Brian Sewell on Mozart and Don Giovanni

Article by Brian Sewell, 1996

Tragedy, comedy or farce? A severely critical tale of modern morals, perhaps, to match Hogarth’s Marriage a la Mode, or an old allegory of vice succumbing to stern virtue, its ancient roots both Christian and Classical? A caricature of the life of Casanova, notorious philanderer, Lothario extraordinary, with a “Fie upon you” fate to add a touch of terribilita? A comment on court life all over Europe, of sex and seduction camouflaged by frills and furbelows, fichus and fans, made decorous by the rituals of kow-tow and compliment?

Mozart’s Don Giovanni was, in part, all these, for he know the courts of Europe well, both princely ecclesiastical and imperial secular, and his librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte, knew the seducer too; their classification of the plot was Dramma giocoso, facetious and humorous, intended to draw laughter from the belly, but a drama nevertheless, though some may now see it as a horror comedy. We must not forget, however, that Mozart was a devout Catholic, with all that that entailed in guarding against the tyranny of the unruly member, whose sexual life appears to have been devoutly moral – a virgin on his marriage to Constanze Weber, and never a prank known beyond the purlieus of their marriage bed. Nor must we forget that in 1784, three years before he wrote the opera, Mozart had been initiated into the Masonic Order, a secular force for moral harmony that suited well the Age of Reason and Enlightenment; he did not in full express his devotion to this secret anti-clerical society until he wrote The Magic Flute in 1791, but something of its critical propriety is present in his Don Giovanni of 1787, in the terrible fate inflicted on his anti-hero by a stone monument that stands for the austere antique classical abstractions of nobility, justice, virtue, gravitas, and who, as a patrician, is, even posthumously, responsible for the wise ordering of society. Not only does the Commendatore embrace the ideals of the ancient Roman senator, but those of Charles Kingsley’s dreadful Mrs. Do-as-you-would-be-done-by and Mrs. Be-done-by-as-you-did. The original title of Don Giovanni was Il Dissoluto, The Libertine punished.

The Viennese audience that was first, in 1786, to hear The Marriage of Figaro, had been, apart from the opening night, slightly po-faced in its response, allowing it only nine performances; in Prague, however, in the dark December of the year, it was greeted with such wild enthusiasm that Mozart and Constanze made their way to the city to stay with Count Thun (a change from dining in the servants’ hall below the valets of his erstwhile employer, Archbishop Colloredo, and from the kick up the arse delivered by his steward), and found a riotous public clamouring to pay homage, whistling, dancing and singing his music in the streets of the Austrian Empire’s second city. As a consequence of such success, Mozart, by then thirty-one but no taller than the boy he had been when still an adolescent prodigy, insufferably conceited, said his enemies, and so vain and foppish in satin, lace and fashionable wig that sober visitors to the imperial court once mistook him for a flunkey, was commissioned to compose another opera, the choice of subject his, to be ready by October.

The libretto of Figaro, the characters rounded, the plot developed by a steady hand, the tale well told to balance comedy with pathos and let Mozart draw the tears with sublime music, with neither longeur nor loose end, had been written by da Ponte, and, recognising his subtle contribution to the great success in Prague, Mozart again sought his collaboration. Born near Venice in 1749, Lorenzo was five years Wolfgang’s senior and almost equally precocious in his field, ordained priest and appointed Professor of Humanities in 1773, but six years later he discovered the penalty for adultery to be unfrocking and banishment from Venice. In 1782 he settled in Vienna and was appointed poet to the court opera, compelled to hack librettos for Salieri and the other music drudges there, each described by Mozart’s first English biographer (Edward Holmes, 1845) as inspired by animosity, jealousy, base intrigue and slander against the only man of genius among them – no wonder that after Mozart’s death, da Ponte went to New York to earn his living as a grocer. From his own lubricious experience he had some sympathy with Don Giovanni’s lust, and from Casanova he knew how often the determined ladies’ man might pleasure them – hence Leporello’s catalogue of conquests, two thousand, more or less, from parlour maid to principessa – and he knew too how easy it is for the lecherer, leaving decisions to his codpiece, so to speak, to damn the consequences and be damned.

Even so, da Ponte, perhaps under too much pressure from other court composers, wrote a ragged text for Mozart, lacking intellectual rigour, with none of the seamless transitions from comedy to pathos, and nothing of the dramatic balance and felicitous perfection that makes Figaro so emotionally compelling; the cardboard characters of Don Giovanni are no more than mouths to sing the music, clowns to play a comic masquerade and busk a tragic end. There are some who argue that Don Giovanni is Mozart’s greatest opera; it may in snatches seem subline, but both libretto and music are evidence of disconnected jottings, of haste and interruption (Eine Kleine Nachtmusik and the String Quartets in C Major and G Minor were all three written on his billiard table in the same months as the opera), and none of us should be surprised that with the first performance scheduled for 14th October 1787, Mozart arrived in Prague only on the first day of the month, sheaves of paper under his arm, parts for Masetto and the Commendatore yet to be composed for Giuseppe Lolli, a baritone whose range he did not know, and quite prepared, it seems, to re-write most of the score. Postponement was inevitable – Figaro was performed on the 14th instead – and the legend has it that even on 28th October, the night before the first performance, the overture had not been written, and Mozart had to scribble it through the small hours, scatterbrained Constanze’s constant gossip keeping him awake as she primed him with the bowls of punch to which he was addicted; next day, the orchestra thumped through it unrehearsed.

Giacomo Casanova was in Prague to see the opening night, and he and the city’s worthy burghers gave Don Giovanni as great an ovation as they had given Figaro – from a contemporary report we learn that “Nothing like this has ever been given in Prague; Mozart himself conducted (to the benefit of the overture, no doubt), and when he appeared in the orchestra, was hailed by a triple acclamation.” A few months later the Viennese recognised the opera for the hotchpotch that it is and damned it as chaotic, unmelodic and difficult, and it was not again sung in Vienna until after Mozart’s melancholy death in 1791. Prague, however, clung to it and by the year of its centenary, had witnessed five hundred and thirty-two performances of Don Giovanni – many more than any other city. It did not reach Covent Garden until 1817, adapted then for English taste (whatever that may mean) by Henry Bishop, the overgrown jockey (failed Newmarket) engaged as Musical Director there (plus ca change). It reached New York in 1826, brought there by da Ponte, who had given up his grocer’s shop and was working with Manuel Garcia, an ageing Spanish tenor, to establish an Italian Opera company – a touching image, an old man of seventy-seven sitting in the audience at the Park Theatre on 23rd May, remembering Mozart, the Austrian who preferred his opera to be sung in German. The most deplorable scenery ever provided for Don Giovanni was a confusion of arches by Henry Moore, identical to that on the bank of the Serpentine, recently collapsed. “Non mi  dir…”