Did Wolfgang Amad_ Mozart and his librettist Lorenzo da Ponte intend Don Giovanni as a comic opera with a shock ending? Or is the opera a serious drama with occasional comic elements? Leopold Mozart, Wolfgang's oft-maligned father (whom many fanciful observers over the centuries have symbolically cast as Don Giovanni's vengeful Commendatore) apparently said of his son, "Two opposing elements rule his nature ... there is either too much or too little, never the golden mean."
"Careful the things you say, children will listen," as Stephen Sondheim memorably wrote in the finale of his Into the Woods, and Wolfgang clearly did: the golden mean, an Enlightenment-era philosophy of mathematically verifiable balance, found its perfect exemplar in Mozart's music — music famously admired and analyzed for its symmetry between light and dark, tragic and comic, and for the infusion of its phrases with many colors and meanings at once. Conducting his music involves less interpretation than it does "getting out of the way" — playing and singing precisely, and keeping eccentricity out of the musical and dramatic texture so the work can speak honestly.
Centuries of ink have been spilled over Mozart and Da Ponte's classification of Don Giovanni as a dramma giocoso, a jocular, or comic, drama. The opera's title character has floated through the moralities of several centuries, landing in 2006 as an archetype of unremitting darkness. And undoubtedly, Mozart's great 1787 work feels a bit like the evil twin of his earlier and sunnier Le nozze di Figaro. The Marriage of Figaro was based on a successful political play by Beaumarchais that was credited with sparking the French Revolution, though Mozart and Da Ponte largely excised the revolutionary aspects of the work. Don Giovanni cannot claim such aristocratic ancestry: the Don Juan legend was the stuff of county fairs and other forms of sensationalist entertainments, in which statues had been portrayed and catalog arias sung for more than a century before Mozart's opera. And carved stone still has the ability to awaken a scary substratum of our minds: my only visit to Mount Rushmore was interrupted by a seemingly sane young man who had to be removed by police because he was frightened, so he repeatedly said, by the large faces of the four former Presidents carved in the side of a mountain.
It has always been difficult to reconcile the timeless brilliance of Mozart's work with the puerile humor that permeates his surviving letters, a dichotomy superbly portrayed by Peter Shaffer's entertaining play and subsequent hit movie Amadeus. We seem to want brilliant children to be humble and perfectly behaved, but what we know of the prodigy Mozart is that he was often bawdy and lewd, and fully aware — and capable of making others aware — of his superhuman talent. On the surface, the events of the plot of Don Giovanni are lurid indeed: rape, murder, beatings, remorseless defiance of God, disguises and deceptions, revenge and damnation. But Don Giovanni is also filled with unsettling comedy, little flashes of light that illuminate its darkness. Mozart clearly wanted the penultimate scene to be a terrifying lesson — that what we do in life will be equaled and magnified in death — but at every turn in this enigmatic work, we are disarmed by laughter.
Obsessive categorization can often lead to simplification. Movies or books in 2006 are often described as simply "comedy" or "drama," though they may have elements of both. Such descriptions are tricky with a complex work like Don Giovanni. Our attempts at categorizing works are no more accurate than they were in the 18th century: an opera buffa (a comic opera) may have elements of real humanity and sweetness, as in Rossini's The Barber of Seville or Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro. The term dramma giocoso for Don Giovanni is important in that it meant something in Mozart's time: the Prague commission was for a "comic" opera, and the Don Juan legend was thought of as comic material by the general public. It is only through the genius of a great set of dramatists that the potentially one-dimensional characters are turned into fascinating figures we feel we personally know.
Leporello, Giovanni's resentful servant and comic Doppelg‹nger, is the main source of overt comedy in the opera. His famous catalog aria, which outlines Giovanni's sexual conquests throughout Europe, is the most obvious example. But even Leporello's buffo antics achieve the golden mean: what is funny to Leporello (and to us) is horrifying to Elvira, particularly the pointedly specific number of Spanish women Giovanni has conquered, mille tre — a thousand and three — which Mozart wonderfully sets up for a laugh, and we do laugh, while she is humiliated.
"The real laughter of the piece is in the orchestra pit," the British stage director Sir Peter Hall has said about Don Giovanni. And Don Giovanni is indeed filled with delightful "light" music, from the maniacal happiness of the fast section of the overture, to the curiously joyful finale following Don Giovanni's damnation. The epilogue has a wistful air of disbelief about it, as though there is some disappointment in the loss of Giovanni, who was, after all, the most exciting person in any of the other characters' lives. Mozart's music, particularly the visceral eroticism of the human voice, casts the same spell over us as Giovanni does over women: it is irresistible and hypnotic, not just in its core darkness, but for its charm and overt seductiveness.
Mozart begins the opera with a crash of evil and musical visions of vengeful justice, then follows it immediately, before we are settled into a tenebrous place, with music that could begin any comic opera. We hear most profoundly the sense of guilt that permeates Donna Anna in the scene in which she recounts her surprise assignation with the Don (consensual or not? We never know), and most of her music and the scenes in which she appears have the musical tint of pathos. But we see this darkness only through the light around it: her moving second act aria, "Non mi dir," follows what is probably the most overtly comic music in the opera, the cemetery "duet" (actually trio) in which Giovanni brazenly asks the statue of the Commendatore to dinner. The bright and breezy music of this duet chortles along, though the setting is a graveyard and the dramatic stakes very high. We have just heard, in the previous recitative, the first murmurings of the supernatural, with a chorus of portentous trombones (the trombone, not the trumpet, was the traditional instrument of final judgment in most German translations of the Bible in the 18th century). Again and again in Don Giovanni, we are presented with seemingly incompatible scenes of darkness and light. Mozart's score balances the light and airy with quick visions of dark foreboding, all the while managing to infuse the work with an air of hypnotic and giddy evil. In the extended finale of Act I, Mozart, adventurously for the time, writes for three separate onstage orchestras playing simultaneously, each in a different time signature, each representing a different social class — the cumulative impression of which is a life being lived too fast, too duplicitously, too audaciously to be sustained.
The music of the spurned Donna Elvira is almost entirely comic: listen to her predatory entrance music, her wonderfully imperious faux-Baroque "Ah fuggi! Il traditor!" ("Flee the traitor") and her wistful sighing in the trio near the beginning of Act II. Her explosive rantings throughout the piece make her sudden transition into pathos incredibly touching, though her gran scena "Mi tradÐ" (He betrayed me) was not originally a part of Mozart's plan for the work. (We will follow tradition and perform it at HGO this season.)
The music of the young lovers, the servants Zerlina and Masetto, is music of the earth: solid, sunny, ripe, and fertile. One of the best literary portraits of the creative spirit can be found in Eduard Moericke's novella Mozart's Journey to Prague, a must-read for Mozart lovers. In a memorable passage, an orange tree brings to Mozart's mind a youthful day in the bay of Naples. The scent of an orange sends his memory cascading to buxom Italian ladies, to country dances and youthful hopes, and instantaneously the wedding music of Zerlina and Masetto is composed. The novella is fanciful and of course, like Amadeus, fictional, but is similarly evocative and perfectly rendered.
Don Giovanni has not held sway with critics through the ages in the way The Marriage of Figaro has. Many commentators have brought up the difficulty of discerning the time scale of the drama: does the action happen over a 24-hour period, and if so, how does an enormous statue get erected on the Commendatore's grave, fully engraved with vengeful inscriptions? Many have disliked the moralizing postlude, so much so that in the 19th century it was common to cut it altogether, and end the opera with Giovanni's damnation. Still others have loved the musical portraits of all of the characters except Giovanni, who appears to come up short when compared to the ladies — perhaps missing that the opera is largely about Giovanni's remorseless effect on those around him. Every human intervention is attempted in order to gain his repentance, until finally the only avenue left is supernatural.
It is the architectural greatness of Mozart's score, its beautiful repeated ratios, and its fantastic combination of regularity and unpredictability that have sustained the work for over two centuries. It has stood up to an dizzying array of eccentric interpretations and, like any great work, can be viewed hundreds of different ways. Our aspiration, as "re-creators" of an opera, is always to maintain some connection to the kernel of inspiration that motivated its creators, to somehow find an interpretive "golden mean."
Houston Grand Opera music director Patrick Summers conducts Don Giovanni, Verdi's Simon Boccanegra, and Janêcek's The Cunning Little Vixen at HGO this season.