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Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?

The Strange Case of Don Giovanni.

"A work without blemish, of uninterrupted perfection."
--Søren Kierkegaard, on Don Giovanni
Il dissoluto punito. Act II of Don Giovanni. Artist unknown.
For many writers, musicians and composers of the 19th century, Mozart's opera Don Giovanni stood at the very top of the operatic pyramid. The Don was unique: a rollocking comedy with a grand, tragic ending, a love story with multiple partners where love is never requited, and a wellspring of inspiration for other composers, from Liszt and Wagner in the 19th century to Stravinsky and Richard Strauss in the 20th.

From the thunderous chords that open the overture to the amazing parade of arias, duets and ensembles that constitute the bulk of the score, Don Giovanni has never failed to draw an audience. Listeners get satisfaction from the familiar numbers, sung with melting seduction in the very best performances.

Don Giovanni has survived in the repertory better than any other Mozart opera, with the possible exception of the Marriage of Figaro. It requires two star baritones for the Don and Leporello. Some singers switch off in the roles. (Bryn Terfel recorded both parts, as well as Masetto early in his career.) A good Don must be able to run the gamut from sensual ardor to outright defiance. A great Don must be the bad guy who audiences are willing to root against, yet want to visit backstage afterwards.

Leporello is also complex, a comic foil who is the grandfather of Verdi's Rigoletto. His character moves to the fore in the second act, when he is unable (despite his best efforts) to keep his master from bringing about his own doom. He must bring off the 'Catalogue' song with humor and aplomb, and display convincing terror when the famous stone guest comes to dinner.  The touching line: "Ah padron, siam tutti morti" (delivered while hiding under the table is a marvelous moment of despair: the everyman's perspective on the supernatural events in the banquet scene.

"The three finest things God ever made are the sea, Hamlet and Don Giovanni."
--Gustave Flaubert

The Commendatore is not a very long part, but he should be a "black" bass with an authoritative physical presence and a voice that can put the fear of God into an opera house packed with atheists. Donna Anna is a tragic heroine of Greek proportions. Her scenes with Don Ottavio provide contrast and the soprano must be involved to bring them off. Also, poor, faithful Don Ottavio, who had his best aria removed from the opera at the premiere, must try hard not to be a nebbish although his character certainly is.

Donna Elvira is the mezzo role. She is a jilted ex- of the Don's who is still interested in the old rascal. Her plot function is to show up and ruin whatever seduction the Don may be attempting and then pine for him to take her up again. Masetto should be a Leporello-in-training with a burly presence and the right burst of anger. And his feckless Zerlina, who gets two of the best numbers, (she sings 'La ci darem la mano' with the Don and the great 'Batti, batti O Masetto') should be a soprano with a light comic grace who can feign innocence.

"Don Giovanni, thanks to the unfading and inexhaustible strength of Mozart's inspiration, has aged only in a merely technical respect."--Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

To make all these elements work, the opera requires a conductor who knows how to balance Mozart's classical structures with the budding seeds of early Romanticism that are buried in the rich soil of the score. The ideal Don Giovanni conductor will make the heaven-rending chords resound in the statue scene, but keeep the rest of the Don's doings moving along at a steady clip.

He should instruct the woodwinds to accompany Leporello with sardonic humor, and the Don's macking on the ladies with grace and charm. The Donna Anna scenes should be conducted as pure opera seria, letting the singers' voices carry the weight of Mozart's emotional message. In short, it doesn't matter if this opera is fast (Gardiner, Östman) or slow (Furtwängler, Klemperer). In competent hands, the score of Don Giovanni always makes an impact.

Then there's that ending, where the good Don gets dragged off to the abyss by his chthonian dinner guest recals the medieval morality plays where the sinner is punished before the audience. Don Giovanni is the great morality play of the Age of Reason. Mozart and librettist Lorenzo da Ponte originally ended the opera with the dinner scene, adding an appendix ensemble (complete with a moral admonishment) to the work after the opera's premiere.

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats