Written last month for the program booklet of Arizona Opera's production of Mozart's Don Giovanni:
Mozart was born in Salzburg and lived most of his adult life in Vienna. But the city that embraced his music with the greatest openness and joy was the capital of what was then Bohemia, Prague. “The Prague people understand me,” Mozart effused in a letter to a friend. Prague's love of music was pure, uncorrupted by the politics and fashion of Vienna. The city's love for Mozart continues to this day; Prague was an important part of the recent 250th anniversary celebrations in Europe.
Mozart's opera The Marriage of Figaro was produced in Prague in the fall of 1786, following its world premiere in Vienna earlier that year. Audience response sparked a love affair between composer and city. According to accounts from journals of the day, applause at every performance was “unlimited,” and tunes from the opera were sung in he streets. Citizens of Prague raised money to underwrite the composer's visit, and Mozart arrived Jan. 11, 1787. He brought with him a new symphony in three movements (later nicknamed “Prague”), which was performed Jan. 19 in the composer's honor and for his benefit. Mozart also improvised on themes from Figaro. He later called it “one of the happiest nights of my life.”
The love affair didn’t end there. Figaro’s success in the Bohemian capital had been so tremendous that Mozart and his librettist, Lorenzo Da Ponte, decided to premiere their next opera in Prague, rather than Vienna. This was Don Giovanni, the tale of Don Juan filtered through the arch wit of Da Ponte and the compassionate realism of Mozart. Why did Mozart choose the subject of Don Juan? The answer may be that he did not so much consciously select it as allow himself subconsciously to be drawn toward it, for it is the second opera of three to deal with the complexities of man-woman relations. If we look at the three Mozart-Da Ponte collaborations as a whole, they together address three distinct aspects of sexual love: pure sexuality (Don Giovanni), relationship (Cosi fan tutte) and marriage (The Marriage of Figaro). Don Giovanni, composed second in the series, is first in the ontology: Without sexual spark, there is no relationship; and without relationship, there can be no marriage.
And yet, the character of Don Giovanni, who embodies the necessary ignition for the sublimities of relationship and marriage to come, is portrayed as a cad. He is a shallow seducer lacking enough depth even to be given a major aria (a point that drove that drove the first man to sing the role into fits of fury), aside from his three cute little songs. Philosopher Bernard Williams puts it this way:
“(Don Giovanni) is in a deep way the life of the opera, yet the peculiarity is that (he) is not really as grand as that implies…. He expresses more than he is.” (Emphasis mine.)
After contemplating this for a while, Williams concludes that Don Giovanni is not so much a character as he is an idea. “Don Giovanni,” he concludes, “is the spirit of sensuous desire.”
If we look at the Don as an idea, certain perplexing things about the opera make more sense. An idea cannot have a big aria in which to express itself – there is no self to express. An idea cannot repent; that would be to extinguish itself. When the Commendatore sends Don Giovanni to hell, he sends, not a man, but the very notion of sexual license. And he must do that, for the Commendatore is also an idea: the idea of mainstream social values that opposes sexual license. Lust can, momentarily, “kill” social morality. But at length social morality will rise again and “kill” lust; if it doesn’t, there can be no social constructs – no relationships, no marriages, only license. Ironically, it is lust that makes relationship and marriage possible. Once its spark is used to light their flame, however, it must be calmed.
As “the spirit of sensuous desire,” Don Giovanni exists as much in the hearts of the female characters as he does in himself. When Zerlina asks Masetto to beat her and tear her hair out (Batti, batti), it is seemingly a coy request for punishment, but it is actually an invocation of the character/spirit of Don Giovanni. Don Ottavio may sing to his beloved that she is a treasure and all that (Il Mio Tesoro), but the biggest wimp in the opera repertoire wouldn’t get anywhere with Donna Anna had she not previously been sparked by the Don’s passion.
Convention tames sex into social norms. But before it does, sex itself – Don Giovanni – has its day.
- Kenneth LaFave