“Donna folle! indarno gridi, Chi son io tu non saprai!”
(Crazed woman!, you scream in vain; who I am, you will never know!”)
Writing on the subject of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s and Lorenzo Da Ponte’s Don Giovanni is easy, because the subject is vast and fascinating. It is also unnecessary. Primarily, the music speaks for itself. Secondarily, so much has been written and said about it, that it is virtually impossible to avoid redundancy. Thirdly, almost any position the writer might take on the subject, including all the thoughts set forth in this article, can immediately be challenged and dismissed by an infinite number of equally valid or invalid viewpoints.
This holds equally true for performing the opera. Despite routine claims of innovation and fresh “insight,” performances that actually bring something new to this work are the exception, not the rule. But fortunately, the genius of the work is such that it trumps any attempt to “illuminate” its inner workings. Its substance is fully present in any competent performance. The work is unfathomable in its depths, uncontainable in its breadth, and inexhaustible in its essence.
A saying, often attributed to Artur Schnabel, holds that “A masterpiece is a work that is better than any of its possible performances.” That statement, which can make one’s head spin in its implications, unquestionably can apply to Don Giovanni. Might that partially explain why one of the greatest operas ever written lends itself, paradoxically, to more productions that fail dismally than other works of lesser quality?
Or could it be the constant enticement to artists to attempt to “say” something special or unique, to have a “take” on its meaning all one’s own? Or perhaps to apply some reductionist interpretation that decides for the public how it should think and feel, and react? Have too many tried too hard? Could it be that simply performing and not interpreting the work (however unfashionable that notion might be at this moment in history) is to render to it the greatest service possible?
The story seems to have originated with a play attributed to the Spanish monk Tirso de Molina, who curiously never acknowledged his authorship. It was entitled El Burlador de Sevilla y Convidado de Piedra (“The Trickster of Seville and the Stone Guest”). Don Juan, as it came to be known, would have many new settings—by certain counts over 1,720 in the centuries following its creation—mostly in France in the 17th century and most notably by Moliére. Da Ponte knew and borrowed from an operatic version called Don Juan Tenorio—referred to as a dramma giocoso (jocular or playful drama), the ambiguous appellation retained by Mozart and Da Ponte—with a libretto by one Giovanni Bertati. By the end of the 18th century the subject of Don Juan seemed to be exhausting itself when Mozart and Da Ponte alighted on it. Had it not been for them, the story might have disappeared altogether. But they produced a work of transcendent genius, transformed the story of Don Juan and, whether intentionally or not, gave birth to Don Giovanni, a modern myth.
The “new” Don Giovanni captured the imagination of the some of the greatest writers of the next two centuries. The list is long, but its most prominent exponents were Lord Byron, Alexander Pushkin, E.T.A. Hoffmann and Søren Kierkegaard at first, to be followed later by Charles Baudelaire, George Bernard Shaw and Albert Camus. When they wrote about Don Giovanni, it was no longer about a literary character, but Mozart’s Don. Through his music and dramatic genius, the protagonist was no longer just a vulgar profligate of bestial sensuality, but an enigmatic force of nature who continues to fascinate us into the present day.
With his new status of myth, each age has seen him through its particular lens. As the 19th century gradually lost interest in sin and salvation and reshaped itself, it saw him as a reflection of its own yearnings and search thirst for knowledge. Goethe’s Faust had his quest, it was said, and Don Giovanni his conquest. He was now an “antihero” who, through the excesses of his prodigious strivings, drove himself to self-destruction. He became, in the eyes of others, a melancholy hero who represents a romanticized visionary, in search of an unattainable ideal.
In the 20th century he was to undergo a radically different evaluation under the microscope of Freudian and Jungian psychoanalysis. The assessment of a flawed, but almost superhuman defiant hero gave way to a psychiatric outpatient, personifying every form of neurosis and pathology imaginable.
And so on. Each age, including our own, sees in him and his story a reflection of its own worldview. This is why, to return to my earlier statement, so many productions fail. The impulse to reduce the myth to specifics and/or a demonstration of relevance to a contemporary world actually impoverishes the richness of its mythic proportions. All approaches are simultaneously right and wrong, fruitful and sterile, expanding and limiting. The whole is greater than the parts, and by reducing it to an “interpretation” we, perforce, limit its infinite scope.
Although Mozart’s framework for this drama resides in the supernatural and in the rendering of divine justice it should be understood that the abundant freedom with which he and Da Ponte create this theatrical drama has less to do with religious dogma than the infinite variety of the human experience. Don Giovanni and the Commendatore provide the pillars which hold up the edifice that houses all of the other characters. Neither is fully human nor pure incarnation of abstract principles. They have a human life but are simultaneously symbols, manifestations of powerful forces, polar antagonists. That the latter is, if not the arbiter, at least the messenger for a divine judge is an easy conclusion to reach.
But, who is the real Don Giovanni? Even the birth of his story, whose author has never been confirmed, is still mysterious. Kierkegaard defined him as a theoretical construction that never rises above the category of “pure” sensuousness. In this view, Don Juan never existed nor can he, in reality, do so. Taken literally, his story seems almost ludicrous in its dimensions, unless he is seen as a force of nature rather than a real human being. His raison d’être is to arouse sexuality in everyone with whom he comes into contact, thus subverting society. To try to explain why he does so is, in a way, pointless: he simply does so.
“Motiveless malignancy,” Coleridge’s famous description of Iago’s character, leaves the “why” unanswered, and is a potent point of departure for the enduring mythical proportions of Don Giovanni. We meet both the Don and the Commendatore on their last day because, in a peculiar way, their past histories are not important (however fascinating and titillating the former’s might be). On that last day, they both meet their terrestrial deaths, and fulfill their function in the otherworldly drama of defiance and retribution. Divine justice is meted out.
Don Giovanni has no core to his personality. Mozart purposely deprives him of a self-revelatory or confessional aria. Unlike Verdi’s Iago, who explains himself in the Credo, the Don never reveals anything. His three solo numbers are one-dimensional extensions of his principal lusts: wine (the drinking song), women (the serenade) and violence (as he prepares to beat Masetto).
All the other characters are fully human. Tomes are written, justifiably, discussing the three women. They have produced a rich and ever developing literature on their own. These fascinatingly diverse characters, Anna and Elvira (the aristocrats), and Zerlina (the peasant), are bound together on this fatal day and have one important experience in common: they have all had their erotic impulses awakened, magnified and irrevocably changed by their encounter with this mythical seducer. One assumes that the lives of all of the 2065 women inscribed in Leporello’s catalog (whose list includes Donna Elvira) have been similarly impacted. Each woman’s character develops in the course of events, and each is allotted arias in both acts to chart that growth. At the end of the opera, the servant-class men, Leporello and Masetto, in their very practical way, will continue on seamlessly with their lives. Don Ottavio, the aristocrat, will as well, although Don Giovanni has struck closer to home for him, and one wonders if his marriage to Donna Anna will actually materialize. But the women’s lives are irrevocably changed; whether for better or for worse is a question that is left up in the air.
Together they all try, and fail, to retaliate against the Don. Retribution is the province of the divine. “Vengeance is mine saith the Lord,” we are told in both the Old and New Testaments, and so it is for our “hero.” Greeks of antiquity were punished by the gods, not because they were necessarily bad, but because their actions represented defiance to those gods. The sin of Adam has been variously interpreted, but is essentially that of disobedience. On the day portrayed in the opera, the Don, who has seemingly been allowed to ride herd on society through his legion sexual misdeeds, has become a murderer, and there, it seems, a line has been crossed.
Mozart’s Don Giovanni has been, is, and will be seen as all things to all people: seducer, iconoclast, devil, pioneer, agent of atheism, impiety and sacrilege, defender of Rationalism, mentally deranged psychopath. The list could be endless. Through Mozart’s masterpiece, he came a long way from the burlesque libertine of the original and will have eternal life in the minds and imaginations of opera lovers. Who he is, is unknowable, and what he represents a matter of perpetual disagreement. And so it should be. He has always given us the slip, and always will. He himself told us so while escaping from Donna Anna in his opening line of the opera, uttering words as prophetic as they are emblematic:
“Chi son io tu non saprai!”
James Conlon is the Richard Seaver Music Director of LA Opera.