The current production of “Don Giovanni” at the Metropolitan Opera,running through March 6th, is the opera of the moment, a profoundly political and moral vision that’s as much of our time as of Mozart’s own. I saw it on Saturday night; it’s as much of a historical revelation as it is a musical delight.
Mozart’s glorious music sets the scene on a monstrosity, and his musical realization of a monstrous world and its deliverance is one of the glories of the history of art. Don Giovanni—his Don Juan—isn’t just a serial seducer, he’s a rapist. The opera’s first dramatic scene finds him in the bedroom of a noblewoman, Donna Anna (sung by Elza van den Heever), who fights him off. Her cries are heard by her father, the Commendatore (James Morris), who challenges her masked assailant. In the ensuing sword fight, Don Giovanni (Peter Mattei) kills the Commendatore and flees, unrecognized. The main plot of the opera is the effort of Donna Anna and her betrothed, Don Ottavio (Dmitry Korchak), along with other victims of Don Giovanni, to identify the rapist and murderer and then to catch him and take revenge for his crimes against women and his murder of the Commendatore.
“Don Giovanni,” which Mozart composed and premièred in 1787, is a closeup, cross-sectional panorama of feudal Europe as seen from the revelatory angle of sex and love, pleasure and power, seduction and fidelity, and the state of relations between men and women. The Met’s production, directed by Michael Grandage, is aptly set in the opera’s own era, and Grandage captures its implications with an extraordinary dramatic clarity that’s equally the work of the splendid cast of singers. There have been many efforts to update the action to later times—notably, Peter Sellars’s production, which situates it on the Lower East Side in the nineteen-eighties, and two new productions, one set in a current-day mansion and another in a current-day corporate headquarters. But there may be no classic opera that more closely addresses the sociopolitical specifics of its time and place than does “Don Giovanni,” and Grandage’s production, though modest in reinventive ambition, provides a worthy clarity and focus to the opera’s theatrical genius.
Mozart’s musical masterwork, from 1787, is also a dramatic masterwork, because of Lorenzo Da Ponte’s libretto, as well as Mozart’s musical and psychological conception. Mozart was, in effect, a dramatist in music, endowed with a finesse and a power of psychological insight akin to that of the greatest novelists. He was also a man of free-thinking, empathetic rage, and the rage of “Don Giovanni” is more than just a denunciation of a single unhinged predator; it’s a jagged-edged slash at the arrogance of the class of nobles—and a vision of women living in a state of subjection and vulnerability, in desperate hope of sincere love as well as of stalwart protection. As such, “Don Giovanni” is both a dramatic unfolding of a philosophical theory of empathetic love among equals and a wild and ironic harbinger of the French Revolution.
The core of the opera—and it’s a moment that the production emphasizes with its starkest staging and most passionate intensity—is the scene in which Donna Anna tells Ottavio that she has recognized Don Giovanni by his voice. She narrates, in a long, searingly confessional recitative, how Don Giovanni stole into her room, how she took him for Ottavio, how she fought him off, and how the killing occurred. Donna Anna follows the tale with an aria of a harrowing fury, “Or sai chi l’onore” (“Now you know who tried to steal my honor”).
It’s a scene that foreshadows Verdi and verismo, a moment of pure righteous passion, of the moral force of sacred justice—and what Mozart and Da Ponte top it with is dramatic and moral shock. Don Ottavio, to whom Donna Anna has just poured out her heart, has trouble believing her: “How could one ever believe a nobleman capable of so black a crime?” But he decides “to seek the truth” for her sake: “I will disabuse her or avenge her.”
Don Ottavio is no villain—he’s an intensely sympathetic lover. His aria that follows, “Dalla sua pace,” is a tender song of love and empathy: his peace of mind depends on hers; her joys and sufferings are his. He’s a moderate, judicious man who doesn’t fly off at the handle; he has to know the facts before taking on a mortal duty. He trusts in the system, and that system is the very subject of the opera.
While he’s being pursued by Don Ottavio and Donna Anna, Don Giovanni is busy seducing another woman—Zerlina, a young peasant woman who is about to marry the rustic Masetto. Their duet is the model of Giovanni’s method: he flirts, he talks glitteringly, he makes false promises of wealth (“I will change your life”) and even of marriage, and with his suave wit and heartily elegant bearing, he seemingly wins her heart. After elaborate machinations to distract Masetto, the Don carries her off by force and tries to rape her.
Mattei, as Don Giovanni, is magnificently cast. He’s tall, handsome, graceful, and vigorous, and his baritone voice rolls out with a hearty, lofty warmth. He plays the Don not as a repulsive old lecher but as a man of truly seductive virtues, of worldly insight and Olympian command, who perverts his own talents and abuses his own position in cavalier pursuit of pleasure. Mozart and Da Ponte lend this nobleman a true nobility of character, which is what makes his tyrannical arrogance no mere transgression but a tragedy. The depravity, high-handedness, and cruelty of an authentically sophisticated nobility, both as a ruling class and as a model of refinement and character, is tragedy—Don Giovanni’s, his fiefdom’s, and all Europe’s.
Mozart and Da Ponte aren’t blind to Don Giovanni’s virtues, but they’re most evident in the eyes of a particular character—Donna Elvira, another woman whom he had seduced and abandoned. The role’s fierce musical glories (superbly rendered by the soprano Emma Bell) reflect the complexity of her torment—she starts by craving revenge but can’t deny her love for him. In her desperate affection for a scoundrel whose latent merit she is perhaps alone in seeing, her hatred turns to pity and she offers him, at the last moment, his final chance at redemption, telling him, “Change your life!”
Don Giovanni can’t change his life, of course—and the composer and librettist bring him to justice in a furious, slyly ironic conclusion that’s one of the greatest tag endings in the history of theatre. It follows the seeming climax of the action, after the Don is recognized as the man who tried to rape Donna Anna and killed her father, the Commendatore. Ottavio urges Anna, in effect, to get on with her life and marry him; but she is inconsolable (singing one of the most beautiful and insightful lines in all opera, “Leave me this one outlet for all my sorrows”). Ottavio takes it upon himself, as he had promised, to avenge himself on Don Giovanni, but the criminal proves elusive, and Don Ottavio seeks justice: he heads off to press charges. After filing them, he returns to Donna Anna to urge her to calm down, to trust in the law, and to marry him.
Donna Anna is astounded—she can’t think of pleasure until Don Giovanni has been punished. Ottavio considers her delay “cruel,” and she sings another great tragic aria explaining that she loves him but is still unconsoled: “Maybe someday, heaven will take pity on me.”
This should be, realistically, the last line of the opera. Don Giovanni is a master of disguises and of ruses as well as of the sword—he won’t be caught alive by the likes of Ottavio. And the powerful Don Giovanni has even more powerful friends—he won’t be arrested, he’ll never face trial. Mozart and Da Ponte are saying, in effect, “Forget it, Anna, it’s Europe.”
What Mozart and Da Ponte offer instead is a deus ex machina of Christian morality but of conspicuously Greco-Roman inspiration (there’s even a reference to “Proserpina and Pluto” to make the point). Don Giovanni, taking refuge in a secluded garden, stumbles upon the tomb of the Commendatore, which speaks to him and seeks his repentance. In a terrifyingly sublime roar of hubris, Don Giovanni invites the spirit of the Commendatore to join him for dinner. The ultimate result, of course, is that the Commendatore opens the earth and sends Don Giovanni to the flames of Hell, restoring order, through divine intervention, that couldn’t be restored through human authority.
It’s a great moment of theatre (one that’s played to the hilt in the Met’s production), and, of course, it’s a brilliantly intentional display of flaming bullshit: there is no Hell and no God for Don Giovanni to fear, and Mozart and Da Ponte are saying, in effect, that the feudal continent’s reigning Don Giovannis are above the law and that nothing in the social order as it currently exists, nothing short of the sort of divine intervention that plays well in wishes and churches and prayers and theatres but has little to do with the way of the world, will bring them to justice. Two years later came the French Revolution.
The world in which a woman can find earnest, enduring love—that did exist, and Mozart saw it and knew it in his heart. (Maria Popova, at Brain Pickings, points to the devoted ardor of Mozart’s own marriage to Constanze Weber.) But a world in which a serial rapist and pseudo-romantic predator could get away with his actions, could rampage with impunity because of his social position, his reputation, his wealth, and his power—and, for that matter, in which the social virtues of erotic vitality and charismatic energy are distorted into crime, and then, in which that crime goes unpunished—and in which an honest and reasonable romantic couple of sober virtue such as Donna Anna and Don Ottavio doesn’t stand a chance against the unchecked will of the grandees—this was, for Mozart, an absolute abomination, a deal-killer, the breaking of the social contract. In his lyrical effervescence and visionary passion, he saw past the end of the old world. He didn’t live long enough to see much of the new one—he died in 1791.
Da Ponte, however, arrived in New York in 1805. He taught Italian at Columbia, founded an opera company, staged “Don Giovanni,” and died here in 1838 at the age of eighty-nine. Had Mozart (who was born in 1756) only lived to join him here—where they could gleefully have skewered onstage another system of erotic oppression, such as the puritanical heritage . . .