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Mozart’s Don Giovanni


Erwin Schrott as Don Giovanni, Washington National Opera, 2007

1,908 words

Editor’s Note:

The following essay on Mozart’s Don Giovanni is from the Ursus Major website [2]. Any information on its author would be greatly appreciated.

Those interested in seeing Don Giovanni should first check to see if the Metropolitan Opera encore broadcast of their current production is showing in your area on Wednesday, November 16. Click here to find a theater in your area: http://www.fathomevents.com/PerformingArts/series/metropolitanopera.aspx [3]. The Met broadcasts are the best way to see opera. Period. The superimposition of the subtitles on the screen gives the words great immediacy. The use of multiple cameras and closeups gives you a view superior to even the most expensive seats in the opera house.

On DVD, I recommend the superb 1954 color version conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler [4]. On CD, my favorite is the 1959 recording conducted by Carlo Maria Giulini [5] with such amazing singers as Eberhard Wächter, Joan Sutherland, Gottlob Frick, and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. Those interested in a modern, digital recording on period instruments should try the recording conducted by John Eliot Gardiner [6].

It is obvious that Don Giovanni is a very serious work given a buffa veneer from the simple fact that Mozart wanted the opera to end with the damnation of the Don (as it was initially produced in Vienna, to his delight), and that the anti-climatic finale was added at the insistence of the impresario in Prague (and, alas, has attached itself to the work, save for that first, short — but authentic! — production in Vienna).

Don Giovanni is a “comedy,” in the sense that Ionesco’s Rhinoceros is a comedy. The buffa elements are there to distract [. . .]. E. T. A. Hoffmann understood this and so did Kierkegaard. GBS [George Bernard Shaw] knew exactly what the implications were. Why do you think he interpolated Don Juan in Hell into Man and Superman? Because Don Giovanni anticipates Jenseits von Gut und Böse by nearly a century: the Don is the Übermensch!

Wagner knew there was much more to Don Giovanni than the printed score indicates. He didn’t know exactly what; but of all of Mozart’s operas, it’s the one he felt most drawn to. (Perhaps because, subconsciously, Wagner could see the shadow of himself in the character of the Don: beyond good and evil.) The Commandatore is one of those idols, whose Twilight Nietzsche so accurately delineated. All of this is very hard to comprehend, because the buffa aspects of the opera are so perfect, and the music is, well, Mozart. What more can one say?

I say the Don is the Übermensch (and feel the shade of GBS nodding in agreement), because he is totally inner-directed, which makes him an Übermensch. The Over-Man is not a creature devoid of manners and morals; rather, one who has fashioned them himself: he is a Ding an sich. Of course the Don does not “repent”; he has nothing to repent for.

Donna Anna, who is the only other “strong” character in the opera, was ecstatic when she believed that the Greatest Wimp in Opera, Don Ottavio, had finally developed something approaching virility. (There are countless essays in every language, except perhaps Ebonics, advancing the premise that the Don “scores,” before the curtain rises; and that Anna’s harpy-pursuit is the result of her delight in discovering her husband-to-be was a virtuoso in the Ars Amoris, followed by the realization she’d been “had”! If so, it’s the only time the Don does, which is part of the buffa: facia di farina.)

The Don does everything he can to avoid fighting the old fool — until the Commandatore infers that he’s a coward, which is an intolerable accusation. (And isn’t Mozart’s summoning of The Beast, now in command as honor has been maligned, an utterly masterful deployment of the interval between billiard shots?)

The trio for basses — three basses! — shows the compassion of the Don, but what else could he have done? Truly unfortunate that the old geezer brought it on himself, but what does the Don have to repent for? Nothing! He did everything, consistent with honor, to avoid this; but the Commandatore would have it no other way. Hard cheese! Exerunt. As for the other women, we see that the source of Elvira’s fury is not having Don Giovanni for her own. Once she thinks she has acquired him, she is transformed from harridan to house-cat. And at the conclusion of la chi darem la mano, Zerlina is pushing the Don to the site where their “union” will be consummated. Why should he not resume at the festivities what had been thwarted by Elvira — after such careful preparation (and arguably the finest duet ever composed)? Again: ubi sunt culpa?

Besides, the Übermensch harbors manifestly superior genetic material. Is in not in accord with the Categorical Imperative that these superior genes be given the widest possible distribution? 1,800-plus is pretty wide, but the Don is unique; furthermore, these superior genes aren’t reserved for aristocrats; no, they’re available to milkmaid and countess alike. Aperto a tutti quanti; viva la libertà! Were he a bullock, he’d be heaped with honors! Don Giovanni is the finest artistic statement ever made in favor of eugenics — and for this he should repent? (The program notes, even from a 1939 production at the Wiener Staatsoper, wouldn’t have raised that consideration!)

The conclusion is mere lip-service to convention. The Stone Guest and his demons are Nietzsche’s “idols.” The statue has come as invited, and good manners mandate the Don return the visit. The Übermensch would never behave uncivilly. The statue demands that he repent. The Don refuses, time and again: he has nothing to repent for! (At the party, Zerlina behaved like a stupid goose. She was the one shoving him, a few scenes earlier.) Neither Mozart nor da Ponte were so naive as censure the Don. After all, had not da Ponte — a baptized Jew and ordained priest — been forced to leave Venice, not merely for taking a mistress and running gaming rooms, but also supplying filles de joie upon request? Mozart may have been a virgin until his marriage [!], but he was no prude.

[. . .]

Nietzsche held the Übermensch to be a state-of-being, not a physical entity. This is shown to be true, by the fact that never once did Nietzsche use the term in the plural: Übermenschen! Failure to comprehend that results in a gross misinterpretation of Nietzsche’s works. Wagner, in his “Nordic” tetralogy (the only thing Nordic about it being the names of the characters and the warped adaption of some sagas, he used to advance the ideals of Bakuninite anarchism) provides the criteria for the status of the Übermensch. In the second act of Die Walküre, Fricka totally demolishes Wotan’s contention that the son he sired on a mortal woman, Sigmund, is a “free agent,” able to reclaim the Rhinegold, which the runes that serve as the Germanic Logos prevent Wotan himself from doing. Wotan sinks into despair, crying “Den Freien muss sich selbst schaffen; Knechte knehte ich nur.” This “free-agent,” the Law unto Himself, is of course Siegfried: a product of fraternal incest (an abomination), beholden to the gods for nothing. He alone can restore his father’s sword (which divine power had broken) by filing it to powder, resmelting it, and forging it anew. Nothung is recreated by the adolescent Übermensch. It is entirely of Siegfried’s doing and with it, he destroys Wotan’s runic spear, heralding an end of the gods’ power.

Pedants, who write program notes, will try to make a villain out of the Don, citing minutiae, like the Don emerging at the end of Act I with a drawn sword, while dragging Leporello behind him. What jejune twaddle! The Don emerges with something that flashes and glitters (pedants forget it’s also theater, that must command the audience’s attention). This is certainly affirmed in the Second Act, where for a purse of coins, Leporello forgets all that has gone before and resumes his servile status. He readily assumes the Don’s hat and cape, to fool that harridan Elvira and get her out of the way (allowing for the exquisite arietta with mandolin). The fact that the Don is not a vicious or violent man is affirmed in the buffa scene (straight out of the commedia del arte), where Masetto (thinking the Don to be Leporello) displays the weapons he has amassed to kill the Don — and receives nothing more than a sound box-on-the-ears. (While we are rewarded with a fine arietta by Zerlina, on how she’ll nurse Masetto — who is back, full of piss and vinegar, in no time.) In actuality, if a “pious” nobleman had been shown an array of weapons an oafish peasant planned to use on him, the nobleman’s chief concern would have been how to clean his sword afterwards.

We must remember that in the ancien régime, opera was an aristocratic entertainment. Among the nobility, seduction was regarded with levity. Schiller’s play Kabala und Liebe — which Verdi “worked over” to fashion Luisa Miller — underscores the grossly different attitudes toward sexual conduct between the classes. Da Ponte casually commented that he rented his over-priced lodgings in Vienna, because the rent included the “ministrations” of the landlady’s sixteen-year-old daughter. (Mozart, on the other hand, confided in a letter to his father, that he had been a virgin at the time of his marriage.) The first three Books of the Tetrateuch are allegorical buffa plots (in which no seduction is sucessful nor sexual act actually consummated): mere titillation masking enormous profundity. With Don Giovanni, the real revelation is the nature of the Übermensch, hidden behind the mask of a frustrated rake.

He is a totally inner-directed person, building a code of conduct upon the faculties all gentlemen possess: conscience, a disdain for violence, and generosity: aperto a tutti quanti; viva la libertà!

He’s no prude. Sex is merely another human need, like food and drink. (The Don’s monomania in the opera is merely a distraction. Da Ponte’s attitude in real life is more in keeping with the Apollinian Canon.) The Pauline idiocy about the “virtues of chastity” is just that: idiocy. “Not by bread alone doth man live,” Nietzsche has Zarathusra say, “but also by meat!” — and then slit the lamb’s throat.
His manners are impeccable and his honor inviolable.

In fact, he differs scarcely at all from what Confucius, thousands of years before and within the context of a totally different Race-Culture, called “Manhood-at-his-Best.” The ancient Greeks had ascribed to Apollo the one and only Divine Commandment: Know Thyself! Oscar Wilde pointed out in his remarkable essay, “The Soul of Man Under Socialism,” that while such sufficed for the Ancients, for Faustian Man the maxim must read BE Thyself! Hidden inside of Don Giovanni is the antithesis of that miserable creature described by Nietzsche in Ecce Homo: the “Last Man,” the mindless conformist, materialist, hedonist, and egalitarian: “one herd and no shepherd!”

[. . .]

Don Giovanni brings forth the Übermensch, three-quarters of a century before Nietzsche’s hazy delineation. It also dispels those idols, long exorcized by the rational; but still clung to — even with the images streaming in from the Hubble — still a potent force among those, who dread the idea of “going it on their own.” Forget about the “lechery” — without a seduction. That is there simply to mask the real intent: the delineation of the totally inner-directed Übermensch.

Extract from “Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Apollo’s Anamuensis?,” http://members.fortunecity.com/ursus_major/awmozart.htm#mm [7]