Don Giovanni is a strange story. It is about an amoral man who devotes himself to sensual pleasure and is dragged down to hell by a stone statue as punishment. It would seem like a story designed to scare children away from the seven deadly sins, except that the particular sin it focuses on is so adult. The story includes attempted rape, murder, pre-marital sex with multiple partners (2065 to be precise), deception, and gluttony, accompanied by incredibly gorgeous music.
The character of Don Giovanni is often described as a libertine. Libertinism was an anti-authoritarian philosophy that rejected the behavioural restrictions imposed by church and state. Famous libertines included fellows such as Giacomo Cassanova and the Marquis de Sade, both of whom would have been alive at the time of Don Giovanni’s first production in 1787. Apparently, the ‘Don Juan opera’ was an actual genre at the time, and a favourite in Prague where Don Giovanni was commissioned. The subject matter was topical, taboo and therefore probably highly titillating to a curious and voyeuristic eighteenth-century audience who would have publicly condemned libertinism but been very, very interested in it.
To a modern audience, Don Giovanni floats contextless, adrift in a sea of new attitudes towards sex and gender. We have the sexual revolution recently behind us, as well as the closely-tied feminist movement. Women’s rights make sexual liberation work – without the idea of the importance of consent and reproductive freedom, libertinism is just rich guys being dicks (so to speak), which is why it didn’t really have a leg to stand on. Modern audiences (at least on the surface) don’t care how much sex Don Giovanni has, who he has it with, where he has it, whether he’s married to the person he’s having it with or not, how late he sleeps in, how much he drinks or likes a good meal. What we do care about is that he kills, lies to get laid, and is a rape-y creep. Through a modern lens this story is strange to encounter.
At the intermission, I heard members of the audience murmuring concernedly about the Don being such a bad man. It’s somewhat confusing to have the main character be a terrible person, but Mozart is pretty clear about it. How terrible he is to women would have been visible even under the prevalently misogynistic attitudes of the time. The obvious red-flags start with his murder of an authority figure, and his attempt to force himself on the Commendatore’s virtuous daughter. While the attempted seduction of a working-class girl under false pretenses makes up the “amusing comedy” bit of this drama giocoso, his disregard for the class system when it can get him laid is the other clear indication of his predatory nature. The fact that he throws a party for peasants would have been simply something that never would have happened out of genuine benevolence or good will – something that the buffoonish but not unintelligent Masetto picks up on immediately. His fiancée, Zerlina, whom Don Giovanni is trying to seduce, may seem disloyal for even considering Don Giovanni’s proposal, but she would have had more than just love to think of in 18th century Spain. Marriage was an economic practicality at the time, and marrying up the social ladder was pretty much the goal for every woman. Her love for Masseto would have been almost besides the point. Still, for the same economic reasons, the genuine interest man of means would have in a poor girl for more than a tumble in the hay would have been hugely suspect, and we the audience collectively go “Zerlina! No! Don’t dooo it” in our minds.
Another note on class is the plight of Leporello, Don Giovanni’s servant. Modern audiences may wonder at Leporello’s weak will for not leaving a master who treats him horribly, and who’s behaviour he does not condone, but the fact is that Leporello has to work for a living, and gainful employment under a wealthy patron is something not easily thrown away. Being Don Giovanni’s servant allows Leporello to reap some of the benefits of his master’s lascivious lifestyle, but mostly it gets him the lion’s share of the down-sides. Libertinism again, only works for the independently wealthy who can foist the results of their self-centred decisions on to their paid staff, and this is another way the character of Don Giovanni is set up to be hated.
Perhaps the most confusing part of the Don Giovanni experience is actually how musically charming it is. The Don’s character truly does become a seducer when he sings. Both “La ci darem la mano” and “Deh vieni alla finestra” are exquisite and gem-like, and now part of my roster of faves. The music ranges from these light-hearted delights, to the sweeping and serious pieces accompanying the tragic revenge plot of the Commendatore’s daughter, Donna Anna. Voice is very important to the construction of Don Giovanni’s identity – it is how he is recognized for murder, how he seduces Donna Elvira under the window, and when tells Leporello to impersonate him he instructs his servant to mimic his voice. This is a practical consideration, allowing the mystery the Commendatore’s murder to be solved in the absence of CSI techniques, and to set up the improbable identity mixups that only work with audience participation. But these musical nods also place a commentary on the character of Don Giovanni as a performer (in a kind of “all the world’s a stage”, momentarily lifting the veil of narrative kind of way). In this particular production, dressing scenes show the “crew” of servants that help create the illusion that is the man, and later Don Giovanni is pulled into the pits of hell, which in a stage production are located somewhere behind the orchestra pit. Musicians or instruments are constantly being brought on to stage – the party scene, the mandolin in “Deh Vieni Alla Finestra”, and in the final supper scene. The pleasure of music is a constant that runs parallel to Don Giovanni’s physical pleasures, and I can’t help but wonder if there is an invitation to consider our own implicitness in our enjoyment of the plot, or if perhaps music is the one redemptive pleasure that remains pure.
The story reads like a Christian karmic narrative: if you flout the law of The Lord and you’ll get yours in the end, even if no-one else in life can stop you (but with strangely pagan imagery of the magical-statue-ghost). It’s a structure that allows us to participate in Don Giovanni’s libertine freedom without condoning it – karmic retribution allowing us to enjoy the story’s dark sexy undertones with the safety that the predator gets his just desserts (after dinner, of course). The Christian narrative asserts itself several times, by providing opportunities for repentance in Donna Alvira’s continued love and eventual forgiveness, and the vengeful statue giving him one last chance before smiting him. This also allows for the creation of a character we all love to hate and also allowing us the somewhat un-Christian satisfaction in seeing him punished.
There is so much more to talk about with this piece – the gender dynamics between the other characters, the characters’ roles and functions in the plot, more on the opera as a cultural artefact – I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface. I haven’t even resolved my own feelings about Don Giovanni, though I was once again thoroughly impressed by the singing and had a fantastic time (I have some opinions on the lava-lamp projection effect in the final scene – sorry VO, it was not a win). Regardless, I do have a feeling that what happens in Ispagna stays in Ispagna.