Don Giovanni: The Ultimate Opera

Mozart’s masterpiece about the famed libertine of Seville still remains one of the most beloved operas even today. Certainly, one must give equal credit to the brilliant librettist Lorenzo da Ponte whose choice of language, pacing, and structure make the opera a seamless work that flows with nary a glitch. It is possible to put forth the idea that Don Giovanni was da Ponte’s way of publicly flogging himself or atoning for his lifetime of misdeeds and romantic transgressions, for da Ponte’s own life was as colorful and scandalous as, if not more so than, the title character’s. The opera is exciting and engrossing because it is simply over-the-top: blood, lust, vengeance, love, seduction, violence, murder, infidelity, passion, celebration, abundance, humor, class struggles, suspicion, betrayal, and even a ghost in statue form are all packed into roughly 3 1/2 hours. This is the very essence of opera; it is and must be something out of the ordinary, something unreal and larger-than-life. It helps us transcend the experience of our mundane daily lives—-paying the bills, cooking the pasta, making a logical case for something at the office. Don Giovanni is unmistakably Italian in its aesthetic and character. It is carnal, sensual, expressive, passionate, robust, beautiful, lyrical—-and Catholic. It does not ask why or try to make rationalizations in the Anglo-Saxon manner; it puts the viewer right into the heart of the story, entwined with each character’s motives and vengeant objectives, with a pervasive yet delicious sense of sin and immorality. We know from the beginning that what Don Giovanni is doing is absolutely wrong, but it is precisely the fact that he does not get caught until the very end that makes the story so enticing: we delight in his unabashed lack of repentance and consequences. The superlative, magnificent finale serves as our justification for watching, for if he were not caught and sent to hell, we would somehow not be satisfied deep within. Ultimately, If Americans do not appreciate or “get” Don Giovanni, it is because He Who Does Not Understand Italy Cannot Understand Don Giovanni.

Also interesting to explore about Don Giovanni is the question of interpretation, for the opera lends itself to a variety of nuances of characterization, stagings, etc. Fundamentally, of course, there must be the idea of Don Giovanni paying the price for all of his sins with women and murder, of being punished for his large living and excesses (the Salzburg Festival’s 2011 appalling production of the opera was an example of what not to do, the very perversion of the opera). One must also observe the careful ideas put forth by the remarkable and precise text, for da Ponte was a master of the Italian language (he was the first professor of Italian at Columbia University, having moved to New York from Europe!) But there are a number of choices that can be made. Is Donna Anna truly raped at the beginning? Was she indeed enamored of the nobleman? How much or little will Donna Anna be attracted to Don Ottavio, and would she truly choose him if he had not been her shoulder to cry on after her father’s murder? What are Donna Elvira’s motives for going after Don Giovanni—-simply his broken promise to marry her, her lack of other male prospects, or a pregnancy? How old is she? Is she a relatively young woman who is furious at herself for having lost her virginity to Don Giovanni? Or is she older, aware that time is running out for her to make a suitable marriage? How envious a sidekick is Leporello of his master’s sexual conquests? Is Zerlina a natural flirt, or is she simply caving into the momentary seductions of the Don who is exercising his droit de seigneur? What setting other than the conventional plaza and balconies in Seville can also work? New Orleans (as was used by the University of Michigan School of Music’s recent production)? Italy? Venice (as in the visually beautiful Joseph Losey film)? Or a minimalist staging, for the characterizations and music are so strong that they can carry the opera by themselves? Is the entire opera set in the last day of Don Giovanni’s life, or is it a culmination of the events presented in the opera that leads him to burn in hell at the end?

Thus it is obvious that the opera also requires a brilliant director who can shape a production that emphasizes the necessary elements of the story and yet conveys something unique of its own. And each of the performers must be masters not only of technique (Mozart is notoriously difficult to sing, for it is so pure and reveals the naked voice), but also of interpretation, creating three-dimensional characters so as not to reduce the opera to a mere Commedia dell’Arte. This is not to say that opera does not draw upon certain tropes from that tradition or Southern European literature. The Zerlina character of the earthily sensual, shrewd peasant or lower-class woman has been seen from La Serva Padrona all the way to Sophia Loren films. But a good opera singer must make the audience feel that his or her character is a flesh and blood human being who has a raison d’être similar to that of individuals through time. Mozart has carefully delineated each character through his choice of music and key signatures (think of the rapidly shifting keys to represent Donna Elvira’s moods in “Mi Tradi’ quell’alma ingrata”). The integration between the composer and librettist in this opera is simply stunning.

Don Giovanni has already been popular for centuries, and undoubtedly will be popular for many more. Mozart and da Ponte were certainly a match made in heaven—-not hell!

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The French Sensibility

(Author’s apologies for missing accents due to formatting issues)

When we think of France, what do we think of? A sense of graciousness, delicacy, wittiness, and light. There is a reason why the French have long dominated the visual arts and that which is related to the image. Beginning with the aptly named Lumiere brothers, the French were pioneers in filmmaking and recorded visual images. Perhaps one has to back up and credit first the early photographers such as Niépce and Florence (who was French-Brazilian) and Daguerre, who made significant contributions to the embryonic art. The Lumiere brothers certainly were not the only inventors to be credited with the development of the motion picture, but their name is synonymous with film and certainly a great source of pride for the French. Georges Melies, another early filmmaking pioneer, is the subject of Martin Scorsese’s visually beautiful film Hugo, which re-creates the magic of Melies’s filmmaking process. The French “New Wave” filmmakers, such as Jean-Luc Godard, were known for their striking black and white images and jump cuts, creating new methods of telling a story other than the traditional narrative. And the brilliant Oscar-winning film “The Artist” pays tribute to Hollywood in a completely non-verbal, entirely visual mode, where the silent film is reinvented so successfully by Michel Hazanavicius.

One need only spend time in France to appreciate the importance of light in their culture. There is a beautiful summer light in the Paris area that creates a feeling of “douceur” or gentleness that permeates their art. The Impressionists harnessed this light, revolutionizing the tradition of realism; playing with the viewer’s cognitive and optical perceptions through their constructions of images based on light, color, shadows, and their unique spatial perspectives. One does not see what is. Rather, one sees an impression of what is, filtered through the artist’s sensibility, and the results are simply stunning. Naturally, one must also pay heed to the pointillists like Seurat, who perhaps were the inventors of the concept of pixels, creating a whole by focusing on the miniscule parts. If one goes back earlier, to the work of painters like Jacques-Louis David, one cannot help but be impressed by his use of beams of light on his subjects, tableaux that were the only visual representation of reality before the advent of the camera.

France’s aesthetic sensibility, one could argue, is iconic. That is, the importance of particular pictures or images drives the perception of art. From the national symbol of the “Marianne” to the classic Chanel or Dior silhouettes, the Tricolor flag, the Eiffel Tower, the love of comics and cartoons, the style of screen symbols like Bardot or Deneuve, the cars like the inimitable Citroen DS, the classic Louis Vuitton luggage and bags, the sleek design of the Concorde—-the list is endless. The French still seem to have an admiration of American icons, such as Marilyn Monroe, Manhattan, the Grand Canyon. The visual element also extends into the French culture’s love of wordplay. One can see on the page (as well as hear), for example, the driving forces of the opera Carmen by Georges Bizet—-“l’amour” (love) and “la mort” (death)—-that the doomed heroine sings in contrasting moments of the opera when she knows her position with regard to Don Jose. The linguistic-visual wit can also be seen in the Belgian painter Magritte’s classic painting “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (This is not a pipe), in which the viewer knows and yet knows not that the painting of a pipe is not truly the real object.

It is a culture of the symbol, the image, the visual. What one sees is of great importance: consider the variety of words and phrases to express the action of looking. Other cultures might be more auditory and kinesthetic (like the Italians), more philosophical/inner-reflective, more intuitive, more contextual, or orally transmitted. And each culture’s sensibilities contribute something beautiful to our artistic consciousness. France’s gift is what it gives us to see.