Don Giovanni

Article by James Naughtie, 1996

Though statues don’t speak, and don’t as a rule come to dinner, there is a bigger dramatic problem in Don Giovanni than easing the audience into a world where such things happen. The great seducer himself is not an easy character. Cruel, obviously. Arrogant enough to resist even a last chance to repent at the edge of the pit of fire. A sexual athlete. But he also needs to be someone of whom it can be believed that he had a transcendent attractiveness, a near-hypnotic power, that could accomplish the conquests as advertised, even if the one thousand and three in Spain are accepted as an exaggeration.

This maybe an opera that starts with murder and ends with the murderer paying for his crime, but for the action to move as it should (at breakneck pace) and for the energy and delicacy of the score to be revealed, Don Giovanni himself has to be a convincing lover. You have to understand what it is to like him. I suppose we’d all agree that there are many operas where this doesn’t seem to matter too much. Fat Cavaradossis (of whom there are many) don’t usually destroy the performance of Tosca, perhaps because opera singers are expected by audiences to be rather wild in their choice of men. Figaros come in different shapes and sizes and survive. In many nineteenth century Italian operas it doesn’t seem to matter what the lovers look like, because all that matters is that their entanglements are fact and that the world revolves around them. Don Giovanni is different.

Everything depends on the idea that this man has been able – IS able – to leave the trail of destruction in bedrooms across Europe of which Leporello sings. If it was a comic opera, it wouldn’t matter. But this is a tragedy shot through with moments of human comedy. Mozart and his librettist da Ponte were weaving traditional elements of opera buffa into something that is dark, from the solemn opening chords which point to the descent of Don Giovanni to destruction at the end. Tragedy needs humanity, a feeling of the texture of life in the vale of tears, and above all an element of sympathy. That can only come if the seductions seem to make sense.

To be blunt about it, if Don Giovanni is simply a randy beast with the accoutrements of a lounge-bar seducer, the opera won’t work. And clearly he can’t be just a pretty boy with a winning smile. Neither would be enough to explain the torment of the world he inhabits. He has inspired loyalty (Leporello says he’s going to get away, but we know he never will) and a kind of electric devotion that sets him apart.

There is also menace. What happens in the opera? He kills the father of a woman whom he’s seducing; he tries to break the happiness of a young couple at the moment of their marriage; he is confronted (in Donna Elvira) with the physical evidence of past cruelties; he is challenged by the ghost of his murdered victim and he fails to find the power to understand his own crimes; he dies (usually, of course, in smoke and flames). This is a story that needs a creeping sense of evil as well as the inexorable pull of coming retribution. I remember talking to one opera director who was wrestling with the problem of a singer who has sung many Don Giovanni’s and has his way of doing it. The trouble was that his ‘hero’ wasn’t vile in the least.

The director explained that he had a different view. He wanted Don Giovanni to be the kind of man who gives many other men the creeps, the kind who makes some women he meets want to rush to the nearest bedroom and just as many to rush to the nearest bath to wash away the thought of touching him. He had to be attractive and repellent at the same time. So just before he sang La Ci Darem La Mano – enticing young Zerlina into his arms – the director wanted him to stand still at the back of the stage, almost in the wings, and perhaps to pick a dirty fingernail as he waited. He believed that it had to be a dark moment: too often some kind of romantic convention takes over and the thing loses its real character.

The singer in question found this difficult to do, not least because he wasn’t among the great operatic actors (lacking, for example, the stage presence and timings of Thomas Allen which can produce moments of high theatrical excitement). The idea of standing still was alien; but when he started to do it after days of bullying he found that it worked. At last there was an explanation for the chill that it supposed to run down everyone’s spine when he asks the innocent young bride to put her hand in his.

Ardent he must be, but his clutches must be as ‘barbarous’ as Donna Elvira tells Zerlina they are. Of the three women, Elvira is the one whose texture seems to be the texture of the opera itself: she has loved with great passion and has come to understand herself through her troubles. Donna Anna has little of that about her – and we don’t know, of course, what it was that happened, or didn’t happen, before she and Don Giovanni were discovered by the Commendatore at the beginning of the opera. Zerlina has more innocence than self-knowledge. So it’s in Elvira that the real spirit of this man is revealed: in almost her first words as she rushes on in her cloak she says she wants to get her hands on him and throttle him. She wants to make sure that he pays the price of her mistake in loving him ‘not wisely but too well’, as it was put on another occasion.

Her torrent of remorse and anger is the bloodstream of the opera. Think about how quickly it moves. Within a few minutes we’ve seen Don Giovanni at work as woman-snatcher and murderer, heard his life story, met a remarkable woman whom he’s wronged and who bears the scars, and felt the pull of the disaster that is inevitably going to catch up with him. This is breathless stuff, though of course the energy from the pit is not in the least undisciplined: it has a perfectly-controlled pulse that reminds you when Mozart wrote this, a year after The Marriage of Figaro which surely, for perfection of musical construction, is the greatest of his scores. No-one seems to know if it is indeed true, as some have said, that he wrote the overture for Don Giovanni in three hours on the night before the first performance in Prague, after a happy and bibulous evening – but the score is marked by the kind of confidence, a certainty in mood, that makes it believable.

The weaknesses of the opera – Don Ottavio, for example, is a thin character who is consequently often portrayed as someone we might call a wimp – can usually be overcome by the sheer force that this score, and the central character, can create. By the time it is nearly finished there is nothing at all odd about the cold hand of the Commendatore’s statue reaching out for Don Giovanni, nor even about a fiery furnace if that is what the director has arranged. In one famous production the horror was encapsulated at that moment in Don Giovanni pulling off his black wig – dishevelled now as he approached his end – and revealing underneath an old man’s head, with a few grey hairs sticking grotesquely to a nearly bald pate. The seducer’s equipment nearly all gone.

There has to be a shaft of pity cutting through the gloom here or the opera hasn’t worked. Like Donna Elvira, who understood what it was to give herself to him and then to feel the marks for the rest of her life, everyone has to know that this man whose power wasn’t a trick but was real. He WAS the great lover as well as the great betrayer; the man who could win loyalty as well as the hatred of his discarded conquests. And there you have it, an opera that takes the most improbable things – even impossible things –and transforms them into emotions we can all understand.

Don Giovanni is not easy to perform, because it is dark as a thunderstorm and light and airy too. That demands an orchestra that can feel Mozart in its bones; it also demands a Don Giovanni himself who understands the difference between character and caricature. If he does, then everyone does. That is what the opera is about.