You’ll have to excuse this bit of almost-liveblogging. It is totally self-indulgent.
Bob (Thank you Bob!)sent me a CD of highlights of the old Karl Bohm Don Giovanni a few weeks ago. This gift mainly whetted my appetite and increased my determination to get the whole thing. I found it at last, ordered it, loaded it in the iPod right away and listened to nothing else over the Labor Day weekend. I mean, I had it in the iPod and in the CD player in my car. By the end of the three-day weekend I had listened to it four times. Don Giovanni was the first Mozart opera I listened to, when I was in grad school. I don’t remember a time when it seemed inaccessible. This recording, made in the 1960s, is awesome; it has Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in the title role, the amazing Martti Talvela as the Commendatore, and Birgit Nilsson as Donna Elvira. Fischer-Dieskau sings – he doesn’t shout. The effect is a suggestion of untapped vocal riches, as though whatever the music demands he will produce with the same ease and expressiveness. And apparently there was no note so deep that Martti Talvela couldn’t sing it. Everybody in this performance was a wonderfully LARGE voice, and yet, the pacing never slows down to let anybody be a ham. It keeps moving dramatically and musically; it holds you.
Mozart didn’t invent the story of Don Juan and The Stone Guest; it had been around for a while in several versions. But everything I’m saying about it here comes from the story as it is told through the music, where Mozart gives the story his distinct imaginative vision.
For a long time my experience of Mozart’s operas was of favorite bits alternating with slightly less favorite bits. The singing was easy for me to get at first, but now what’s started to happen -- the fruit of my long relationship with this opera -- is that the orchestra is becoming more interesting.
For instance there is a sort of lull in the story, near the middle of Act 2, when all the characters are wandering around in the dark, in confusion. They’ve all failed to stop or catch Don Giovanni, he’s even beaten up one of them just for laughs, they are grieving, confused, upset, all in the dark, literally and figuratively. If you only consider the story it seems a dull interlude. Just okay. But the music is what’s really doing the narrative work, because in it, as the other characters close in on Leporello (thinking he’s Don Giovanni) you hear the sound of this grief gathering and turning into a force, ominous and impersonal, and you can follow the music into this emotional state, a feeling that doesn’t belong to any one of the characters. Don Giovanni has caused all these people to suffer, and that suffering is producing a sort of negative moral capital that you hear accumulating in those slow recurring waves. That passage is the voice of the pity and awe that you feel when Mozart invokes the sublime. At those moments he’s giving you a glimpse into the workings of the moral universe. It’s big, it’s impersonal, it’s scary, mysterious, hope and forgiveness the most mysterious parts of all. Like in Act II of The Marriage of Figaro, or in the Tuba Mirum of the Requiem. In the walk through the fire in The Magic Flute, he does it with nothing but this trifling little flute melody. It isn’t power that defeats death, but beauty and love and grace. One of the things I love about Mozart is that he didn’t take sides with the universe against humankind. Mozart was sure that being was good; the universe didn’t play nasty tricks.
Remember Wordsworth’s poem “Resolution and Independence?”
The narrator has this moment of revelation; it’s the moment when he grasps the old leech-gatherer’s uncomplicated assurance that being is good. I’ll tell you, that poem was a revelation of sorts for me, too. Endurance is not a thing you think about much when you’re young, and here was a lovely representation of it. Mozart has something better than endurance: it is being alive as a state of exuberant and affectionate love, so abundant in energy and capacity for experience that being enjoys itself. “Energy is eternal delight,” said William Blake, and this is what he meant.
Don Giovanni is a libertine, but you only see him carry out harmless mischief, not any serious wickedness. (Yes, he kills the Commendatore, but only in a fair fight which he has tried to avoid.) There are two reasons for this. One is decorum, the same thinking that kept the killings off stage in Greek tragedy. You can’t ask the audience to see bad deeds succeed. The second reason is that he’s not impeached by any one single act. It is his unchecked appetites, his energy that are the problem, because they, and the law of honor are the only law he acknowledges. You can’t shame him, you can’t appeal to his pity, because he is just surging with the sense of his own power, with the enjoyment of being himself. This is what sets Mozart’s Don Juan apart from his predecessors. Near the end of Act 1, when he throws the big party and sings the “Champagne” aria, and follows that with “Vive la liberta” inviting everyone to join him in having a roaring good time, the orchestra gives body and breadth to this exultant sense of himself. It is the expression of Don Giovanni’s vitality, of his expansive sense of pleasure in being. What you hear is what he is feeling at that moment, and it is so grand that it seems to have possession of the whole world.
I believe that Mozart could describe vitality because he had it himself. Don Giovanni is a really interesting bad guy because his aliveness is so truly felt. When he exults in his own energies you feel through the music what that is, and you can feel it because Mozart felt it. It feels exciting, compelling, and huge.
It’s the force of this vitality, and that dark counter-energy that you only hear in a few passages, that drives the story on to that amazing last scene. There’s Don Giovanni and his servant Leporello, and they’re having a feast and they’re listening to Mozart’s music. Donna Elvira, who has been seduced and betrayed by him and is beginning to grasp the extent of his other misdeeds and crimes (and is about to discover what huge consequences he has incurred), arrives one last time, out of pity, to beg him to change his life. She’s his last chance on this earth; she’s motivated by a helpless love that Mozart treats with the utmost tenderness. At this moment, that helpless love is indistinguishable from divine grace. Your own chance of redemption could walk in the door just in this way. And the brute laughsat her! The thing is, it is actually funny that she could walk into a scene like this and think she could persuade him to reform his ways, She goes to the house of this thoroughly bad man and finds him embarked cheerfully on another night of scandal, he is moved only to amusement at her effort. As she leaves she is met by a giant marble statue walking in the door, and she screams! The man has monsters at his house now! It’s clear that all hell is breaking loose. You have to laugh, but kindly.
Mozart understood so beautifully how closely contrary feelings lived with one another. He understood the quickness with which one feeling succeeds another. And he could present an experience like this scene in several emotional aspects at once. Fear, admiration, comedy, pity, awe, all simultaneously suggesting something bigger – that this is what experience is like. It is feeling the generosity of Donna Elvira’s effort to save the man she loves, and admiring and being appalled at his splendid, fearless refusal. When he laughs I admire him. I love them both. That Donna Elvira’s effort ends in such a ludicrous failure doesn’t make the effort any less sublime.
Leporello goes to investigate, and then you hear him scream, and he comes back and he’s so frightened he can hardly speak. So Don Giovanni has to get up and go see, and this is when the orchestra “sees” the statue. You hear these chords, they’re like a double take. The first of the two chords is the orchestra screaming too. I like to picture them with their hair all standing on end. Up to now they’ve just been providing the entertainment for the dinner party (as they did in the earlier party scene), playing the libertine’s servant with the same zestful complacency. And then – eeeeeeeeeeeek!
From here the music undergoes a transformation. It has a whole different point of view, one of many such shifts in distance and relation to the characters and the audience that would be a whole study in itself. The orchestra here is not Don Giovanni’s servant any more; it is the breath of divine wrath. If you heard it out of the context you’d never associate it with comedy – and yet the comedy doesn’t stop.
The statue comes in and Don Giovanni orders Leporello to lay a place at the table. “Ah, boss, we’re all dead,” says Leporello. The statue isn’t interested in earthly food. He’s got more important business. He invites Don Giovanni to dinner. “He hasn’t got time, sorry,” says Leporello. Don Giovanni’s courage doesn’t fail him. He accepts the invitation and the statue asks for his hand. “Tell him no! Tell him no!” Leporello cries. Don Giovanni places his hand in the statue’s hand, and the statue demands that he repent. Don Giovanni refuses, and next thing you know the two of them are shouting at each other. “Repent, wretch!” “No, you old dotard!” He keeps refusing until the ground opens beneath him, and a bunch of demons rise up and carry him off to hell, screaming. Nothing less will stop some people, I guess.
That’s just a little of what I’m getting out of Don Giovanni now. There are lots of other bits that I just listen to and wonder at. Why am I telling you this? Partly to share this pleasure that I have, though for you, listening to it would be better than reading this. But if this little account helped you to get more pleasure out of it, that would be something, wouldn’t it?