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Mozart’s Lesson for Our Present Times

by Harley Schlanger
 February 2013

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Review of Don Giovanni
By Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte
Houston Grand Opera
January 25 to February 10, 2013

It was in a state of excited anticipation that I entered the Estates Theatre in Prague on a bitterly cold night in November 2010.  Some friends and I had convened there to attend a performance of "Don Giovanni" in the very theater where it had premiered on October 29, 1787, under the direction of its composer, Wolfgang Mozart.

The opera had been commissioned in January of that year by the theater's impressario, Bondini, in response to the wild enthusiasm in Prague for Mozart's previous opera, "The Marriage  of Figaro."  While “Figaro” had been the victim of vicious infighting and intrigue within Emperor Joseph II's court in Vienna-- as a grouping of the aristocracy correctly viewed it as an attack against their exalted status and power -- it had been embraced by the residents of Prague, of whom Mozart commented, "Meine Pragers verstehen mich" ("My Praguers understand me").

Courtesy of Houston Grand Opera. Photo by Felix Sanchez.
Kyle Ketelsen (Leporello) and Veronika Dzhioeva (Donna Elvira).

His "Don Giovanni" was likewise loved in Prague, though, again, it was barely given a chance at success in Vienna (more on this below).

Unfortunately, the performance I saw that night in 2010 fell short of delivering the impact intended by Mozart, in choosing the story of the licentiously evil aristocrat.  It was  not the fault of the singers, who were mostly young, and very good.  The orchestra was excellent, in the tradition of Bohemian musicians.  But for some reason, the director chose a modern contrivance to present the statue of the Commendatore to Don Giovanni, and the audience, which completely undercut the power of the ending.

As Don Giovanni and Leperello enter the cemetery, and first encounter the statue of the Commander, whom Don Giovanni had murdered in the opening scene, there was a flashing red light on the statue!  And the light was still there later, flashing away, when the Commendatore entered the Don's dining room.  This director's conceit was not only distracting, but it made that highly dramatic encounter an anti-climax, and the ending as a whole fell flat.

How lucky we are in Houston, that the Houston Grand Opera (HGO) team which produced this "Don Giovanni", in January 2013,  is content to let Mozart speak for himself, to bring his timeless message to theatergoers today. 

Mozart’s Revolutionary Intervention

That  “Figaro” could have been presented at all in Vienna was due to the personal intervention of Emperor Joseph II, who was hardly the buffoon portrayed in the film "Amadeus."   Joseph was a reformer, who had been inspired by the American Revolution and its message of the dignity of all men, in a battle against the tyranny of special privilege, as represented by the British monarchy and its Empire.  This ideal was sweeping through Europe, and was embraced by influential figures in Joseph's court, such as the Baron van Swieten, a friend and patron of Mozart, and intellectuals and artists, including the young Mozart. 

Joseph's reforms -- in economy, land ownership and usage, church-state relations, and education, all of which were implemented to improve the productive potential of his subjects and, through this development, the wealth of his realm and improvement of conditions of life for all -- required that the power of the aristocracy be reduced, as the landed nobility of the Austrian Empire rejected this revolutionary spirit from across the Atlantic, and fought to suppress it.

Joseph recognized that, to succeed in modernizing his Empire, the culture of the court, and of society more broadly, must be changed.  For this, he turned to an idea which had been advanced by Gotthold Lessing,  that a "national theater" could serve as a means to educate a population, presenting ideas to an audience in the theater which would bring about brutal reaction if left only to the arena of politics.

Courtesy of Houston Grand Opera. Photo by Felix Sanchez.
Adrian Eröd (Don Giovanni) and Malin Christensson (Zerlina).

Joseph tested this idea by commissioning "The Abduction from the Seraglio," in 1782,  in which Mozart provided a sharp message in a light-hearted way: that the infidel Turks, who were a constant threat to Europe, were shown to be not only human, but also, in some ways, more merciful than their Christian enemies.  This was produced at a time when the aristocratic war party was agitating for another costly war against the Turks, a war which instead was postponed for several years.

Joseph's decision to allow a setting of Beaumarchais' radical play, "The Marriage of Figaro," to be presented, as a collaboration of Mozart, with the Venetian-born librettist and poet Da Ponte, was a similarly bold act.  Even with Mozart and Da Ponte's softening -- a bit -- Beaumarchais' direct polemics against the assertion of powers by the aristocracy, the opera is a frontal assault against those assumed privileges. In the end, the Count Almaviva, who represents that Old Order, is humiliated, reduced, by a conspiracy among his wife and their servants, to beg for forgiveness for his transgression, while in plain sight of all!

This was too much for those Hapsburg courtiers, who turned not only against Mozart, but against those sympathetic to such change, including against Joseph II.  The “Marriage of  Figaro “ was quickly shut down in Vienna, while Joseph became the target of intrigue, much of it run by a sinister figure, by the name of Casanova, an operative of the aristocratic interests centered in Venice, who were deployed to stop the spread of the American revolution in Europe.

Mozart and Da Ponte Take on the Reaction

The story of the Venetian deployment is a fascinating one, which included as well the operations run in France against Joseph's sister, Queen Marie Antoinette -- who had been a promoter of Beaumarchais' drama, Figaro -- to prevent a Franco-Austrian alliance against British domination of the continent. 

For the full story, I encourage those serious about understanding the background to, and thus, the true meaning of Don Giovanni, to go to cultural historian David Shavin's excellent article, "Mozart's Entschlossenheit, or Don Giovanni Versus Venetian Ca-Ca," (October 2010).  What Shavin documents is that the old families of Venice, which had created the "New Venetian Party" in England at the end of the 17th century, and took power with the accession of King George I in 1714, engaged in a variety of operations, to destroy the pro-American revolution factions in Europe.

Courtesy of Houston Grand Opera. Photo by Felix Sanchez.
Joel Prieto (Don Ottavio) and Rachel Willis-Sørensen (Donna Anna)

These operations included Casanova's use of a network of prostitutes to manipulate and compromise both allies of Joseph, and Joseph himself.  Da Ponte, who was not only Venetian by birth, but had been expelled from the city, knew this Venetian method well.  Both he and Mozart were aware that their Figaro had been shut down in Vienna by the same network bent on breaking Joseph's will, and reversing his reforms.

For this reason, they were thrilled not only by the reaction to “Figaro” in Prague, on the outskirts of the Empire, where the power of the Viennese oligarchs was limited, but by the commission to write a new opera for the company there.  Da Ponte wrote in his memoirs that it was he who suggested that they take up the theme of Don Giovanni, "a subject that pleased him (Mozart) mightily."

What must be understood, is that Mozart and Da Ponte were NOT JUST TELLING A STORY to provide entertainment.  By taking on this project, they were literally putting their lives in danger.  They were fully aware of the deadly stakes involved in the intense, internal battles inside the court, and also the evil nature of the networks they would be exposing.  Though sometimes described as an "opera buffo", or "dramma giocoso," by the authors -- which might imply a somewhat frivolous production -- there was nothing frivolous about this opera.  There is humor, which at times lends itself to a kind of slapstick, especially when it involves Leporello, and his at times contentious relationship with his boss.

However, Mozart and Da Ponte were going to a deeper level, of irony, to take their audience beyond the story which unfolds on stage, of an evil-but-charming libertine, who is eventually done in by his own arrogance.  It is through Mozart's music that this deeper level is achieved, though it is also there in Da Ponte's razor sharp libretto.

This message is that you cannot trust what you think you are seeing unfold on the stage.  Listen, with your inner ear, to discover the true intention of the creators of this masterpiece.

Bringing Out the Deeper Irony  

Casanova, a degenerate libertine himself, had much in common with Don Giovanni, something referenced explicitly in the "Catalog" aria of Leporello, with his lascivious repetition of "la Piccina", i.e., "little girls".  Casanova bragged about initiating very young girls, including his own daughter, while Leporello brags to Donna Elvira that, for Don Giovanni, "His greatest favorite/Is the young beginner."

Knowing this background must shape the performance of Leporello's aria.  This is not just a shocking-but-charming recounting of the Don's escapades, but a warning to the confused Donna Elvira -- don't mess with the Don, you are nothing but a meaningless number in a long list of victims!  When performed properly, it should send a chill down the spine of those in the audience.

It is the same with the other victims in the opera.  This opera is not just a demonstration of the evil of Don Giovanni, but of the effect of the submission to an oligarchic system on everyone living under it.   Shavin writes that, what the Mozart-Da Ponte team did was to put "on stage the peculiar, diseased state of mind of a Casanova, but also to examine how this type of evil infects victims and bystanders, regardless of how well-intentioned they may take themselves to be against such evil."

This explains the importance of what some have seen as the superfluous nature of the "coda" at the end.  With the horror still fresh in the minds of the audience, of the final confrontation between Don Giovanni and the force of a higher power, represented by the Statue of the Commendatore, the victims appear on stage, to sing of the ultimate triumph of good over evil.

Courtesy of Houston Grand Opera. Photo by Felix Sanchez.
Adrian Eröd (Don Giovanni), Veronika Dzhioeva (Donna Elvira), Joel Prieto (Don Ottavio), Rachel Willis-Sørensen (Donna Anna), and Kyle Ketelsen (Leporello).

So far, so good!  But then, we see the reassertion of the less-than-Promethean response of the victims of the oligarchic evil: Donna Elvira's retreat to a nunnery; Don Ottavio's passive acceptance of Donna Anna's insistence that, her thirst for vengeance having been quenched by the demise of her father's killer, she now needs a year to mourn; Masetto and Zerlina's haste to get on with their lives as peasants; and, of course, Leporello's wish to find another master, albeit, a better one!

The audience, while chuckling at this ending, is left with a nagging doubt. After having been through the awakening that Don Giovanni was neither noble, nor in possession of unassailable powers, who among them was prepared to take responsibility to determine that another, such as he, would not emerge? 

Sadly, we cannot count on one of the characters we have followed for two hours, to defend the dignity of man!  Instead, all of them are prepared to leave it to a higher force to dispense justice.  Thus, Mozart and Da Ponte leave it to members of the audience to exit the theater with a sense that it is they who must be the force of justice.

This is why the scene with the Commendatore must be done well, with no contrivance.  It must be an awe-inspiring scene, of stark contrast, between the other-worldly presence of the statue, demanding repentance, the defiant but doomed Don Giovanni defending his oligarchic privilege to the end, and the whimpering Leporello wishing it would all go away!  It must leave no doubt that, in spite of what one has just witnessed on the stage, ultimately the guardians of justice must be the citizens in the audience!

HGO Performance Honors Mozart’s Intent

This scene came together beautifully in the HGO performance. Morris Robinson's Commendatore was a true force of nature, commanding the stage with his booming, resonant voice.  It was both fascinating and frightening, to see Don Giovanni appear to shrink in size, against the huge figure of Robinson, as his end approached.

Courtesy of Houston Grand Opera. Photo by Felix Sanchez.
Adrian Eröd (Don Giovanni) and Morris Robinson (Commendatore).

Adrian Eröd was an excellent Don Giovanni, alternately charming and menacing, but with the dangerous edge always present, even at his most seductive moments.  It was a delight to see Kyle Ketelsen freed as Leporello, to allow his menacing side coexist with his servile nature.  The last time I saw him as Leporello was in a lamentable production in Los Angeles, in which an egocentric director had him perform the part with an hour-glass on his back!

Rachel Willis-Sorensen was an extraordinary presence as Donna Anna, with total control over the range demanded of this role by Mozart, which allowed her to be totally believable as a victim who was reduced, by the loss of her father, to a life of vengeance and grieving.  Veronika Dzhioeva overcame a slight problem with the tempo in her first aria to provide a strong presence as Elvira.  Michael Sumuel as Masetto deftly moved from rage to confusion, and Malin Christensson's sweetness as Zerlina captivated the audience.

The traditional Don Giovanni setting employed by HGO, designed by Göran Järvefelt, goes back to 1986, and has been faithfully reproduced by his successors, Harry Silverstein and Carl Friedrich Oberle.  The mostly clean stage, with ample room for spacing, works brilliantly, with no distraction from the action on the stage.

As for the music, I was intrigued by the choice of Trevor Pinnock as conductor.  Known internationally for his work on original instruments, he conducted with a lively vigor, but he never allowed the orchestra to impinge on the singers.  Most impressive was the way in which he sustained the unity from the first note to the end, a tautness, which allowed the tension in Mozart's score to dominate the minds of the audience, to both prick their conscience and inspire their imagination.  This was especially, and thankfully true, in the denouement with the Commendatore, when the ominous theme from the opening of the overture reemerges, reminding us of the unity of intent that was there in the creative minds of Mozart and Da Ponte, before anyone heard a note.

Adrian Eröd……………. Don Giovanni
Kyle Ketelsen…………...Leporello
Rachel Willis-Sørensen .....Donna Anna
Veronika Dzhioeva……. ..Donna Elvira
Joel Prieto ………………Don Ottavio
Malin Christensson  …......Zerlina
Michael Sumuel ………. ..Masetto
Morris Robinson ………...Commendatore
Conductor……………….Trevor Pinnick