionally persuasive is this duet that I find myself wanting the seduction to succeed, and I feel as frustrated as Don Giovanni must feel when the ubiquitous Elvira interrupts his tender designs.

The cemetery duet (Act II, Scene 9—briefly a trio), called "O statua gentilissima," is so vividly theatrical that one tends to forget it's a vocal "number" at all. Leporello starts to address the statue, but keeps interrupting his own lines in shudders of sheer fright. Each time he stops, he is threatened by Don Giovanni and returns to his terrifying chore. When the statue does finally reply (with his customary consort of woodwinds and brass), Leporello nearly goes out of his mind. When both men notice the statue's nod, they acknowledge it by singing together. When they quit the scene, they are rhyming verbally, and musically in harmony, but their emotions are at opposite ends of the world.

Were it not for the extraordinary reputation of the three Mozart-Da Ponte operas (since the prewar Glyndebourne performances, most of the opera world has taken to writing of them as if they were flawlessly unified musical-dramatic wholes), this distinction between vocal numbers that sustain dramatic progress and those that simply and beautifully interrupt it might not be worth making. It is possible that Don Giovanni benefits from a reputation earned primarily by the other two. The text and plot of Così fan tutte (1790) are set up to be so lucidly symmetrical that Mozart's beautiful, bittersweet score can match Da Ponte's libretto with a mirror-image precision. (In fact, as Joseph Kerman points out in Opera as Drama , Mozart takes the lovers' emotions a good deal more seriously than Da Ponte does.) Every producer takes advantage of this apparent symmetry; every listener adores it. The characterizations and intrigue of The Marriage of Figaro (1786) are far more complex than Così's. But the miraculous working out of all its complexity, in which music at once creates the eleven characters and their world, tangles and untangles the plot, and englobes the whole in a glow of heavenly harmonies and melodies, is probably responsible for the fact that this, the earliest of the Mozart-Da Ponte collaborations, usually inspires the warmest affection today.

If these two operas are not easy to realize satisfactorily in performance, it is because of the purity, sympathy, and musicianship they require. With Don Giovanni (1787), there are problems so deeply rooted in the text and scores that one of Mozart's most dedicated modern commentators, Georges de St.-Foix, wrote of "the near impossibility of giving to this dramma giocoso a representation absolutely adequate to the original." E. J. Dent, an early and ardent Mozartean, called Don


MOZART Don Giovanni , Berndt Weikl, Hamburg Opera, 1973.
Photograph by Fritz Peyer.


Giovanni "a work containing moments of the most overwhelming beauty and the greatest dramatic power, along with curiously incongruous lapses into the mannerisms of an old fashioned style, the whole being to some extent disfigured by a general vagueness and confusion of plan." Harold Rosenthal, former editor of Opera , called it "one of the most difficult operas to bring off successfully."[1]

Perhaps for these very reasons, almost every distinguished opera producer of the past fifteen years, and several from other fields, have tried, often by novel and radical means, to iron out the inconsistencies of Don Giovanni . Walter Felsenstein, Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, Günther Rennert, Franco Zeffirelli, John Copley, August Everding, Peter Hall, Götz Friedrich, Maurice Béjart, and Joseph Losey (I list them chronologically) are among the many celebrated producers who ventured new versions of this problematic work between 1966 and 1981.

Because it is always taken for granted that Mozart is one of the supreme geniuses of human history, much of the blame for the "problems" of Don Giovanni is often visited on Lorenzo Da Ponte, the failed priest from Venice who wrote Mozart's librettos. ("The speed with which the piece had to be written explains certain of its crudities," writes Kerman. "The libretto is full of improbabilities . . . [which] are fortuitous and clumsy. . . . Da Ponte is mostly responsible for the weakness.")

Da Ponte does have a few things to answer for. By his own account, he was working on two other librettos at the same time he was putting together Don Giovanni , and the available evidence suggests that he may not have devoted to it the fullness of his powers. A good chunk of it, in fact, was lifted directly from a contemporary version by one of his rivals, Giuseppe Gazzaniga. Like most operas, Da Ponte's has its logical gaps. How, for example, does Donna Elvira manage to keep showing up just where Don Giovanni happens to be, at just the wrong time? And what on earth are Masetto and Zerlina doing walking in the door to Donna

Don Giovanni presents the producer with one of the most fascinating operatic tasks of all—and one of the most mortifying. There is probably no way of finding an answer that satisfies beyond the evening of the première. Countless questions must be answered by any producer. Why does Don Giovanni kill the Commendatore?. . . . It now seems incomprehensible that Don Giovanni should have been depicted as an indefatigable philanderer in his prince, when in fact the opera deals with the twenty-four hours of a man whose life is in a state of pathological decay. . . . Don Giovanni offers a surfeit of problems. . . . How are we to cope with the problem of the Commendatore's statue?. . . . We must assume that the alleged identification of the statue in the churchyard and its appearance in Giovanni's palace were the hallucination, of a disintegrating mind. (Peter Ebert)

The inscription on the plinth of the statue is of Leporello's own invention, a ruse to coax his master away from the cemetery. . . . And yet the product of Leporello's terrified imagination was so preposterous that even Giovanni would surely have dismissed it, had not his head been befuddled by feasting and wining. [Leporello's] dubious response deluded Don Giovanni into believing that he was standing by the Commendatore's grave. (Rudolf Noelte)


Anna's courtyard just as Leporello is trying to escape? How and when did the trio of masked avengers get together to form their conspiracy? How did the Commendatore's statue (its inscription proves it a recent one) get put in place such a short time after his death? What did Zerlina expect to happen in the antechamber? Could everyone in Seville really confuse Don Giovanni with his servant just because they exchanged cloaks and hats? Where are we, most of the time? What time is it?

Questions like these have bedeviled commentators for nearly two hundred years. But most of them don't bother me much. Whatever world Don Giovanni and his fellows may inhabit, it is obviously built in great part of conventional theatrical artifice. This is a world where the best jokes and the most spontaneous cries of passion are inevitably repeated four bars later for reasons of musical symmetry. Looking in on such a place, the sympathetic operagoer will accept coincidental encounters, warped time frames, and transparent disguises (by which everyone is deceived) as traditional and expected furniture.

One of my difficulties with Joseph Losey's 1979 film version of Don Giovanni arises from his attempt to ignore or deny the native unrealisms of the Mozart-Da Ponte world. By having his cameras close in on real faces in real places, Losey tries to win our conviction through naturalistic characterization. But the effort dissolves in futility every time a character has to sing the same lines six or eight times over ("Morte mi da, morte, morte mi da, morte mi da," and so on). Losey's Commendatore is really killed, gushes real blood in a rain-soaked Palladian piazza in Vicenza. And then we stare into the tormented, "real" face of his daughter as she utters her stock-tragic "Io manco! Io morò!" etc., and try not to giggle. Everyone keeps threatening to die of grief (or unrequited love) in this opera. It's a literary conceit that was already tired by the early Renaissance, and one that cannot be resuscitated into realism today.

Other producers, avoiding the naturalistic trap, have taken different directions in their attempts to find a unifying style for this "most difficult" of operas. Throughout most of the nineteenth century, the Faustian-Romantic elements were stressed, even exaggerated. Additional deaths and horrors were sometimes added to those of the original. The flames and demons were enlarged; the "comic" finale was cut. (Jean-Pierre Ponnelle recently found an ingenious means of achieving something of the same effect, while retaining the jaunty final chorus. He had it sung by six terror-stricken people staring down at Don Giovanni's corpse.) All sorts of great stage "effects"—collapsing ceilings, closing-in walls—have served to represent Don Giovanni's doom.

Some of the more celebrated recent versions have made Don Giovanni a total antihero, a creature of the most sinister evil. He becomes a cold, calculating rapist and murderer in a world almost unrelievedly dark—a character infinitely distant from Ezio Pinza's endearing swashbuckler-sensualist. Others have shown him as an old roué well past his prime, a near-dotard unable to score, surrounded by


degenerate servants. (Mozart's first Don Giovanni was twenty-two. He must have started early and worked efficiently to attain his tally of 2,065 names.)

Many productions in the 1960s and 1970s went all out for sex, even beyond the heavily erotic implications of text, score, and stage directions. Don Giovanni's palace was stocked with sated, near-naked females, like a Fellini fantasy or Hugh Hefner's Playboy mansion. In one Australian production, Don Giovanni sang "Finch'han dal vino" in his underpants. Götz Friedrich's drunken peasants rolled about in lustful abandon. Joseph Losey illustrated several suggestive lines with nude female flesh, and so heated up Masetto during Zerlina's "Vedrai, carino" (when Teresa Berganza kept repeating, "Toccami qui"—"Touch me here"—in the movie, she was not pointing to her heart) that he proceeds to have her up against the nearest wall. Surprisingly, no feminist producer has yet seen fit to resurrect the "comic" episode Mozart added for Vienna, in which Zerlina ties Leporello to a chair and threatens to mutilate him with a razor.[2]

"Proletarian" productions have turned Masetto and Leporello into heroes of the people and the peasant mob into an avenging chorus. In these, Don Giovanni—un nobil Cavalier —is punished more for the injustices of his class than for his lechery or disrespect for the dead.

To Freudianize the opera, the stone guest sometimes disappears altogether. The Commendatore's offstage cries become the voice of Giovanni's tortured conscience, and he either kills himself or dies of convulsions. Both Donna Elvira and Donna Anna have been portrayed as over-the-edge neurotics or worse.[3] The Copley/Davis/Lazaridis production of 1973 backed the stage with giant mirrors, so the Covent Garden audience kept seeing itself implicated in these unsavory goings on, and the Don Giovanni images kept multiplying. Maurice Béjart, in Geneva (1980), carried this idea one step further, and had up to ten live alter-ego Giovannis on stage at the same time.

Each of these interpretations may teach us something new about the potential meanings of this opera that others neglect. But each also appears to sacrifice some part of the fullness of Don Giovanni in the interests of a unified concept or style. As if determined to prove their seriousness and depth, many producers are willing to forego the lighter, more comic aspects of what Da Ponte specifically labels a dramma giocoso —aspects I would have thought unavoidable, given the text and the score. But any jest may be snarled and turned nasty: Zerlina's pliancy, Masetto's jealousy,


his beating, Giovanni's remarks about women, Leporello's greed and envy—all of these may be played either for laughs, or for their vicious implications. Conductors like Otto Klemperer and Karl Böhm can turn the brightest song dark with slow, fateful tempos and a heaviness of orchestral tone. After seeing what Copley, Hall, Ponnelle, and Losey, respectively, had made of Don Giovanni , I began to find myself thinking it a mean, amoral, unlovable opera at which one could not possibly laugh long, or take much free-hearted pleasure.

And yet, reading the score or listening to a successful recording (my favorite is still the Giulini version of 1960, with its unsurpassed trio of sopranos), I remain convinced that Mozart and his librettist did intend the light aspects of this opera to coexist with, even to dominate, the dark. The brash, iconoclastic, even jolly scenes with which the opera opens and closes strike me as hints from the composer not to take the whole affair too seriously. Minutes before his damnation, over Donna Elvira's moralizing and Leporello's sentimentalizing, Don Giovanni offers a toast to his own hedonist's ideal. His proud, defiant leaps up to D on the accented syllables persuade me that Mozart doesn't entirely disagree:

Vivan le fem mina!
Viva il buon vi no,
Soste gno e  gloria d'umanità!

Long live women!
Long live good wine,
the support and the glory of humankind!

One way of describing the Don Giovanni "problem" is to say that Mozart and Da Ponte seem, by turns, to take their story very seriously, and then not to take it seriously at all. The clear-cut tragedy of the Commendatore's murder is instantly deflated by Leporello's "Goon Show" question—"Which one is dead? You or the old man?"—and is then reinflated by the opera seria pathos of Donna Anna and Don Ottavio. The greatest womanizer of all time is frustrated at every step—an opera on the theme of coitus interruptus?—and then dragged off to hell for his sins. The astonishing episode of his damnation, with its marble avenger, its chorus of demons, its blaring D-minor trombones, its fortissimo basses and drums, its shrieking scales and tortured harmonics, is preceded by one silly scene—a trivial exchange about piggish mouthfuls of food, sung to self-mocking echoes of the authors' latest hit—and followed by another, a bouncy D-major sextet that seems to mock the whole heavy-breathing effect.

T. S. Eliot tries to explain the problems inherent in Hamlet —a work with which Don Giovanni is often compared—as the result of Shakespeare's problems in


writing it. Given the basic plot he inherited, Shakespeare was obliged to write about supernatural beings, obligations, and punishments (what Eliot calls "the 'intractable' material of the old play") he personally didn't believe in. Something like that may be happening here. Child, to stone degree defender of the Enlightenment that he was, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart couldn't have invested much credibility in the stony guest he had to make use of—this noisy, echoey spectre out of A Christmas Carol who now lives somewhere down with Proserpine and Pluto, and takes it on himself to play a sort of selfish revenge god to end Don Giovanni's fun, and ours. Mozart was stuck with the marble Commendatore, and was too tightly placed in cultural history to mock the old legend altogether, in the cynical manner of an Offenbach or a Giraudoux. So we're stuck with him, too.

If the Commendatore walks into this opera from another world, Donna Anna and Don Ottavio walk into it from at least another century. Producers and performers have tried every which way to make them fit, but none of these three seems to breathe the same air as the rest of the cast. Not being a producer, I don't have to resolve these dilemmas—any more than I have to come up with a way to render "dramatic" a static, 209-bar sextet in which the same line ("Che impensata novità!" "What an unexpected development!") is repeated twenty-one times by five people.

Critics have tried to define an overarching unity for Don Giovanni in many ways: in the innumerable references (comic and tragic) to death and mortality; in Don Giovanni's own occult influence over all concerned; in the complex algebra of key changes; in the fact that life is made of contradictions, that comic gravediggers do in fact follow hard on tragic suicides. What we may be tip against is a composer who was far less troubled by all of these "irreconcilables" than we are—provided he could contain them in music that seemed to him all of a piece.

In general, I think, Mozart was able to keep his score coherent and continuous, by finding musical structures that could contain both comic realism and romantic tragedy. The celebrated "Tanzscene" of the Act I finale is just one instance of his "ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time," as Scott Fitzgerald puts it, "and still retain the ability to function." Don Giovanni dances away a reluctant Zerlina to one melody (a contredanse), while Leporello waltzes an angry Masetto out of earshot to another, and the noble masquers watch in horror, while pacing a stately minuet. For fourteen of the minuet's bars at least—until Zerlina cries out for help—all three dances, in three different times (3/4, 2/4, 3/8) fit exquisitely into one another, and are somehow able to contain six different sets of emotions.[4]


Nearly as impressive is a triple-emotion terzetto at the start of Act II. First Giovanni, in "amorous C major," swears he has repented ("Believe me or I'll kill myself"), while Donna Elvira, at the window, tries hard not to believe him, and Leporello tries hard not to laugh. Then, back in A major, Don Giovanni gloats cynically at the success of his ruse, Donna Elvira agonizes over whether to yield, and Leporello marvels at his master's wiles. This three-minded blend is effortlessly sustained. With the voices in harmony, alluring woodwinds and strings weave in and out. Soaring waves of blissful vocalism float in the air, understruck by a moving bass line, until Elvira's yielding soprano lilts lyrically over the rest in descending 32nds, and gives over to the strings as she falls.

If this opera does not "hang together" entirely, it is full of dozens of such instances of this near-miraculous capaciousness, this "yoking of disparates" in a common musical world. The accents of brittle recitatives fall precisely on the up notes of a lyrical melody they undercut. Donna Elvira rages in the most exquisite way. In one moment I love. Giovanni and Elvira are having it out like an angry old married couple, trading patter-pace insults back and forth, while Ottavio and Anna soar on above in their typically long, sweet, old-fashioned lines, wondering which of the two to believe. And each syllable, each note, matches every other on its vertical line.

Da Ponte's stage directions are fairly sparse, and can't provide much help for bewildered producers. Although Mozart conducted his own operas frequently, and we presume that Da Ponte instructed the performers, stage action in their day was still more or less improvised and ad hoc. Mozart may never have seen a live version of Don Giovanni as coherent as the opera in his head.

The extraordinary fusion of worlds, characters, and emotions Mozart has wrought in the score of Don Giovanni asserts a faith in the unity of human nature and human activity that the plot itself belies. The challenge to any producer is to find a theatrical style as capacious, as capable of embracing absolute contradiction, and yet as graceful and as classically coherent as the style of the notes on the staves of the score.



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