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23 April 2006

Don Giovanni (1989)

By Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1787)

Libretto: Lorenzo da Ponte, based on the legend of Don Juan

Performers: Thomas Hampson (Don Giovanni), Edita Gruberova (Anna), Hans Peter Blochwitz (Ottavio), Roberta Alexander (Elvira); Nikolaus Harnoncourt conducting the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Amsterdam, 1989

Want to know the plot? Click here.

Comedy? Tragedy? Was Mozart such an innovator that he could create an opera that exists beyond such distinctions? The evidence: the titular character dies, much to the grim satisfaction of all involved, and only two characters attain marginally happy conclusions - events that suggest tragedy - while several humorous, crude moments and the presence of numerous opera buffa ensembles lend it comic flair. The overture, with its dark, memorable theme, is repeated upon the Don's demise, and it foretells the inevitable conclusion that no amount of subsequent comic play can erase.

In the years since its premier, the opera has been staged both with and without the slam-bang group finale, as some artistic directors chose to conclude the work with Giovanni's "tragic" decent into hell. This choice was dramatized in Amadeus in order to coincide with Salieri's observations about the relationship between Mozart and his father, and incorrectly so; Don Giovanni, conducted by Mozart at its Prague premier, would have included the finale ensemble as he composed and intended.

But where is the tragedy in a homicidal rapist's just demise? The genuine tragedy is expressed in the so-called joyous finale when all of the characters who have been so severely affected by the Don lament their new prospects. Donna Anna, still grieving after her father's murder and Don Giovanni's attempt to rape her, asks her beau, Don Ottavio, to postpone their wedding for a year. Donna Elvira, possibly pregnant (from Scene XII, at her mention of her "condition"), decides that she must spend the rest of her life in a nunnery. Zerlina and Masetto, the ostensibly "happy" couple, resolved their differences way back in Act One, and their love is not re-tested after Zerlina's aria "Batti, batti, o bel Masetto", discussed below. The finale offers no further resolution for their relationship except to suggest that their newlywed life has been tainted by the discord and mistrust Giovanni forced between them.

Aside from a few frantic moments of "see how fast I can sing" - a technique of virtuosity that I particularly disliked in Rossini's The Barber of Seville, Mozart filled this opera with complex and moving arias. The coloratura singing was minimal, a fact I no not whether to credit to his original composition or to this particular performance. Either way, the restrained melodies revealed a sense of drama and emotion without clouding the issue with operatic parody. After all, the libretto opens with an attempted rape and a murder; there is no place for an excess of farce or vocal performances that detract from the underlying current of grief.

My two favorite arias illustrate this trend. First, "Dalla sua pace", Don Ottavio's ode to his betrothed, Donna Anna, is both lyrically and melodically beautiful:
On her peace of mind
My own depends;
Whatever pleases her
Gives me life,
Whatever grieves her
Makes me to die.
When she sighs,
I sigh as well;
Her anger is mine,
And mine are her tears;
Nothing do I value
Unless she values it too.
Nifty! And Blochwitz's clear, pure tenor was a joy to hear. The second is Zerlina's song of reconciliation to her new husband in "Batti, batti, o bel Masetto":
My fine Masetto, beat
Your poor Zerlina;
I'll keep still like a little lamb,
Waiting for your blows to fall.
I'll let you pull my hair
I'll let you gouge out my eyes,
And happily will I kill
Your dear hands.
Ah, I see that you haven't the heart;
Let us make peace, my dearest;
Content and happy,
We shall spend our nights and days.
Extreme? Yes, but that's opera. And besides, she nearly allowed herself become another of Don Giovanni's victims, so a little dramatic supplication might have been in order to appease her nearly-wronged spouse. What I found amazing about this aria is the gentle shift between her sing-song pleas for Masetto's punishment, composed in a lilting 2/2 time, to her entreaties for peace in a softer, almost seductive 6/8 time. The shift takes place in a single breath and completely changes the tone of the music to match the evolution of her pleas. Music + words. Wonderful.

Comedy? Tragedy? I like the fact that I cannot make a decision. It seems Mozart was radically ahead of his time... a little obvious, I know, but worth rediscovering here.

Blogger Diva Kitty said...

Thomas, my sweet baritone, Thomas...

Blogger carrie_lofty said...

He is juicy sweet, isn't he?


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