'Giovanni' shows power of passion; Opera: The simplicity of Mozart's Don Juan, coming to the Lyric, is as lovable today as when he was first embraced more than 300 years ago.


From the amorous adventures of the Greek god Zeus to the alleged exploits of the current president of the United States, the Seducer has always captured the imagination of the public. But if one had to elect history's greatest seducer, no candidate could compete with Don Juan -- who also happens to be the subject of the greatest opera ever written, Mozart's "Don Giovanni."

In the Mozart opera, which will be performed tonight in the Lyric Opera House as the first production in the Baltimore Opera Company's current season, Don Giovanni's servant, Leporello, keeps a record of his master's conquests. But the legendary rake of Seville would need another Leporello to keep track of the reinterpretations inspired by his story. (In 1954, in fact, a bibliographer counted more than 8,000.)

Don Juan (Don Giovanni in Italian or Sir John in English) made his first appearance in 1615 in the Spanish playwright Tirso de Molina's "The Trickster of Seville." Subsequently, he was to be a subject for such playwrights as Moliere and George Bernard Shaw, such poets as Lord Byron and Aleksandr Pushkin and such composers as Christoph Willibald Gluck and Richard Strauss.

But Mozart's version is by far the greatest. Before "Don Giovanni," Don Juan was a popular figure; after Mozart, he became an industry.

Something about "Don Giovanni" seems to appeal to an almost adolescent interest in sex that's very much a part of most human beings. How else can one explain the opera's influence and continuing popularity, even among people who ordinarily hate opera? As a character, Don Giovanni is about nothing except his own sexual drives.

In plot essentials, the libretto that Lorenzo da Ponte wrote for Mozart differs little from previous Don Juans. Don Giovanni, after attempting to seduce Donna Anna, kills her father, the Commendatore, and escapes with Leporello. He then woos the peasant girl Zerlina, who is engaged to Masetto.

By the end of Act I, Giovanni is pursued by all the above in addition to Donna Elvira, whom he seduced and abandoned before the opera opens. Act II begins in a churchyard where a statue of the Commendatore mysteriously moves and speaks. Without showing any fear of the supernatural, Giovanni invites the statue to dine with him, and it accepts. Later that night, the statue knocks on Giovanni's door and ushers the unrepentant rogue to hell.

Unique among the greats

Undistinguished by innovation as the plot is, the shadow cast by the character that Mozart's music creates can only be compared to those of the title characters in Shakespeare's "Hamlet," Goethe's "Faust" and Cervantes' "Don Quixote."

But the Mozart character is unlike those three other giants of the creative imagination -- and also unlike every other Don Juan who precedes and succeeds him. Unlike Hamlet, Faust and Don Quixote, Don Giovanni is not a character with a past that explains his motivations and his actions. Indeed, he scarcely seems to be a human being at all but is instead an unadorned embodiment of the male sexual drive. When the disapproving Leporello asks him to mend his ways, Giovanni responds: "Idiot! Don't you understand that women are more important to me than the bread that I eat, the water that I drink and the air that I breathe!" No other great dramatic character has left so little for the psychologists.

Part of Don Giovanni's appeal to the Romantic imagination was that he is an unconventional figure who flouts the rules of society and licenses himself to do what others are denied. In Giovanni's unquenchable appetite for woman after woman, the Romantics believed they saw a hunger for the absolute. Their vision transformed Don Giovanni, in effect, into an idealist in search of the ideal woman -- something that would have startled Mozart's Giovanni, for whom any woman will do.

Enlightened pleasure

Although they may anticipate Romanticism, Don Giovanni and his creator were really latter-day children of the 18th century Age of Enlightenment. One of the great perceptions of that period, in which reason and science gained an equal footing with traditional religion, was that all living things were motivated by pleasure. No wonder, then, that in a time in which moral restraints were called in doubt, interest in Seville's wily seducer approached a peak.

In 1787, the year of "Don Giovanni's" debut in Prague, Goethe visited Rome. Almost 30 years later, he recalled: "An opera called 'Don Giovanni,' which was not Mozart's, was played every night for four weeks, and excited the city so much that no one could bear to live without having seen Don Juan fried in hell, or seeing the Commendatore, as a blessed spirit, ascend to heaven."

At first, Mozart's "Don Giovanni" was not to enjoy the popularity that its rival enjoyed in Rome. But within a few years of the composer's death in 1791, it was revived with enormous success. It is the oldest opera to have remained in the international repertory without interruption from its own time to the present.

That it dramatizes the legend musically may be part of the reason it is the most successful of all Don Juan stories. The subject is, after all, sexual energy -- a subject that the 19th century Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard believed could only be expressed through music and that it could not be expressed more perfectly than it was in "Don Giovanni": "It [sexual desire] is an energy, a storm, impatience and passion so that it does not exist in one moment, but a succession of moments. For if it existed in a single moment, it could be modeled [sculpted] or painted."

One might argue that the subject matter of almost all operas is sexual love. How, then, does "Don Giovanni" differ from such masterpieces as Wagner's "Tristan and Isolde," Verdi's "Otello" or, for that matter, Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro"? The answer is that in "Don Giovanni," sex is raw -- it's power rather than love.

Of all composers, Mozart is perhaps the only one who had dramatic genius sufficiently great to bring so abstract a subject to life.

No explanation needed

One of the most extraordinary things about the hero of "Don Giovanni" is that he does not utter a single self-reflective, lyrically effusive aria. This was something that audiences in Mozart's day expected. In no opera until "Giovanni" does it fail to occur.

But what would Giovanni talk about? And if he did, would it be a more interesting opera? Da Ponte based most of his libretto on one that Giuseppe Bertolatti wrote for Giovanni Gazzaniga's "Don Giovanni," which was written a few months before Mozart's. Mozart had the genius to realize that by choosing not to try to explain human passion he could thereby express its essential mystery. The only instance in which his Giovanni approaches singing an aria in which we learn what he thinks, the celebrated Champagne Aria, sweeps over us like a whirlwind: A torrent of notes jumps from wine to dancing to laughing, only to keep returning to its main subject, which is the anticipation of sexual pleasure. This is music that neither explains nor merely describes what he feels -- it is the thing itself.

If Giovanni is more truly the demonic force of sexual desire than a verisimilar representation of a human being, the other characters -- who are recognizable human beings -- all express his force. As Kierkegaard remarked, "Don Juan's life is the life principle within them. His passion sets the passion of all the others in motion: his passion resounds everywhere he is the common denominator of all the other characters."

Vicarious Leporello

In the famous Catalog Aria, for example, in which Leporello tries to dissuade Donna Elvira from the fruitless pursuit of his master, he compassionately begins by telling her that she is not the first, nor will she be the last, to have been seduced and abandoned by Giovanni. Then he begins to recite the figures from the record he keeps of Giovanni's conquests: In Italy, 640; in England, 11; in tiny San Marino, 97; and so on and so on. As they roll off his tongue, the music assumes a happily chattering quality. "And in Spain," he concludes, "there are 1,003."

At this point comes the only sustained singing in the entire catalog, and there is a heroic, self-congratulatory flourish by the whole orchestra. Even Leporello, a man who professes to detest Giovanni's amorality, is swept into his power. Like the other characters in the opera -- and like those of us who listen to it -- he is so fascinated by his master's life that he lives through Giovanni's exploits and behaves as if he himself had seduced 1,003 "in Spain alone."

But if we judge the power of Giovanni's force (and of Mozart's dramatic genius) by his power to pull the other characters in helpless orbits around him, we also judge it by his power to call down upon himself the wrath of the stone statue. The opera's penultimate scene, in which the hero has the audacity to forswear repentance and -- quite literally -- to arm-wrestle with God before being swept off to hell, was so beloved by the 19th century that many performances of "Don Giovanni" ended with it.

Giovanni has been vanquished -- as he only could be -- by a force superior to his. Nevertheless, his sexual energy -- or the absence of it -- has a final word. The remaining characters sing "thus vice is always punished." Then they go their separate ways: Leporello seeks another master; Masetto and Zerlina resume their interrupted wedding plans; Donna Elvira will enter a convent; and Don Ottavio and Donna Anna leave together -- a departure that is qualified by his continued importunities for her hand in marriage and by her indecision about giving it.

Don Giovanni roared through their lives like a hurricane, and the storm has ended. But if their world is now a safer and somewhat happier place, it is also one that is much smaller and less exciting.

'Don Giovanni'

Where: Lyric Opera House

When: Tonight, Oct. 23, 24, 27, 29, 31

Tickets: $25-$104

Call: 410-727-6000

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad