`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.

October 21, 1999|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

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.

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