Some cheer a hero of the Enlightenment; others despise his murderous cruelty and lust. Which Don will the Teatro Di San Carlo bring?
Why can't anyone solve the mystery of Don Giovanni?
This year, Mozart’s great opera Don Giovanni celebrates its 230th birthday. You’d think, by now, we’d have said everything there was to say about the womanising, murderous Don and his unscrupulous actions.
But more than two centuries after he came into being, the opera’s main character is still dividing opinion – as you can find out yourself when he comes to Dubai Opera this month courtesy of Naples’ Teatro Di San Carlo.
When the curtain came down on the first performance in 1787, Mozart and the opera’s librettist, Lorenzo Da Ponte, already knew they had a hit on their hands.
A contemporary review in the Prague Oberpostamtszeitung records that: “Herr Mozart himself conducted, and when he entered the orchestra, he was accorded a triple ovation.”
Good work Amadeus. But despite such a rapturous reception, surely the composer could not have foreseen the opera’s enduring appeal – or rather mystery?
The story, originally attributed to a Spanish monk called Tirso de Molina, takes us through the day in a life of an aristocratic womaniser (Don Giovanni), who by turns manipulates and tosses off three women (Zerlina, Donna Anna and Donna Elvira), murders one of their fathers (Il Commendatore, Don Pedro) and is finally dragged into hell by the Devil himself after refusing to atone for his sins. Describing Giovanni, Denis de Rougemont wrote in his book Love Declared: “If the laws of morality did not exist, he would invent them in order to violate them.”
From this, it would seem that there is little to like about the Don, let alone raise him to the status of a hero. Yet, like many real-life characters, what makes one man despise Giovanni, causes another to cheer.
Jane Austen was on to something when she expressed her own feelings about Mozart’s creation: “I have seen nobody on the stage who has been a more interesting Character than that compound of Cruelty and Lust.”
But Albert Einstein perhaps made the most telling insight when he wrote: “The work is sui generis, incomparable and enigmatic from the evening of its first performance to the present day.”
This cloud of enigma coalesced around the opera the moment Mozart and his collaborator Da Ponte opted to call it a “dramma giocoso”. Neither fully comedy nor tragedy, it is left to the director and audience to decide.
All the jokes, such as Giovanni’s asides about women or his servant Leporello’s envy, can be played for laughs or soured with malevolence.
Then there is Giovanni himself. Mozart provides him with confident music, brimming with joie de vivre. Yet, none of his solo numbers provides any self-reflection – standard fare for most operatic characters somewhere during the drama.
Instead each song elaborates on one of his favourite vices – the most famous being the famous champagne aria, Fin ch’han dal vino.
Commenting on this lack of self reflection, the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) (an ardent Mozart fan who once said about the composer: “I am much more zealous for his glorification than for the happiest moment of my own life”) wrote: “One does not hear Don Giovanni as a particular individual; one does not hear what he says but hears his voice, the voice of the sensuous.”
Giovanni is less of a concrete person and more a catalyst through which the opera’s other characters are defined. And as a result, he can become whatever we want.
To some he is a hero of the Enlightenment, a free thinker and libertine, refusing to bow to convention and possessing amazing courage – especially when he refuses to give way and repent to the Devil.
While others see him as unfeeling; a destabilising force that deserves to meet a sticky end. (The author Albert Camus, for example, found it improbable that he could experience sadness – surely one of the emotions that makes us human.)
One of the greatest pleasures is finding out which Giovanni the director is going to opt for. And there have been many.
We’ve had Don Giovanni the sex-pest business man, who gets thrown out of the office window by disgruntled cleaners (Paris 2012). Giovanni the heroin addict (Salzburg 2008). And even an interpretation with 10 Giovanni’s on the stage, each offering a different side to the Don (Geneva 1980).
The subtlety of Mozart’s genius presents us with a never-ending choice.
Ultimately, the opera is a mirror which reflects back the age in which it is staged.
Mozart’s music, like the language in Shakespeare’s plays, may be of its time. It may locate the opera firmly in the late 18th century. But like the heroes and villains in Shakespeare’s dramas, the characters in his operas say as much to us now as they did in 1787.
So if you want to know who the real Don Giovanni is, perhaps start looking around you for clues.
Don Giovanni (Il dissoluto punito, ossia il Don Giovanni), performed by Teatro Di San Carlo from Napoli, will be performed at Dubai Opera on September 9 and 16. Tickets begin from Dh350 from http://www.dubaiopera.com
The changing face of Don Giovanni - How Mozart’s opera has changed over the years
October 29, 1787 - successful premiere
Despite the esteem in which we hold him now, Mozart’s freelance career was surprisingly up and down. But when he teamed up with librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte, the pair struck gold. Don Giovanni (or to give it the full title: Il dissoluto punito ossia il Don Gio-vanni – The Punishment of the Libertine or Don Giovanni) is the second of three successful operas they wrote together and came a year after their mega hit, the comedy The Marriage of Figaro (Le nozze di Figaro). At the time, the brooding, dramatic overture would have been a shock to the Prague audiences. But Mozart was clearly onto something. The premier at Prague’s Graf Nostitz National Theatre, which Mozart himself conducted, received several standing ovations. Not bad considering the composer (it’s rumoured) only managed to complete the overture at 7pm that same evening.
19th century - Romantic drama
Pretty much as soon as the opera was premiered the final ensemble – in which several of the opera’s characters deliver the moral of the opera – was dropped. Mozart died in 1791 and the generation of Romantics that followed him, including Franz Liszt and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, preferred a darker, more ambiguous interpretation. Happy endings were old fashioned. And finishing with the scene in which Don Giovanni is dragged into hell, was a better fit with their ideology. It was only in the 20th century that directors returned the original ending to the stage but the debate still rages on.
20th/21st century - the reinterpretations
By the 20th century Don Giovanni was firmly on the operatic map. Everyone from the likes of scientist Albert Einstein to author-philosopher George Bernard Shaw had been caught in its spell. Trying to decode its meaning became a sport for some, and its ambiguous tale about morality was ripe for interpretation. One of most notorious came courtesy of Director Peter Sellars in 1980. Moving the story to New York’s Spanish Harlem, Sellers ramped up Giovanni’s amorality to eye-watering levels, including on-stage drug taking and other shock tactics. Audiences were outraged and Opera News called it "an act of artistic vandalism". It might be the first and last time you see an opera’s main character chomping down on a Big Mac.