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October 08, 2005

Don Giovanni

Don Giovanni, the second of three collaborations between Wolfgang Amadé Mozart and Lorenzo da Ponte, is a revolutionary opera, in that it transformed opera itself. Always an ambiguous drama, the story of Don Juan had been entertaining audiences since the early seventeenth century, but it was not until 1787 that the story was given a musical treatment that fully realized its possibilities. Listening to it the other day, I saw for the first time how this was accomplished.

Don Giovanni will never be my favorite Mozart opera, and I suppose that that makes it easier for me to assess its glories. I'm not drawn to the story, which is too cynical and nocturnal for my taste, and none of the characters really appeals - as do, say, the Countess and Susanna, and even the Count, in Le Nozze di Figaro. These objections, however, are vaporized by Mozart's music, which pulls off the astounding trick of recognizing the essentially comic nature of the plot while honoring each character's sincerity. Fundamentally a bedroom farce with a surprise ending, Don Giovanni is stocked with characters who betray their commedia dell'arte ancestry: the young rogue, his back-talking (but ultimately weak-kneed) valet, the foolish older man, the ineffectual ninny, the pastoral louts, and some silly women. The aristocrats in the group take themselves very seriously, and Mozart realizes this seriousness in music. He provides da Ponte's characters with a score that, far from ridiculing them, takes their self-esteem seriously. At the very same time, this music never lets us forget that we are watching something that's supposed to be funny.

The first Viennese audiences didn't find Don Giovanni funny at all, so don't feel bad if the humor doesn't hit you immediately. The other day, though, it hit me early on, in Donna Anna's duet with Don Ottavio. The lady's father has just been killed in a duel - by Don Giovanni, of course, defending himself against the old man's attempt to avenge his daughter's alleged dishonor. Don Ottavio, who would like to be Donna Anna's boyfriend, offers to replace the lady's father while serving as her love interest as well -

Hai sposo e padre in me. (In me you have both husband and father.)

Did you ever hear anything so preposterous? I mean, really. That's how da Ponte is, by the way; he has an unparalleled knack for adorning heroic sentiment with preposterous plumage. The music is heroic when, a few bars later, Don Ottavio swears to avenge the Commendatore's death, but "Hai sposo e padre in me" has already made a fool of him dramatically, and a fool he remains for the rest of the opera - a real capon. Mozart staples Ottavio's sincerity to his silliness: you see that he's a fool, but you know what he's feeling. As for Donna Anna, she makes a fool of herself as well a bit later on, when, having recognized Don Giovanni in a different setting, she relates to Don Ottavio (who is always by her side) the scene of near seduction that led to her father's death, and then sings a grand aria about the vital importance of her own honor in which Mozart repeats the stapling stunt. 

This duet - an accompanied recitative, technically - would serve Italian opera as a model for the dramatic moment; in its shifts, its sequence of moods, we can foresee such great confrontations as the father-daughter scene in Act III of Aida. It would take Verdi, however, to scrape away the mockery of grandeur that's inherent in the model. When I listen to operas by Donizetti and Bellini, I'm charmed by their composers' profound unconsciousness of the beautiful fatuity that they have learned from Don Giovanni. I am pretty sure, however, that Rossini was aware of it. His entire later career was a celebration of beautiful fatuity. But I digress.

There's a difference between mockery and ridicule. You mock a self-important person by laughing at his self-importance; you ridicule him by denying that he has any reason to be self-important in the first place. Leporello mocks his master nearly all the way through, but he never even attempts to ridicule him. He laughs at Don Giovanni's vices and foibles, but he does not belittle their victim.

Even when the libertine is finally dragged off to hell, the music is not without its winks. I'm thinking of the rising scales that accompany the Stone Guest's exhortations, and of a few other details too slight to mention outside the context of a running commentary to the music. I'm also thinking of the Requiem, in which Mozart paints hell and its torments in tones that are dead serious, without a hint of the facetiousness that sparkles on every page of Don Giovanni.

As always, I urge listeners to take the drama of Mozart's opera at face value, and not to indulge in theories about Giovanni's sexuality or Anna's hysteria. It is fun to follow writers such as Brigid Brophy into interpretive thickets, but ultimately, I think, unnecessary. The tension between text and music, and between the melodies and their often sarcastic accompaniments, is not meant to be resolved; the "mystery" of Don Giovanni is nothing but a miracle, and miracles are by definition meant to be witnessed but not comprehended. I suspect that one might analyze the score so thoroughly that the semiotics of Mozart's ambiguity were laid bare, but that would be rather like analyzing a joke. One would be the poorer for the effort.

Posted by pourover at October 8, 2005 06:38 PM

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