The Problem with Don Giovanni

Classic Arts Features   The Problem with Don Giovanni
Liar, murderer, seducer: and you wouldn't throw a party without him. Paul Thomason spends some time with opera's ultimate bad boy.

Don Giovanni is an extraordinarily troubling opera.

On the one hand, it is one of the high-water marks of Western Civilization. Like only a tiny fistful of other operas, Mozart and Da Ponte's retelling of the classic tale of Don Juan transcends the opera house in the same way King Lear and Hamlet transcend the theater. Any educated person with even the slightest pretension in the direction of cultural literacy‹even a confirmed opera-hater‹knows Don Giovanni for the same reason he knows the Mona Lisa and Beethoven's Fifth Symphony: It is a cultural icon.

For Søren Kierkegaard it was the cultural icon. "Among all classic works, Mozart's Don Giovanni ought to stand highest," he wrote in Either/Or. Since those words first appeared in 1843, remarkably few people would disagree. For many people, attending a performance of Don Giovanni is akin to seeing the New York City skyline for the first time, or climbing the Acropolis or the Pyramids. It touches something essential about who we are as human beings in an almost indefinable way.

Which raises some very serious questions.

What does it mean that such an important part of a civilization has at its core a title character who is amoral? Don Giovanni is a liar, a murderer, a seducer. He is the personification of falsehood. He wreaks havoc and destruction wherever he goes. Why would we, why would our civilization, so extravagantly admire such a person?

Part of the answer lies in a phrase George Bernard Shaw used in the preface to his 1903 play Man and Superman, when he said that what "attracts and impresses" us is "the heroism of daring to be the enemy of God." Shaw further explained: "Philosophically, Don Juan is a man who, though gifted enough to be exceptionally capable of distinguishing between good and evil, follows his own instincts without regard to the common, statute, or canon law."

It is certainly true that we often admire‹to one degree or another, either secretly or openly‹charismatic individuals who march to their own drummer. But that still begs the question, Why? And what is it about the Mozart-Da Ponte depiction of Don Giovanni that has struck such an astonishingly deep chord in our collective psyche that few people would disagree with Shaw's statement, "Mozart's is the last of the true Don Juans."

Kierkegaard gave us a huge clue when he explained that Mozart's Don Giovanni is "…a seducer from the ground up. His love is not physical but sensuous, and sensuous love, in accordance with its concept, is not faithful, but absolutely faithless; it loves not one but all ... his life is as effervescent as the wine with which he stimulates himself."

Looking more closely at Mozart's opera, a curious pattern emerges. All of the other aristocratic characters (Donna Anna, Donna Elvira, Don Ottavio) each have two arias, some of them rather complex in structure; Mozart depicts their aristocratic nature in their vocal line with extended passages of elaborate coloratura embellishments. But that's not true of Don Giovanni.

Mozart gave him two arias to sing as himself: the "Champagne Aria," which is essentially a patter song, and his famous Serenade, "Deh, vieni alla finestra." Both are short‹far shorter than many of the arias sung by the other aristocrats‹and neither have elaborate vocal embellishments, though the "Champagne Aria" does require a trill. (So does Don Giovanni's third aria‹he's the only character to have three arias‹"Metà di voi quà vadano," which he sings disguised as his servant, Leporello.) This is not to imply in any way that singing the role of Don Giovanni is a breeze, merely to point out that his arias are quite different from those Mozart wrote for the other characters whom we would assume to be his equals.

Thinking about the way the characters relate, another curiosity emerges. All the characters revolve around Don Giovanni. We have very little interest in them apart from their relationship to him. Despite the fact that the characters have been hurt by him in some way, it is as though they are driven to remain connected to him. They can't let go. Mozart depicts this quite brilliantly in the closing section of the final scene. Don Giovanni has been dragged to hell and the remaining six characters sing an ensemble in which they make plans for the future and impart the moral of the story. It is as close as the mature Mozart ever came to writing trite music. Without Don Giovanni around, it is as if the life has gone out of the rest of the characters. Their inner animation is now missing.

For the ancient Greeks this effervescent life force was associated with the god Dionysus. The son of Zeus and the mortal woman Semele, he was the last of their gods to reach Olympus. He was a fertility god (life) and a god of wine, he liberated the emotions and inspired ecstasy and joy among his followers. When spurned he could bring madness and destruction. In the myths surrounding him, Dionysus was often put to death, but always rose again. The Romans debased him into Bacchus, the god of drunkenness (which was not a part of the Greek rites surrounding Dionysus, even though drinking wine was). Christianity pushed Dionysus even further away by turning him into the devil, complete with the horns, tail, and cloven hooves of the goat, one of the forms in which he appeared to his followers.

It is certainly true that we no longer worship Zeus, Hera, Apollo, Aphrodite, Dionysus, and the other gods on Olympus. But in a curious‹and very profound‹way they continue to affect our daily lives, even though we usually do our best to deny it.

"The gods have become diseases," wrote Carl Jung. "We think we can congratulate ourselves on having already reached such a pinnacle of clarity, imagining we have left all these phantasmal gods far behind. But what we have left behind are only verbal specters, not the physic facts that were responsible for the birth of the gods. We are still as much possessed by autonomous psychic contents as if they were Olympians. Today they are called phobias, obsession, and so forth."

"Quantum physics shows us 'the dancing universe; the ceaseless flow of energy going through an infinite variety of patterns,' " writes Robert A. Johnson, in this book Ecstasy (quoting Fritjof Capra). "Dionysus is the perennial profusion of color and life and energy. When we touch Dionysus we touch the irrational wisdom of the senses and experience joy."

As human beings we hunger to experience this profound ecstasy, but our society is very uncomfortable with the whole idea. Touching such potent energy implies a lack of control and, as Johnson explains, "Surrender, even to the divine, is something our culture does not encourage." So what happens when this basic human instinct meets our cultural restrictions? In our society Dionysus has become addictive behavior. It is no accident that our low-grade, unconscious attempts to experience Dionysus' energy often result in our own destruction.

We cannot control Dionysus, but we can have an individual conscious relationship with him. To honor Dionysus is to honor the life force itself. "We must touch Dionysus, we must bring him back into our lives in a humanized form, or in denying him we will destroy ourselves," Johnson warns.

It is no wonder Mozart's Don Giovanni has assumed such an iconic place in our culture. It is a safe way for us‹both individually and collectively‹to begin to touch a tiny bit of Dionysus through the character of Don Giovanni, experiencing both our mysterious attraction to him, and the emptiness that comes from consigning him to hell. It is a way to begin the process of transformation, to become more fully and completely all we can be.

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