Posts Tagged ‘opera’

The Don Juan Myth

I am not so much intrigued by the Don Juan myth as I am by its having intrigued so many others. On the face of it, I can see nothing particularly remarkable about the myth: Don Juan, an insatiable satyromaniac whom no woman can resist, strikes me as little more than a frankly rather crude male sexual fantasy. And yet, this seemingly uninteresting myth has exercised minds as distinguished as those of Molière, Mozart (and his librettist da Ponte), Pushkin, Byron, Richard Strauss, and, in a modern twist in which the mythical Don Juan Tenorio becomes the contemporary John Tanner, Bernard Shaw.  I am intrigued by what they all saw in this myth.

The only work based on this myth that I think I can claim to know to a greater depth than that merely of a nodding acquaintance is Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni, and, as I indicated in a recent post, this opera, despite some forty or so years of listening, I find puzzling in many respects. For Don Giovanni himself, the central character around whom everyone else and everything else seems to revolve, seems, to me at any rate, a complete blank. Music which would strike us as deeply felt if sung by any other character becomes, when sung by the Don, insincere: we know that his ardent avowals to Donna Elvira of his repentance are false; in the serenade that follows, we know that the heart-achingly beautiful avowal of love he expresses is not deeply felt, nor even shallowly felt: it is not felt at all. This creates a peculiar tension: how can music so richly expressive not express anything? Through centuries of interpretations, all sorts of things have been written by commentators who refuse to accept that this can be possible: music of such emotional depth must, they assume, indicate emotional depth in the character who is singing it, and they have tried to see in the character of Don Giovanni all sorts of things that simply cannot be justified by the text. Many Romantics thought the Don Giovanni is searching for his ideal love: he isn’t. As Leporello’s “catalogue aria” makes clear, it is mere prosaic quantity rather than any poetic quality that counts for the Don. More recently, director Kaspar Holten, who directed the piece for Royal Opera, thought Don Giovanni was trying to escape his own mortality, but, once again, there is nothing whatever in the text to indicate this. Not an inkling.

So let us accept what Mozart and da Ponte gives us. Much of Don Giovanni’s music suggests that it should be deeply felt, but it isn’t, and the sense of unease this imparts to the listener is, I think, precisely the point. Mozart’s music endows Don Giovanni with a tremendous vitality, and an irresistible charisma, but there’s nothing behind all this vitality and charisma – no search for Ideal Womanhood, nor Fear of Death, nor any of the other things that the preoccupations of the interpreter’s own time may choose to saddle him with. This lack of substance where substance is to be expected makes this, I think, a very disturbing work – perhaps even more so than Mozart’s next opera, the deeply disquieting Cosi Fan Tutte.

But I remain uncertain. Mozart’s operas – especially the three he wrote to libretti by Lorenzo da Ponte – are endlessly complex works, and one should always be prepared to modify one’s views on them. But I am now intrigued by how others have interpreted this myth.

So I am planning a course of reading on the matter. Over the next few weeks, or however long it takes, I am planning to read Tirso de Molina’s play The Trickster of Seville (which, I believe, is where the myth began), Molière’s Don Juan, Pushkin’s The Stone Guest, and Bernard Shaw’s variation of the myth, Man and Superman. (I suppose I should really add Byron’s poem to that list, but let us restrict ourselves to drama for the moment.) And I am planning to record here, for what they’re worth, my thoughts on these works. And maybe, at the end of it all, I’ll have some inkling of why this myth has exerted to firm a grasp on the imaginations of so many.

And even if I don’t, a project such as this sounds fun.

I now therefore declare the Don Juan season officially open.

The Makropoulos Thingummy

The title of Leoš Janáček’s penultimate opera, Věc Makropulos, has proved a bit difficult to translate. It literally means The Makropulos Thing, but, rather understandably, that hasn’t quite caught on, while alternatives such as The Makropulos Affair or The Makropulos Case aren’t entirely satisfactory either. Perhaps it’s best just to retain the original Czech title: those who are interested will soon figure out what it means, and for those who aren’t particularly interested, I guess it doesn’t matter. But, whatever one chooses to call it, it’s a wonderful work, albeit not quite as well-known as it should be:  it is rarely performed, and, of the major operas by Janáček, this is the one I am least acquainted with. So when I saw a concert performance scheduled in the current BBC Proms season, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jiří Bělohlávek, and featuring Karita Mattila, one of the great singers of our time, in the central role, it was hard to resist.

The trajectory of Janáček’s artistic career is a strange one. Had he died around 1920, say, when in his mid-60s, I suspect he’d have been remembered as a one-hit wonder – that one hit being Jenůfa, one of the most gut-wrenching of all stage works, and a towering masterpiece. He had composed as well some other works of note – some lovely piano pieces, and a couple more operas that are well worth hearing (Osud and The Excursions of Mr Broucek) – but nothing approaching the quality of Jenůfa. And then, in the last seven or eight years of his life, in his late sixties and early seventies, when most artists’ creativity tend to wind down, something strange happened: he produced a string of masterpieces – two string quartets of startling originality, the Sinfonietta, the mind-blowing Glagolitic Mass, and four operas that rank with the finest – Káťa Kabanová, Příhody lišky Bystroušky  (rather unfortunately – and inaccurately – rendered in English as The Cunning Little Vixen), Věc Makropulos, and, finally, The House of the Dead, based on Dostoyevsky’s autobiographical novel set in Siberian labour camps.

What strikes one about these works – quite apart, of course, from their obvious quality – is their dissimilarity from each other in terms of theme; and, Káťa Kabanová apart, their seemingly unoperatic subject matter. Káťa Kabanová, based on the play The Storm by Russian dramatist Alexandr Ostrovsky, has a plotline that virtually cries out for operatic treatment; but the Vixen opera is based on a cartoon strip in a newspaper, is virtually plotless, and features as its characters both humans and forest animals; while his last opera, based on Dostoyevsky, depicts day-to-day life in a labour camp, and is punctuated by long monologues in which various convicts relate the events that had brought them to the dead-house. And the subject of Věc Makropulos, based on a play by Karel Čapek, seems the least operatic of them all. The libretto – adapted by Janáček himself from Čapek’s play – does not read like something intended for an opera house: it is all dialogue, in prose, with little scope for arias or for monologues, or for ensembles: it seems like a conversation piece more than anything else. And the subject appears to be a complex legal case, concerning a disputed inheritance, that has been dragging on for some hundred years – a sort of Czech version of Dedlock vs Dedlock. There is indeed quite a long scene in the first act where the details of this case are spelled out. It’s hard to imagine material less likely for operatic treatment.

Janáček had, no doubt, condensed Čapek’s play – since singing a line takes longer than speaking it, opera libretti must necessarily be shorter than plays – but even after the condensing, it reads like a play rather than as a libretto. And it’s all in prose: no rhymes, no regular pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables – merely spoken dialogue.  Janáček was, apparently, fascinated by speech rhythms and intonations, had developed his own notation of recording them, and had incorporated his expertise in these matters into his music; but I fear this aspect of his work is lost on a non-Czech speaker such as myself: what emerges, for me, at least, is something decidedly prosaic. For much of the opera, what we hear are very brief musical motifs that refuse to combine – either in the vocal lines or in the orchestral parts – to create melody, or even recognisable melodic fragments. It makes Strauss’ Elektra – that uncompromisingly jagged piece of modernism I heard at the same venue a couple of years ago – seem almost like a feast of melody.

I mean this as an observation rather than as a criticism: I do not necessarily look for melody, and am not disappointed when I don’t find it. And in any case, Janáček was at the top of his game at the time of writing this, and what he produced was, quite clearly, what he intended to produce, no matter how much it may puzzle. For there’s no denying that by the time we reach the final act, it is mesmeric. And this final act is not merely stuck on to the first two: it is an integral part of the dramatic arc. In other words, no matter how much the earlier parts of the opera may puzzle with its seemingly un-operatic material, and, some might say, its equally un-operatic musical style (in the sense that there are no long musical lines that both singers and listeners so often delight in), it leads inexorably to a finale that is like no other I have experienced.

I do not know how this is achieved: I am not qualified to comment on the musical side of it. Dramatically, the libretto is not without its faults. In the first scene, Vitek, a lawyer’s clerk and a political radical, recites from a speech by Danton to himself when he thinks no-one is hearing. Presumably, this is taken from Čapek’s play, and leads to something there, but in the opera, it seems utterly gratuitous: indeed, Vitek himself, a minor character, virtually disappears from the action soon afterwards. If Janáček had indeed condensed the play, a bit more condensation may perhaps have not gone amiss.

Unfortunately, I have not been able to track down a translation of Čapek’s play, and am not even sure that a translation exists. In the notes in the booklet accompanying the recording conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras, Janáček expert and biographer John Tyrrell quotes Čapek biographer William Harkins:

… the intensity of Čapek ‘s ideas is never matched by a corresponding intensity of language.

and goes on to say that, in effect, Janáček had improved on the original material, providing a solemn tragic dimension to a comedy that, if not entirely light-hearted, was not too substantial either. That may be so, but I would love to read the play for myself, and would be grateful if anyone could point me in the direction of a good translation. Certainly the ideas that animate the drama, whether or not they are matched by a corresponding intensity of language, are immensely striking.

For what emerges through all the ordinary, prosaic stuff about legal cases and disputed wills is a quite extraordinary and, indeed, poetic story. It concerns Emilia Marty, a beautiful and gifted opera singer, who, for reasons not immediately divulged, takes an interest in this seemingly dull legal case, and appears, mysteriously, to know about the private affairs of various people who had been alive a hundred years ago. She refuses to answer any questions on how she came to know such things, and treats everyone and everything with a cold, undisguised contempt. What she is interested in is a certain document that, she knows, is in the same place as a will that is as yet unseen. It is this document that is, specifically, the “Makropulos Thing” of the title. To get her hands on this document, she agrees, with seeming indifference, without either desire or distaste, to spend a night with Baron Prus; but when they emerge from the hotel bedroom in the third act, the Baron describes the encounter as like “making love to a corpse”.

The secret finally emerges: Emilia Marty is 337 years old: her real name – that is, the name she had been born with – is Elina Makropulos. Her father, an alchemist of the sixteenth century, and created an elixir for eternal life, and had been ordered to test it first on his own daughter. She, having taken it, had fallen into a coma, and her father was imprisoned as a fraud. But he was no fraud: the daughter had emerged from the coma free from the shadow of death: she had, indeed, eternal life. And over the centuries, she had perfected her art as a singer, and had emerged under different names in different eras. Now, she needs her father’s formula – contained in the “Makropulos Thing” she so desperately wants to get her hands on – to renew her eternal youth.

But there is a price to be extracted for eternity:  life, for her, is empty. She had loved, but those she had loved – such as the man who had written the disputed will, and to whom she bore an illegitimate child – are now long dead; and now, even love has come to seem a pointless rigmarole.

In the prelude that opens the opera, the music turns and churns: brass motifs heard offstage seem to echo down from somewhere far distant in time itself. Once the action begins, we seem to be in a very ordinary world of lawyers’ offices, hotel rooms, backstage after performance; but through this ordinariness emerges the extraordinary. And by the end, without my realising quite how I got there, I found myself in the grips of one of the most mesmerising of all operatic tragedies, as Elina Makropulos concedes the sheer pointlessness of eternity.

I am not qualified to comment on the musical performance, except to say that, to my ears at least, it was magnificent. The BBC Symphony Orchestra played like the world class orchestra it is, and Karita Mattila projected not merely her undoubted vocal prowess, but all the charisma and personality such a role requires. To see so great a singer and actress, still in her artistic prime despite having been at the top of her career now for several decades, is in itself a privilege.

As for the opera itself, I came out of the Royal Albert Hall as shaken as I had been (albeit for different reasons) when I had come out having seen Strauss’ Elektra there some two years ago. The two operas, despite both being tragedies, are very different: with Elektra, one has no doubt from the very opening chords that one is in a mythic world darkened by blood and by a violence that is both mental and physical; but here, despite the foreboding music of the prelude, one seems very much in a world of the mundane, the ordinary. What is striking here is the emergence of the extraordinary from the ordinary, of the tragic from the mundane.

In many ways, I couldn’t help thinking, this opera is the diametric opposite of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. Wagner liked his operas long, and constructed them so that, when listening, we lose the sense of time passing, while Janáček preferred his operas short (between 90 and 120 minutes, at most), and here, made the passage of time his very theme; Wagner’s opera virtually strips out all external action, so that what we experience seems to be taking place somewhere deep within our unconscious, whereas Janáček sets his work with an almost dogged determination in a very real world; Wagner shows us a world in which human love is given meaning and significance by the presence of death, whereas Janáček shows us a world in which everything that is of value, even love itself, is rendered pointless by the absence of death. For, as Wagner and Janáček both knew – and, I’d imagine, Karel Čapek too – love is only possible between dying things. Eternity is not for the likes of us.

The myth of Elektra

I was at the BBC Proms concert performance of Richard Strauss’ opera Elektra a couple of weeks ago. I am not qualified to comment on the musical quality of the performance, although reviews by those who are tend to confirm my layman’s impression that it was utterly magnificent. I came out afterwards in a sort of daze, my head spinning, my mind too unsettled even to try to think of the immense drama that had been played out before me.

However, from near where I was sitting, a number of people – five by my count – walked out during the performance, the expression on their faces speaking more eloquently than words could ever have done not only of their boredom, but also of their utter contempt of that which was boring them so.

I tried to imagine myself as I was back in those heady days nearly 40 years ago, when I was trying to discover what this classical music lark was all about. How would my younger self have reacted to this harsh, uncompromising, jagged and tuneless piece of modernism? Yes, I think the music would have gone over my head completely; yes, I would have found the sounds produced unattractive; and yes, I think I too might have been bored by it all. But no, I don’t think I would, for all that, have walked out. For one thing, I like to think I would have had some degree of respect, or at least consideration, for other members of the audience who had paid to be there, and who may well have been concentrating hard on this demanding music: expecting them to interrupt their concentration to make room for my egress would, I think, have struck me, at the very least, as impolite. And secondly, I think I might have had the humility to put down my lack of appreciation to an insufficiently developed understanding; for even then, I think I was aware at some level that culture requires cultivation – that it is not reasonable to go to something as forbidding as Elektra with one’s ears untuned to its musical idiom and one’s mind unschooled to its aesthetic, and expect to be able to take it in. I might even have seen the concert as an opportunity to take a first tentative step towards an understanding. At least, I hope I would have reacted in such a manner: it is hard to look back over the years and judge accurately what one had been.

Of course, I shouldn’t make too much of this: indeed, I shouldn’t make anything at all out of this – only five dissidents from an audience literally of many thousands is a fairly nugatory matter, and I raise the matter only because it annoyed me at the time, and annoys me still. However, it is sometimes worth questioning one’s most firmly held assumptions. Culture may indeed need to be cultivated, but is there really any pressing reason to do so? It may be that it requires great effort and years of immersion into this mode of music to be able to appreciate something such as Strauss’ Elektra, but what precisely does one get in return? The story is horrific; the emotions depicted in the work, and projected to the listener, are rebarbative; there is no hint at any point of human redemption, or of that feature that Orwell had claimed must belong to tragedy – a sense that humanity is nobler than the forces that destroy it. One’s nerves are jangled by it, sure, but is that jangling of nerves in itself an end worth pursuing?

The myth of Elektra is not one that offers any comfort or solace, let alone entertainment by any reasonable definition of that word. And yet, the myth refuses to go away. In its outline, the story is simple: the princess Electra’s father, Agamemnon, had been murdered by his wife, Klytemnestra; and now, years later, Elektra awaits the return of her exiled brother Orestes; and when finally he does come, she helps him assassinate her mother Klytemnestra, and her mother’s lover Aigisthos. A simple and rather repulsive story. And yet, this story continues in its various forms to haunt the imagination. Amongst other things, it is the only story on which there survive plays by all three great Athenian tragedians – Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides – and comparing their various treatments of this story is fascinating.

Aeschylus’ play, The Cheophoroe (The Libation Bearers), is the second play of the Oresteia trilogy, and demands to be seen as such: although the protagonists are characterised up to a point, they are part of a wider pattern stretching back to the first part of the trilogy, Agamemnon, and forward to the last, The Eumenides. Here, the theme is justice – both human justice, and divine justice – and the endless cycles of violence and bloodshed engendered in pursuit of justice. Here, Orestes kills for the sake of justice: his father had been murdered, and it is but justice that his father’s death is avenged, and that he, his father’s son, should, with his father’s daughter, mete out what is right and just. But the threads stretch out far into the past and far into the future.  For Klytemnestra, too, had killed for the sake of justice: Agamemnon, leading his troops to Troy in order to carry out the Justice of Zeus, had sacrificed Iphigenia, at the altar of Artemis; he had, with his own hand, slit the throat of his own daughter, and Klytemnestra’s.

Artemis had insisted on this sacrifice. Agamemnon may have been pursuing justice in leading the Greek troops to Troy to avenge Paris’ abduction of Helen, but in order to achieve this justice, he must shed much innocent blood; and this shedding of innocent blood also calls out for justice. If Agamemnon is to shed innocent blood, Artemis had insisted, he must shed first the innocent blood of his own family, of his own daughter. For this, too, is justice.

And since that terrible day, which the chorus in Agamemnon cannot even bear to think on, Klytemnestra has been waiting for her husband to return. She has taken in the meantime a lover, Aigisthos, a cousin of Agamemnon’s, who has his own reasons, stretching back into generations, for wishing Agamemnon’s death: for generations, atrocities had been committed, the latest of these when Aigisthos had been a boy: his father, Thyestes, had been invited by his uncle Atreos, father of Agamemon, to what he believed was a feast of reconciliation; but in that feast, Atreos had fed Thyestes with the flesh of his own sons. Aigisthos’ father had unwittingly eaten of the flesh of Aigisthos’ brothers.

And so, Agamemnon, returning triumphant from Troy, the victorious soldier, is murdered by his own wife, Klytemnestra. Justice is served. But each act of justice is but a new crime calling for further retribution. And humans are caught in this infernal machine, each duty-bound to render justice, and each committing in the process a crime that but perpetuates the horror.

It is in this context that Aeschylus places the story of Elektra. The Gods demand justice; Man is the instrument of this Divine justice; and yet, Man has to take moral responsibility for the crimes committed in its pursuit. There is no end to this terrible logic, no respite. By the end of The Choephoroe, Orestes, having carried out Divine will, having justly murdered his mother who had also justly murdered her husband, can already see the Furies in pursuit: whatever the claims of justice, he has committed matricide, and must therefore be punished.

The third and last part of this trilogy appears to offer a way out. The goddess Athena institutes the concept of a “trial”: no more blind retribution, but a jury of twelve honest men and true to determine through civilised discourse the nature of the crime, the issue of guilt, and the appropriate nature of the punishment. The trilogy ends with the acquittal of Orestes, and a triumphant torchlit procession through the streets of Athens. However, while clearly this is among the many masterpieces that depict a journey from darkness into light, the light does not seem to me entirely without its dark shadows. For one thing, in this instance, the human institution of trial by jury doesn’t resolve the issue: the jury is hung, six votes each, and it takes the casting vote of Athena – in other words, divine intervention – to achieve what humans cannot, and bring to an end this cycle of violence. And neither are the Furies exiled: they cannot be. Athena incorporates them into the new legal system she has devised for humans, and this incorporation seems to me an acknowledgement that justice cannot be administered without, at some level, the presence of terror. The joy at the end of the trilogy seems to me very deeply qualified. And the more I read these plays, the more fatal these qualifications seem.

It is not difficult to see in these Aeschylean cycles of violence, in the repeated calls for justice and in the repeated bloodshed and atrocities, an image not only of our own times, but of all times since these plays were written. What human institutions we have to control these savage urges of ours seem precarious at best, and often compromised; and sometimes, indeed, the very reason for yet another cycle of bloodshed and retribution. The Furies cannot after all be banished.

If Aeschylus’ main interest was in the themes of justice and of cycles of violence, Sophocles was more interested in what this violence does to the human psyche. The past is still important, but the rights and wrongs stretch back neither so far, nor so deeply, as in Aeschylus’ plays. In this version of the story, Agamemnon had to sacrifice his daughter because he had inadvertently offended Artemis by hunting on her sacred land. This terrible human sacrifice is not, here, a connecting link in the endless chain of historic rights and wrongs, but, rather, the humour of a cruel and heartless divinity. And Sophocles’ Elektra, unlike the Elektra of Aeschylus, has grown up a fierce and feral creature. Treated even worse than the slaves, starved and beaten, barely even recognisable as human, she has one thought and one thought only – the murder of her mother. This savage desire has invaded her entire being, and deformed everything about her. She undergoes through the course of the drama a vast range of emotions, but even those emotions that are, or should be, beautiful and sacred, are here deformed. She grieves when she hears of the death of her brother Orestes, but that grief is not merely an expression of the loss of one she has loved: it expresses also her rage that her mother can no longer be murdered. Conversely, her joy in finding her brother alive is not easily separated from her joy in realising that soon, very soon, her mother’s skull will be split open by an axe. And when the axe does fall, and we hear Klytemnestra’s screams offstage, what we see on stage is perhaps the greatest horror of all:

ELEKTRA: Stab her again –
if you have the strength!
– from the translation by Robert Bagg

By the end of the play, Elektra is utterly triumphant. But in her very victory is her defeat. The one thing she has desired, had desired above all else, has now been achieved, but the cost has been horrendous: it is hard to see her even as a human being.

I had seen this play over 20 years ago now – I cannot, I’m afraid, remember the translation used – in a nerve-jangling production directed by Deborah Warner, and with Fiona Shaw striking terror into the heart with a performance of the utmost savagery. Of course, Sophocles’ play itself is a work of the utmost savagery, and it was on this version of the Elektra story that Hugo von Hofmannstahl based his libretto for Strauss’ opera. He keeps reasonably close to the play – although he starts, not as Sophocles had done, with Orestes returning to Mycenae with his friend Pylades and his old servant, but with Elektra herself and the maidservants. In Sophocles’ play, the maidservants are largely sympathetic to Elektra, and are on stage throughout, discoursing with Elektra and providing commentary; in the opera, they are largely unsympathetic to her, and do not appear after the first scene. But the most significant change is in the great confrontation between Elektra and Klytemnestra: in the play, it is Elektra’s sister Chrysothemis who tells her of Klytemnestra’s dream, and when Elektra and Klytemnestra meet, they each speak of the justice of their respective causes, though each is unable to take in what the other is saying. But in the opera, neither character refers to past events: the focus is not on the past at all, but, quite unremittingly, on their present states of mind. It is Klytemnestra who describes her dream to Elektra, and here, in possibly the most terrifying passage of any opera, Strauss’ music twists and turn and curdles and churns and drifts off into multiple tonalities, evoking mental landscapes that most of us, hopefully, do not encounter even in our most horrific nightmares.

Elektra is on stage, still alive, at the end of Sophocles’ play: the tragedy is not that she dies, but, rather, in the deformation of her mind, in her defeat even as she claims victory. In Strauss’ opera, Elektra, her sole purpose in life achieved and with nothing more to live for, falls dead, in, one can but assume, an excess of ecstasy. But the sheer terror of brutal, implacable hatred is not something that leaves the listener easily. It has been two weeks now since that concert, and that sense of terror is with me still.

But perhaps the opera is not entirely to blame for that: always a sucker for punishment, I suppose, I have been immersing myself these last two weeks in Sophocles’ play, in translations by Robert Bagg and by Michael Ewans. (A production of Michael Ewans’ version may be seen here.)

In works I value written in languages to which I have no access, I often find myself comparing different translations; but whenever I compare translations of Greek tragedies, the differences are so often so great, I can’t help wondering whether the various translators are all working from the same text. I suppose it could also be the case that the original text contains so many different layers of meaning, that translators are forced to interpret, and highlight certain meanings above others. But I was glad I picked these two particular translations, as they are so very different in conception. Ewans (and his colleagues Graham Ley and Gregory McCart for the other Sophocles plays in the set) focuses hard on how the plays would have been staged in the Greek theatre: the various scenes are numbered, the strophes and antistrophes clearly marked, and so on. The language, if not necessarily monumental, is dignified. Bagg and Scully on the other hand aim for a greater fluidity of language, not afraid of intrusions of what may strike us as modern diction. When I had written earlier of James Scully’s translation of Sophocles’ Aias, I had been generally appreciative, but had complained of the occasional sense of bathos; but now, having read all the Sophocles translations by Robert Bagg and James Scully, I think that criticism had been more a reflection of my own expectations than anything else; for, as the translators say in the introduction, the plays of Sophocles range across a wide range of dictions, including the everyday, and that the expectation we have of a monumental quality does these plays no favours at all. Not knowing Greek myself I am in no position to argue; but it is fair to say, I think, that I have now become accustomed to their style of translation, and, while I am clearly unable to comment on its closeness either to the letter or to the spirit of the original, I no longer find in them those  moments of bathos that had struck me on my first reading.

However, I remain perplexed at some of the variations between the two translations. For instance, in Bagg’s translation, Elektra says near the start of the play to the chorus of maid-servants:

So how can I be calm
and rational? Or god-fearing?
Sisters … I’m so immersed
in all this evil, how
could I not be evil too?

In Ewans’ translation, this becomes:

My friends, in such a situation it’s impossible
to be modest and reverent; when times are bad
there is tremendous pressure to act badly too.

I suppose the two versions say similar things, but the effect is very different: “when times are bad” is hardly the same as “in all this evil”. I have no idea which one is closer to Sophocles, but in terms of how it reads in English, much prefer Bagg’s version here: it is more direct, and depicts a self-awareness on Elektra’s part of what she has become; in contrast, in Ewans’ version, Elektra’s lines seem merely defensive, and its phrasing seems to me dramatically weak.

But then, compare this following passage, when Elektra recognises her brother Orestes:

The hate of many years has melted into me,
And now I’ve seen you, I’ll never stop
my tears of joy. How could I stop?
I’ve seen you come back here first dead and then alive;
You’ve wounded me in ways I cannot understand.
– from the translation by Michael Ewans

 I think this is splendid – especially that final line. But here is the same passage in Bagg’s translation:

My hatred for her runs too deep.
Since you’ve come home, I feel
so much joy it makes me cry.
How could I not? One moment
you’re dead, the next, you’re not!
you’ve made me believe anything
can happen.
– from the translation by Robert Bagg

In this instance, it is Ewans’ version that seems to me both poetically and dramatically more impressive. But I must confess myself puzzled by their renditions of that last line. No matter how knotty the original text may be, it is hard to believe the same line of Greek yielding the different interpretations “You’ve wounded me in ways I cannot understand” and “You’ve made me believe anything can happen.” These are times when I wish I had a classical education, so I could read what the original says.

However, having spent these last two weeks since the concert perusing these two versions of Sophocles’ Elektra, and having listening to a recording of it (I have the famous recording conducted by Georg Solti with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, with Birgit Nilsson as Elektra), I find I am no nearer an answer to my original question: why should we cultivate a taste and receptive faculties to take in something so horrific and so utterly devoid of nobility or of elevated thought as this? Oh, of course, one can wheel out all the old arguments about how tragedy purges us, and all the rest of it, but I have never quite believed that: I don’t think a work such as Elektra purges us of anything – not me, at any rate. In Aeschylus’ play, this horrific story is part of a larger pattern in which, even in the joyous finale, the dark shadows obstinately remain. And in Sophocles’ play, and in the modernist masterpiece created by Richard Strauss and his librettist Hugo von Hofmannstahl, we are presented with an unblinking look into the darkest abyss of the human spirit; these works depict humans so deformed morally and mentally that they can barely be recognised as human at all. And no, I cannot defend the fascination I obviously feel for these works. Maybe those who walked out had a point after all!

A night at the opera: “La Traviata” at Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

The best presents to give are those that one can enjoy oneself. So when my wife had a somewhat significant birthday recently, I had little problem choosing what to get her: tickets for an evening at the Royal Opera, Covent Garden, of course. That’s tickets, in the plural, as, quite naturally, she wouldn’t want to go on her own now, would she?

And the show was Verdi’s La Traviata. Her favourite opera, Verdi’s Don Carlos, would I suppose have been even better, but one can’t very well expect Royal Opera to schedule their season just to please us: La Traviata was playing at the time, and that was more than good enough.

Ailyn Pérez and Simon Keenlyside as Violetta and Giogio Germont in La Traviata (picture courtesy Royal Opera, Covent Garden)

Ailyn Pérez and Simon Keenlyside as Violetta and Giogio Germont in La Traviata (picture courtesy Royal Opera, Covent Garden)

It’s one of those works known as a “warhorse” – i.e. a very popular work that has possibly been revived more often than is good for it – often at the expense of less popular works that deserve a greater exposure to the public. This has, perhaps understandably, incurred the wrath of many seasoned opera-lovers: not another tired old revival, they moan, when we could have been seeing …. or …. instead! (Opera lovers can easily fill in those blanks, I’m sure.) I sympathise. I agree also that putting on the same piece so frequently often results in performances that are stale, routine, and tired. However, we are far from regular visitors to Covent Garden: it’s not that it’s prohibitively expensive, as is often claimed – usually by those who spend much more going to rock concerts or to West End musicals – but it’s expensive enough to make a night at the opera a rare treat rather than a regular occurrence. So no, we haven’t been over-exposed to the work, and neither are we jaded. And what’s more, we both like Verdi.

I suppose admitting to liking Verdi places one in many people’s books as a diehard musical conservative; as someone whose idea of good music is no more than a nice, comfortable tune to hum along to; as someone who dislikes all that horrible tuneless cacophony that passes for music these days; and so on, and so forth. I plead “not guilty” to all such charges. But I still love Verdi. Oh, I can recognise weaknesses: it’s not blind idolatry on my part (I reserve my blind idolatry only for Shakespeare). But these weaknesses are like the character flaws of a good friend: even if they annoy you from time to time, you’re prepared to put up with them because … well, because you’re friends. And Verdi has been like a good friend to me for several decades now. Even in many of his weaker works, he makes me feel certain things that I don’t feel with any other composer. And yes, I know, he has his detractors – some of whom are so learned in matters of music that I wouldn’t even think of entering into dispute with them. But he has, and has had, many great admirers also: Stravinsky, for instance, and Britten. So if my love of Verdi is indeed a lapse of taste on my part, I am at least in supremely good company.

I haven’t read the novel – La Dame aux Camelias by Dumas fils – on which the opera is based, although, if the Royal Opera programme notes are to be trusted, Verdi’s opera is very, very different from Dumas’ somewhat misogynistic novel. I suppose modern audiences can no longer feel the shock that Verdi’s first audiences must have felt on seeing as protagonist a courtesan – effectively, a prostitute – and, further, seeing her endowed with a tragic and even with a moral dignity. But the shock effect is not central to our appreciation of the work, so not much is lost on that score. The charge of sentimentality is more difficult to answer, but then again, that charge is always difficult to answer, since there appears to be no commonly agreed definition of the term. Generally, the term is applied to works that we feel we are intended to find emotionally moving, but don’t. But since I find La Traviata very moving indeed, I obviously cannot see it as “sentimental” – although it is not possible to argue against those who do.

At the heart of this work is one of Verdi’s finest scenes: the soprano-baritone duet, between Violetta and Giorgio Germont. Violetta, formerly a prostitute in the Parisian demi-monde, has, unexpectedly, found happiness with the young Alfredo. However, while frequenting the demi-monde is not particularly frowned upon, setting up a relationship with someone from that half-world is. And as a consequence, Alfredo’s family is viewed as tainted, and his younger sister is unable to marry. Of course, by our modern moral standards (in the Western world, at least), this is bizarre: but it usually doesn’t, I feel, require too great a leap of the imagination to imagine ourselves living in societies with very different moral codes: if it did, it would have been unlikely for so many people to be able to engage so readily with this work.

So now, Alfredo’s father enters the scene: he has come not to plead with Violetta, but to order her, to leave her son alone. He is, after all, a respectable citizen and she is a prostitute: he has every right to issue orders. But what happens when they meet is unexpected, and Verdi’s music – to my sensibilities, both beautiful and dramatically convincing – captures unerringly every facet of what passes between ex-prostitute and respectable citizen. First of all, she refuses to be browbeaten by him; and he, almost immediately, recognises in her a dignity of bearing that he had not expected. So instead of ordering her, he tries persuasion. He tells her of his beloved daughter, whose society marriage cannot go ahead because of her brother’s unfortunate attachment. Violetta’s immediate reaction is horror at the suggestion that she should leave Alfredo; but eventually, in music of the utmost poignancy, she agrees. I know that many see this as psychologically improbable: to me, however, it seems all too probable. She agrees to leave Alfredo not, I think, because Alfredo’s father convinces her: rather, it is because she convinces herself. He says nothing to her to add weight to his initial request: she, however, knowing what she has been, and, possibly, hating herself for having been so, feels increasingly unworthy to stand in the way of someone else’s happiness. Even without the music, this does not strike me either as improbable, or – as has also been claimed – as corny: and with that music, it is heart-rending. Does that make me a sentimental old sap? Fair enough – sentimental old sap I am.

The production, an old one directed by Richard Eyre, was traditional, but effective. I do not want to review the musical aspect, since I am not qualified to do so, but I could not wish it done better. Conductor Paul Wynne Jones paced the drama finely; and the supporting cast, including Stephen Costello as Alfredo and Simon Keenlyside as his father, was splendid. But this is really a soprano’s opera: it all stands or falls on the her performance. As Violetta, Ailyn Pérez was stunning. She looks the part, which always helps I suppose: she has movie star looks and a fine stage presence; and her singing and acting on the night left nothing to be desired. No doubt those who know this work more intimately than I do, and have seen and heard it in different performances, may find certain things to carp at: I can only say I didn’t. And neither did my wife, which, I suppose, is just as well: the tickets were a birthday treat, after all – even though I enjoyed her present every bit as much as she did. Just as well we both love Verdi!

Britten’s “Peter Grimes” at English National Opera

I am acquainted with about four or five of Britten’s operas, but don’t pretend to know any of them intimately. These are works I have heard once in a while, but haven’t actually lived with: and major works of art, which I am convinced these operas are even though my acquaintance with them is no more than casual, need ideally to be lived with. But nonetheless, it is hard to come to Peter Grimes without at least some preconceptions.

It is a work I have found problematic in the past. Britten and Pears have both spoken of it as being a depiction of an outsider – which, indeed, it is: Grimes is an outsider hounded to his death by local villagers, who are presented throughout in a most unflattering of lights. However, Grimes himself I find so reprehensible a person that I can’t at times help sympathising with the villagers, despicable though they are. Surely this man, with his tendency towards violence, is not a man to be trusted with the care of a helpless apprentice boy? Surely the villagers are right in not wanting Grimes to be in charge of another apprentice, after the last one had died? The death of the last apprentice is recorded in the court as “accidental”; and it is also noted that Grimes had previously saved the boy from drowning. Nonetheless, for Grimes to chase after a shoal of fish without carrying sufficient supplies of drinking water cannot be interpreted as anything other than a case of gross negligence. The villagers are clearly driven by hatred for Grimes rather than by concern for the boy – but can it be doubted that, whatever their reasons, they are right on this particular matter?

I tried to put all these things out of my mind when going to see last Sunday the much feted production by the English National Opera. After all, we need not approve of a character morally to see him as a tragic hero: Macbeth is an obvious example in this respect. Let us grant, then, that Grimes is, indeed, deeply reprehensible. Does that inhibit our feelings of pity and terror?

On the evidence of David Alden’s production, the answer is “no”. Rarely have I seen anything on stage that packs so powerful an emotional punch. But the almost visceral impact made by the drama should not obscure some rather unsettling questions – most especially, to what extent is Grimes himself a monster? To what extent does he deserve any pity at all?

The production does its best to direct our sympathies towards Grimes: at the end of the second act, for instance, as the orchestra plays a tender requiem for the dead boy, we see Grimes weeping over his body: this is an addition to the libretto, and, while I can see why this addition was made, I couldn’t help wondering whether the drama would have been even more powerful, even more unsettling, without it. For to depict Grimes, as this production does, as an essentially decent and compassionate man beneath his rough exterior, and beneath his casual thoughtlessness, is, in a way, to make things a bit easy for the audience: it would have been far more disturbing, I think, to have challenged the audience to feel pity and compassion for a man who deserves none.

For that is how Britten, and his librettist Montagu Slater, wrote it. Whatever Britten and Pears may subsequently have said about Grimes being an outsider, or about Grimes being a visionary, the drama as presented by the libretto and by the music makes no attempt to soften the harsh outlines of the man. He is a brutal man who is violent to his apprentices; he is a man who, not once but repeatedly, shows not the slightest concern for his apprentices’ wellbeing; he is a man of whom his latest apprentice – eerily silent in all the scenes in which he appears – is clearly frightened. And as for his visionary qualities – his most heartfelt aspirations are nothing more noble or idealistic than the acquisition of wealth and social standing. Apart from the detail we hear in the prologue of having once saved his former apprentice from drowning, it is difficult to think of anything to say in Grimes’ favour.

Another question that inevitably crops us is why Grimes should be such an outsider. He is, after all, a brutal man in a brutal society: why does he not fit in? The answers that I have seen focus on autobiographical details: Britten and Pears had been conscientious objectors, and as a consequence, in the aftermath of the War, there have been, rightly or wrongly, strong feelings of disapprobation. And, of course, Britten and Pears were gay at a time when homosexuality was illegal. But it has always seemed to me a mistake to try to interpret any work of art on the basis of the artist’s biography: what internal evidence is there that can suggest some sort of reason for Grimes’ status as an outsider? As far as I can see, there is none. One cannot even ascribe the villagers’ hatred to Grimes’ rough treatment of his apprentices: in that society, rough treatment of apprentice boys was the norm, and fatalities amongst apprentice boys, especially in a calling as fraught with danger as fishing, were common. The villagers’ hatred is unmotivated: it is utterly irrational. It just is.

This creates something of a challenge for the audience, especially audiences who may think, as many appear to do, that one cannot become involved in a drama unless one can sympathise with one or other of the characters. For there is no-one here to sympathise with – not even Ellen Orford,  who is foolish enough to hand the apprentice boy over to Grimes, thus effectively signing his death warrant. But the idea that one must sympathise with characters is, it seems to me, a red herring: whether we sympathise or not, Britten challenges us to look on in terror and pity at what humans do to each other, and to themselves. By the time we get to the feverish final act, Grimes is unhinged, and we do not sit in judgement over this tortured man, any more than we say “Serves you right you murdering bastard!” when Othello tells us that fiends will snatch at his soul.

The production brings the action forward to the 1940s – roughly the time this opera was composed. Such a decision can have pitfalls: for one thing, the depiction of inhabitants of a small coastal town in the 1940s is bound to have, for a British audience at least, unfortunate overtones of Dad’s Army. Also, the reference to the workhouse becomes anachronistic. But on the whole, the updating in time worked well enough, despite Leigh Melrose as Ned Keene, here done up as a spiv, inevitably, for me at least, evoking memories of Private Walker. But this aside, there was not the slightest hint here of the cosiness of Dad’s Army. Quite the opposite: the village provided throughout a deeply oppressive and unsettling environment against which the tragedy unfolded. The crowd scenes were superbly done: the villagers seemed collectively a protagonist in the drama, and at the same time, various individual villagers were vividly depicted as characters in their own right. Only with “Auntie” and her two “nieces” did I find myself entertaining some doubts: “Auntie” was here dressed in a very masculine pinstripe suit and a fur coat; and the “nieces”, despite exuding sexuality, were presented very disturbingly as doll-carrying schoolgirls. Further, their stylised, marionette-like movements I found extremely uncomfortable. All this is as it should be: “Auntie” and her “nieces” should make us feel uncomfortable. But, as presented here, they evoked a world of bohemian decadence that seemed a bit out of kilter with what is, after all, provincial backwater. And should they seem so out of kilter? It is Grimes, after all, and not they, who are the outsiders here.

Alden eschews strict realism – which is always an option in this opera. The sets are here semi-abstract, evoking states of mind as well as suggesting the physical settings of the courthouse, or of the seafront, or of the inn. Most effective were the steeply raked tables that represented Grimes’ hut – and also, one suspects, his state of mind. And the staging of the apprentice’s death really could not have been done better: as we hear a cry offstage, and the rope to which the apprentice is tied suddenly disappears from view, I found myself experiencing a sick feeling in the pit of the stomach. And Grimes’ final scene in Act Three – Grimes “mad scene” – is about as horrifying as anything I have experienced in the opera: whatever reservations I may have had about this work coming into the opera house were, by this stage, all completely forgotten. Only in Berg’s Wozzeck, I think, have I experienced anything remotely comparable.

Of course, Wozzeck is a major influence in this, Britten’s first major opera. One could have a great deal of fun spotting all the other influences – some of which are virtually spelt out by Britten himself: the inn scene during the storm is clearly modeled on a similar scene in Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess; the quartet with Ellen, Auntie, and the two nieces (actually a trio as the nieces sing in unison) is clearly modeled on the famous trio towards the end of Der Rosenkavalier; and so on. The most salient influence was that of Britten’s hero, Verdi: the very opening, where Peter Grimes’ name is called out three times in the courthouse, recalls the three calls of “Radames” in the trial scene in Aida. It requires no great insight spotting these (and other) correspondences. But what is remarkable is the way Britten makes them his own: all these references to other works serve Britten own musical and dramatic purpose, and what results is very individual, very different from the works of Verdi, or of Strauss, or of Berg, or of Gershwin, present though they all are. Britten does not “borrow” from the works of others, so much as take what they have to offer and transform them into something very much after his own fashion.

I generally try to avoid writing about the music since, not having had a musical education, I do not feel qualified to do so. So perhaps I should restrict myself merely to saying that as far as my admittedly untrained ears could judge, what I heard last Sunday was exceptional from all concerned. The orchestra, conducted by Edward Gardner, produced some quite extraordinary sounds; and leading the fine cast was the Australian tenor Stuart Skelton, whose singing, both musically and dramatically, was coruscating.

In short, I am convinced: the reservations I had previously entertained have all been dispelled. So much so, I now want to get to know Britten’s other operas; and, in no time at all, I’m sure I’ll become a fully paid up member of the Society of Britten-Bores. No matter. When you see something so powerful in a live performance, it becomes difficult to get it out of your system

A retraction, and a memory

The mere few minutes that so often separate writing from publication on a blog can be a source both of pleasure, and of embarrassment. For now, as I look back on my previous post, I find myself profoundly embarrassed by the following line:

Throughout the nineteenth century, Don Giovanni was seen a romantic character, searching eternally for an ideal love.

How I wish now I had thought a bit harder about this before publishing! For, of course, the nineteenth century was no more monolithic in thought than is our own, and to dismiss the interpretations of an entire century with a throwaway and unreferenced comment is extremely foolish, to say the least. True, I have read some writings from that era that do indeed view the character of Don Giovanni in such a romanticised light, but the problem is I can’t reference these writings because I do not remember where I had read them. I should therefore have done the sensible thing and not have made any reference at all to these romanticised interpretations; or, perhaps, I could have restricted myself to something  bit more vague, such as: “Certain romantic interpretations have seen Don Giovanni as someone searching eternally for an ideal love …” or something of that nature. But it’s too late now: the damn thing is up there, and has been read. So the best I can offer now, I suppose, is a retraction of that part of my post, before someone picks me up on it.

But enough of that. Once we start retracting bits we have come to think better of, there is no end to the matter: very little of this blog would, I suspect, remain unretracted. But if past posts on this blog are regarded as articulations of what I thought at the time then rather than of what I think now, I suppose there is no harm done. What I really wanted in this post, other than retracting the bit from the last one that made no sense, was to share – given my continuing preoccupation with Don Giovanni – a memory I curiously retain of that opera from my student days, some 35 or so years ago.

Let me set the background. Having seen on television a broadcast of Don Giovanni from Glyndebourne (it was this one), I had saved up my pennies, and bought myself this recording on LP. The problem was I did not have a record player, and could only listen to it when back in my parents’ house. And, this being in the Dark Days before Spotify or even the internet, I remember that music going endlessly round my head, and wishing I could just listen to it somewhere. There was one bit in particular that haunted me. Don Giovanni has taken a fancy to the maidservant of his abandoned wife; and so, to get his abandoned wife out of the way, he sings to her from under her window, pretending to be penitent. And when she comes down, seduced once again by his honeyed tones, his servant, dressed as the master and his face hidden in the dark of the night, is to lead this abandoned wife away, leaving Don Giovanni free to add to his list of conquests. It is, of course, a scene of extraordinary cruelty. And the trio Mozart provides at this point is nothing short of miraculous. The servant, Leporello, is enjoying the adventure, while at the same time feeling sorry for Donna Elvira, his master’s deserted wife; at the same time, Donna Elvira’s surprise and incredulity gives way all too easily to a resurgence of hope, and an outpouring of a passion that had never left her. Meanwhile, Don Giovanni himself sings the most heartfelt and seductive of music, which is all the more disturbing for being so utterly cynical and insincere. And all of this and more is depicted simultaneously, in music of the most perfect beauty.

And there was one phrase from that trio that kept circling my mind ceaselessly. After Donna Elvira’s initial lament for her lost love, master and servant exchange a few words to each other, and then Don Giovanni sings, twice, “Elvira, idol mio”. She is startled. Is that the “ingrato”? And Don Giovanni replies in two glorious phrases:

Sì, vita mia, son’io,
e chiedo carità.

And for whatever reason, it was those two phrases that kept whirling around my mind. I still have such a vivid memory of walking back one evening from the university back to my student lodgings, through Sauchiehall Street in Central Glasgow, with those phrases circling incessantly in my head. And how I wished I could hear the thing!

Well, that’s all this post is about, really. The memory of a memory. Of no particular interest to anyone, perhaps, other than to myself. At least, I trust there is nothing here I would wish to retract once I’ve hit the “post” button.

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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