Some reflections on Mozart’s “Don Giovanni”

I’ve been going through a bit of a Don Giovanni phase of late. But of course, when have I not been in a Don Giovanni phase? I discovered it in my student days, when I was making my first tentative forays into this strange, unknown thing called “classical music”, and on discovering this opera, I was instantly transfixed. As with the other two Mozart-da Ponte operas – which I acquainted myself with soon afterwards – Don Giovanni became a permanent fixture in my mind, one of those things I am constantly aware of even when I am not consciously thinking about them. But these last few days, I have been consciously thinking about it. Last Wednesday, we braved the local floods to go to the cinema to attend a live broadcast of the opera from Covent Garden: the production was an interesting one, though not, to my mind, entirely successful (but more of that later); and musically, despite superb playing from the orchestra, it struck me as being merely mediocre. Not bad as such – “mediocre” doesn’t mean “bad”, although it is often taken to – but nothing too memorable either. However, I am not qualified to provide a musical criticism, so I’ll steer clear of that: even a mediocre performance of Don Giovanni is, for me, a bit special, and, since viewing it, I have barely been able to think of anything else.  And so, this evening, still under the spell of the work, I put on the DVD we have of a Glyndebourne Festival production from the mid-1990s of  Don Giovanni. Both in terms of performance and of production, I found the Glyndebourne version far more satisfying than the Covent Garden version we saw on Wednesday; however, even in the best productions, the drama, I think, remains elusive: of the three Mozart-da Ponte operas, this is, dramatically, the most problematic.

The dramatic problems are caused in part – though not wholly – by conflation. As with Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, or with Shakespeare’s Hamlet and King Lear, there are two distinct versions of this work – one Mozart had composed for the Prague première, and a somewhat different version for Vienna; and conflating the two creates certain dramatic weaknesses that don’t exist in either of the originals. In the conflated version, the dramatic momentum comes virtually to a standstill in the middle of the second act, as various arias intended for different versions are performed one after the other. In Boris Godunov, Hamlet, and King Lear, moving away from the conflated version and using one or other of the originals tightens the drama considerably. However, in Don Giovanni, what is gained dramatically by moving away from the conflated version seems to me slight, and nowhere near enough to compensate for the loss of some of the most extraordinary operatic music ever conceived: for even in the two original versions, there are, I think, dramatic problems.

The main problem – whether one uses the version premiered in Prague, or the version premiered in Vienna, or some conflation of the two – is that the resolution of the drama, that overwhelming climactic scene in which Don Giovanni is dragged down to Hell, has little to do with most of what we have seen in the rest of the opera. None of the interactions Don Giovanni has with any of the other characters, or, indeed, the interactions of these other characters with each other, fascinating though they all are, has any bearing on this resolution. So what exactly does this resolution resolve? Why present us with all these complex characters and all these complex interactions if, in the end, none of it actually leads to anything? I don’t think I have ever encountered a production that has satisfactorily addressed this problem.

In the Covent Garden production I saw on Wednesday, director Kasper Holten kept the focus firmly on Don Giovanni, making him appear on stage even in scenes where he is not usually present: so, for instance, as Don Ottavio sings privately of his feelings for Donna Anna (“Dalla sua pace”), we see behind him Donna Anna disappearing into a bedroom with Don Giovanni: we cannot be sure whether Donna Anna really is having an affair with Don Giovanni behind Ottavio’s back, or whether, as is more likely, this is a projection of Donna Anna’s desires; but the effect of staging such as this is to keep Don Giovanni constantly in the picture, throughout the entire work. So, when the climactic scene occurs near the end, it doesn’t really matter so much all those other characters in the opera have no part in it: the spotlight throughout has been very much on Don Giovanni, so there is no problem with his dominating the finale. In keeping with this focus on the principal character, the sextet that normally follows this climactic scene, in which the other characters tell us what they intend doing afterwards, is cut: by this stage, these other characters are of no interest. Bypassing the sextet, we cut directly to the final passage of the opera, in which we hear sung a rather trite-sounding moral (“This is the fate of miscreants: evildoers always come to an equally evil end”). And even here, we have a directorial twist: this passage is sung not by the characters on stage, as da Ponte’s libretto specifies, but seemingly by disembodied voices off-stage. This moral is presented as humanity’s judgement on Don Giovanni, not the judgement of specific characters, who have, by now, more or less ceased to matter. Meantime, we see Don Giovanni alone on stage: this is the greatest Hell someone like Don Giovanni can be made to suffer – an eternity of solitude. Whether this is a real Hell, or a symbolic or psychological Hell, it is up to us to decide. (It’s probably symbolic and psychological: we don’t really go for real hells in our enlightened times.)

This focus on Don Giovanni, this attempt to get inside Don Giovanni’s mind (as director Kasper Holten says is his intention), is, however, fraught with dangers. For Mozart does not, I think, give us any sort of clue at all as to what really is going on inside Don Giovanni’s mind. Despite being the opera’s principal character, despite his tremendous personality dominating the opera, he doesn’t have a formal aria: he has three short solo pieces, none of which tells us much about him. In the first of these pieces, he is commanding and energetic, giving orders to prepare a party: it is a short piece of tremendous vitality, but doesn’t really tell us anything about him that we do not already know. In his second solo piece, he is singing a serenade, and it is utterly gorgeous and seductive: however, he had used a variation of this tune a bit earlier when he was trying, with utmost cynicism, to draw Donna Elvira away from the scene so he could have a go at her maidservant: beautiful though the serenade is, it is but a formula he uses as and when he needs to: it is utterly insincere. And in his third solo, he is pretending to be his servant Leporello: once again, the real Don Giovanni eludes us.

And this is the problem: how does one get inside Don Giovanni’s head when there appears to be no path in? And yet, one feels one needs to: after all, even without Kasper Holten’s directorial decisions, his personality dominates this work; he is a character of tremendous vitality and charisma, and none of the other characters can match him in these stakes. He dominates this work as surely as Hamlet dominates Shakespeare’s play; and, like Hamlet, he is endlessly fascinating. But where Shakespeare’s play is almost overloaded with material exploring the state of Hamlet’s mind, there seems to me here to be nothing, absolutely nothing, to indicate what is going on in Don Giovanni’s.

Throughout the nineteenth century, Don Giovanni was seen a romantic character, searching eternally for an ideal love. Nowadays, we may find such ideas soppy: as enlightened modern people, we know, as our misty-eyed and rather stupid ancestors did not, that what we mean by love is really nothing more than sexual desire. So Don Giovanni must be given some other grand purpose. In an interview broadcast during the interval of the live broadcast, director Kasper Holten says that Don Giovanni is a man attempting to escape from his mortality. Fair enough, I suppose: certainly less soppy than looking for an eternal love. Except that I can see nothing either in the libretto or in the music to support this contention. In the scene where Don Giovanni forces the frightened Leporello to invite the dead Commendatore to dinner, and the dead Commendatore sings the single word “si”, we see Don Giovanni clutching his head in mental and spiritual agony at this intimation of mortality: but there is nothing in the libretto to indicate any such agony, and the music continues merely to depict Leporello’s terror, and Don Giovanni’s amusement. This idea that Don Giovanni desires to escape from his mortality is, like the nineteenth century idea that he is searching for a perfect love, merely a projection on to the Don of our own preoccupations. As to what is going on in Don Giovanni’s mind, we do not know.

My own suspicion, strengthened each time I approach his work, is that there is precisely nothing going on in his mind – that there really is no more to him than the surface that we see. The surface is so extraordinarily fascinating, we may feel that there must be something of substance underneath it: but I don’t think there is. Other than a constant, never-ending desire for sexual gratification, and, at times, a certain coarse and cruel sense of humour, there really is nothing. Even his seeming heroism when faced with the statue of the dead Commendatore may not be as impressive as it seems at first sight: it is the overcoming of fear that may be described as “courage”, but Don Giovanni does not seem even to have the capacity to be afraid in the first place, any more than he had the capacity earlier in the opera to feel guilt after killing a man. His insatiable sexual desire really is all there is of him: and beyond that – nothing.

It is hard to see what other conclusion one can come to. Every attempt to find some substance in this character seems to me to be imposing on him something that just isn’t there. For over two centuries now, the character of Don Giovanni has resisted all attempts at interpretation. It is not, as with Hamlet, that there are too many possibilities: quite the opposite – there is none. And it is precisely this – this hollowness where there should be substance – that seems to me so disturbing. All this charisma, this energy, this vitality – could it all really be for nothing?

Throughout the course of the opera, Don Giovanni is involved in four distinct dramatic strands, some of them overlapping. In each, there is a potential for a human relationship; but in each, Don Giovanni remains curiously and utterly detached. The first is his relationship with his servant, Leporello. Leporello has ambivalent feelings about his master: he clearly takes a vicarious delight in his master’s conquests, and generally finds his escapades amusing; but he retains, nonetheless, sufficient moral compass to feel at times sorry for his victims, and to recognise that his master is leading the life of a scoundrel (“briccone”). But how does Don Giovanni feel about his servant? He certainly takes a delight in seeing Leporello uncomfortable – as in the supper scene where he perceives that Leporello is secretly eating some of the food intended for his master, and mischievously orders him to whistle; and it amuses him to see Leporello frightened, as in the graveyard scene. But beyond this, there is absolutely nothing about Don Giovanni’s feelings for Leoprello, and anything we may suggest on that score is, once again, projections of our own ideas on to Don Giovanni. I rather suspect that Don Giovanni feels nothing at all for his servant: he is not capable of feeling.

The second relationship is with his wife, Donna Elvira, whom he has abandoned. This is, in effect, the situation we see with the Count and Countess in Le Nozze di Figaro, but pushed to an almost grotesque extreme.  In the earlier opera, the Count is philandering, and is serially unfaithful to his wife; and she, with what in Mozart’s time was regarded as a tragic dignity but which in our own time is possibly more often regarded as stupidity, continues to love him, laments what is lost, and wishes to redeem him. Here, Donna Elvira also, despite knowing the sort of person her husband is, and despite perhaps knowing that she is doomed to failure, persists in her love, and tries to reclaim him. She retains the tragic dignity of the Countess (“Che aspetto nobile, che dolce maesta”), but she is driven almost demented by her husband’s utter indifference. Even Leporello can feel sorry for her, but such feelings are beyond Don Giovanni. It is not even hatred that he feels for her: he feels, once again, nothing at all.

The third relationship is with Donna Anna and Don Ottavio, and here, matters are complex indeed. At the start of the opera, as the curtain rises, we see Leporello keeping guard while his master is on seduction duty; and then, suddenly, the music explodes. Don Giovanni and Donna Anna burst out of the house, she trying to hold him back, and he trying to escape before the household is awakened. And ironically, perhaps, it is she who, at this point, is the dominant character: it is she who introduces the melodic material, and Don Giovanni is reduced merely to echoing her. It would seem that his attempt at seduction has failed. But has it? Is it possible that she has turned on him after a successful attempt on her honour? Is it even possible that she was not an unwilling partner? Mozart and da Ponte don’t tell us, and, as a consequence of our not knowing, the scenes involving these characters have about them a tremendously powerful edge of uncertainty. However, our modern age, it seems, cannot take too seriously the idea of a chaste woman protecting her virtue: the recent Covent Garden production is by no means the first I have seen that insists that Don Giovanni and Donna Anna have indeed been having it off, and that she was, as they say, “gagging for it”.

I really cannot see what is gained by removing the ambiguity: I can see that much is lost. For one thing, if it is really the case that Donna Anna really was a willing sexual partner; and, further, that she knows that it was Don Giovanni who had killed her father; then her violent outburst in the passage leading up to her aria “Or sai chi l’onore”, and the passion of the aria itself, would all be mere simulation: the whole thing would be a long and elaborate lie. And it is not entirely clear what motive she should have to spin such a lie. In the Covent Garden production, it is implied that she spins this story because she is infuriated on discovering the relationship between Don Giovanni and Donna Elvira, but I can’t say I am convinced: even granted that she is infuriated for this reason, what could she hope to gain by telling this elaborate lie – to Don Ottavio, of all people, who has not the slightest chance of imposing himself against Don Giovanni?

By the end, in her final aria “Non mi dir”, she pledges her love to Don Ottavio – although the coloratura passage at the end of the aria may indicate something other than pure tenderness on her part. Kasper Holten interprets this scene as Donna Anna finally deciding that Don Giovanni is not really for her, and that it is Don Ottavio whom she really loves. Fair enough: but if it is indeed the case that Donna Anna develops as a character, then surely there should be some indication in the drama of why she develops in this manner, and how. And I certainly can’t see any indication at all. Once again, it seems to me, an interpretation is being imposed that has no grounding in either the libretto or in the music.

Of course, the relationship between Donna Anna and Don Ottavio is complex, and there are no easy answers. I’d guess that Donna Anna was certainly no willing partner at the start of the opera; and, further, that she probably did manage to hold off Don Giovanni while raising the alarm; but that, nonetheless, she is attracted to him: which lady isn’t, after all? But she feels tremendous guilt as a consequence of this attraction: Don Giovanni is the man, after all, who has killed her father. I accept this is all conjecture – albeit conjecture that is not inconsistent with the libretto and with what the music tells us. But whatever the truth of the matter, we are in deep psychological waters here, and presenting Donna Anna as Giovanni’s consensual partner who lies her head off for the rest of the opera does seem to me not only unwarranted, but an ironing out of complexities and ambiguities that Mozart and da Ponte had deliberately put there.

But what does Don Giovanni feel about Donna Anna and Don Ottavio? It seems to me that, once again, whatever Donna Anna and Don Ottavio may feel for each other or for Don Giovanni, he, as ever, feels nothing at all for them. Every time we try to figure out what Don Giovanni feels, we run into a complete blank.

And similarly with the last set of relationships involving Don Giovanni – that with the peasant couple Zerlina and Masetto. It is, once again, a sort of reprise of what we had seen in Le Nozze di Figaro, except that here it is pushed, once again, to extremes: an aristocrat tries to take away a woman from a lower social class from the man she is to marry, and isn’t concerned about what either of them may feel. But while there is some similarity between Masetto and Figaro, and between Don Giovanni and the Count, there is none between Zerlina and Susanna: Zerlina is either naïve, or manipulative, or possibly a bit of both: Susanna is neither, and remains throughout unswervingly loyal to her betrothed. The emotional climates of the two operas are very different. The Count in Le Nozze di Figaro, despite being corrupted by the power he wields, is still capable of feeling: Don Giovanni isn’t. Beyond his sexual desire for Zerlina, he, once again, feels nothing at all for her. And neither does he give a second thought to Masetto.

So how can one convincingly present on stage a character of tremendous charm and appeal, of irresistible charisma and vitality, but who is so utterly hollow underneath? Someone who is incapable of forming any sort of human relationship with anyone because there really is nothing more to him than the need for constant sexual gratification? Kasper Holten’s attempt to get into Don Giovanni’s mind is an interesting one, but I think it fails; and I think it fails because Holten is searching for something that simply doesn’t exist. What goes on in Don Giovanni’s mind? Apart from lust – nothing. What humanity there is in the opera may be found in the complex of emotions of the characters around Don Giovanni, but not in Don Giovanni himself.

Holten’s presentation of the drama probably works better seen in the opera house than it did on screen. It involved a rotating maze of doors and stairs, with various electronic projections against the walls and the characters. In the cinema broadcast, with close-ups and cuts between different camera angles, it often seemed fussy, over-intricate, and even confused. I’d guess it works better seen on stage. But I think, on the whole, that the bare stripped-down presentation that director Deborah Warner and designer Hildegard Bechtler give us in the Glyndebourne DVD is a more effective way of  presenting the opera, in which the drama is already so tangled that any further intricacy serves but to confuse rather than to clarify. But not having seen Holten’s production on stage, I wouldn’t be too insistent on that point.

I do, however, find it fascinating that we continue to try to find depths in the character of Don Giovanni where, it seems to me, there are no depths at all. Why is nothingness in this person so difficult to accept, I wonder? What is it that makes us feel that there must be something more to him than there really is? I’m afraid I still do not know: the idea that there really is nothing behind the surface disturbs me also, for reasons I cannot quite grasp.

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8 responses to this post.

  1. I enjoyed your analysis of Don Giovanni’s character. It works on two levels. Psychologically he is a charming psychopath. He can feel amusement and sexual desire but little else. Such men are dangerous. The character within the play also works as a demonstration of the terrible effects of lust unaccompanied by any humane considerations or — do we dare to call it that? — love.

    Reply

    • It’s one of those inexhaustible works that seem to defy analysis! Not that one can’t analyse – it’s just that any analysis leaves too much unsaid!

      But yes, Don Giovanni does seem to me a man whose entire being is so taken up with desire for sexual gratification, that there is no room left for anything else. It really is an extraordinary work!

      Reply

  2. I really liked your deconstruction. I agree, there is nothing to DG beyond charm and horniness. The continuous efforts to find something else are just regietheater flexing its muscles 😉 If we’re to give him a diagnosis he’s probably a narcissist.

    from the opera house the worst fared the moving projections during the ensembles. Overstimulation. The characters are anguished, we get that from the music.

    Reply

    • Hello,

      Some time ago, I wrote a post about staging the classics, and tried to make the point that it’s not a question of whether the production is traditional or radical, but, rather, whether it is intelligent or unintelligent. Directing plays or operas is an interpretative rather than a creative art, and if what is depicted on stage cannot be justified in terms of what is in the text, then it has, to my mind, crossed over the border.

      This is not by some distance the worst production I have seen of “Don Giovanni”. I think I can see what it was trying to get at, but I did leave me feeling unconvinced, I fear. The Glyndebourne production I refer to in my post is also a fairly radical production in many ways, but it is very well thought out, I think.

      But for all that – what a tremendous work it is! It’s a week since I saw the cinema broadcast, and I can’t get it out of my mind right now!

      All the best,
      Himadri

      Reply

      • I read your post on staging the classics and I agree. Don’t feel like you’re seen as old school. You’re just being sensible. All this silly trendiness is just that – a trend. There is nothing reactionary about wanting a work to be staged within the parameters of what it is.

        What I think is that all these trendy enfants terribles don’t give two hoots about opera. I wish opera house managers hired stage directors who love at least opera in general if not the works they are attempting to stage. I don’t think they even need to be able to read music as long as they actually have respect and admiration for the artform and listen carefully before coming up with their concept. That thing with Bieito adding extraneous music to his Fidelio staging was just incomprehensible to me. It’s like adding to Guernica or coloring the statue of David. Really pointless. The work is done, if you don’t know what to do with it as it is you’re failing at your own job (as stage director). Anyway, I like your posts especially since I too see opera as theatre 🙂 feel free to write more on the subject.

      • I must admit that every Bieito opera production I’ve heard of sound horrendous, and the one I’ve seen *was* horrendous. There is something very odd, certainly, about public disapproval seen as a sign of success. But these are not bad productions because they are radical interpretations: they are bad because they are not interpretations at all!

        I’m at the ENO this Sunday to see Peter Grimes: I’ve heard fine things both about the production and the performance, so I’m really looking forward to this.

        All the best, Himadri

      • looking forward to reading your post about Peter Grimes 🙂 Bieito is like a teenager, shock for shock’s value. Another annoying one is Claus Guth, really ruined Le Nozze and his Don Giovanni. Too bad, as I loved the singing in both but I can’t watch either.

  3. […] here's a very in-depth post on DG (this particular production and DG in general). […]

    Reply

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