Don Giovanni

Don Giovanni is the perfect example of how a dramma giocoso embodies the very essence of music.

Daniel Barenboim has written the following article for the program book of the new Don Giovanni production by Peter Mussbach, opening at the Staatsoper Berlin in December 2007.

The Italian term dramma giocoso—literally, playful drama—which Mozart applied to the opera Don Giovanni, is at once a contradiction in terms and a definition of the very essence not only of this piece but of music itself. Even the funeral march of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony, on the one hand, or a waltz by Johann Strauss, on the other hand, inevitably contains an element of its emotional counterpart. The simple act of producing sound is a life-affirming act, which both deepens and relieves the sense of tragedy in the funeral march. Conversely, the Strauss waltz that may be perceived as pleasant and entertaining could also contain elements of less light-hearted sentiments.

The introduction to the overture of Don Giovanni begins with the music which later announces the arrival of the Commendatore’s statue in the second act, which culminates in the hero’s demise. The end of the introduction follows uninterruptedly into the main Allegro; the repeated notes in the strings remain constant, yet transform the character of the music. In the introduction, they may seem to represent agitation or anguish, but as soon as they move from the violas and second violins to the celli, marking the end of the Andante, the gravity of the introduction is instantly transformed into an open Allegro. Although the speed of the repeated notes remains unchanged, the tempo is quadrupled and the harmony moves into major.

Don Giovanni is the perfect example of how a dramma giocoso embodies the very essence of music. Throughout the opera, the more the subjective situation of a character becomes tragic, the more comic is the objective situation and vice versa. For instance, the catalogue aria of Leporello (“Madamina, il catalogo”) in the first act, in which he recounts the endless (and probably unsuccessful) exploits of his master is extremely humorous for Leporello, but shockingly tragic for Elvira, who thus discovers Giovanni’s unfaithfulness. The musical parallel of the dichotomy of subjective and objective situations on the stage can be found, among others, in the tempo changes. Often, as in the overture, the pulse does not change from one section to the next, but instead is either doubled or halved, creating the sense, throughout the constant transformations of character in the music, that the tragic exists within the comic and the playful within the serious. One could say that the meter remains objective while the music expresses the subjective views of the characters or of the composer himself.

Mozart has often been portrayed as a childlike—if not childish—but inspired genius whose God-given talent allowed him to pour forth works effortlessly, as if dictated by some divine power. The fact that he was a genius, however, and therefore able to compose faster than anyone else, must not obscure the complex thought processes that went into the creation of his music. In reality, he was a thoroughly and rigorously trained musician who also possessed a remarkable understanding of human nature and a formidable intellectual capacity. All of this is evident in the development of the characters in his operas and in the unique fantasy which led him to create a highly individual harmonic world which he carefully crafted, attending to the most minute details of instrumentation and orchestration. His use of clarinets and oboes is one example of the care taken to differentiate the orchestral sound. The oboes obviously have a more penetrating expressive sound, whereas the clarinets have a unique, mellow quality to their sound. There is not a single symphony which includes both oboes and clarinets (with the exception of his second version of Symphony no. 40, which he later rewrote, adding clarinets), and only one concerto, the c minor piano concerto KV 491. It is significant, then, that Mozart found the clarinets to be the better partners for Elvira’s entrance and her aria “Mi tradì quell’alma ingrata”, while the oboes play the main woodwind role in Anna’s arias. Did he see Elvira as a mellower character? Or did he find Anna’s desperation better mirrored by the sound of the oboes?

Mozart’s use of trombones is quite rare; only a handful of his works include them. Two prominent examples of these are the cemetery scene in Don Giovanni, in which the statue of the Commendatore invites him to dinner (followed by his arrival), and the Tuba Mirum of the Requiem, where the trombone plays an equally important part as the solo singers. He was so precise on this issue that the theme in the beginning of the overture of Don Giovanni is presented without trombones. However, when the same theme returns near the end of the second act to announce the arrival of the Commendatore, the sustained chords include trombones, thus adding another dimension to the sound, making it not only louder but fuller and darker, befitting the entrance of a supernatural character. The theme undergoes a transformation through its orchestration, just as Giovanni himself is transformed by the Commendatore’s death.

There are, in fact, two different Giovannis in the opera: the one who exists before the Commendatore’s death, and the one who is left with the consequences of murder afterwards. The first Giovanni is practically nonexistent, as the duel takes place in the first scene of the first act. This development, however, conditions all of the successive events of the plot, and one must understand the complexity of this development in order to follow the way the death has changed his relationships, his way of living and the course of his life. It is not that he was simply a murderer. One must feel the transformation that takes place in him after the murder despite the very brief period of time he has on stage beforehand. The central issue of the drama is how something so banal as a duel (as it was at that time) inevitably changes his life completely, as well as the lives of those around him. Giovanni is not essentially a diabolical character with sinister intentions, nor does he long for the fusion of Eros and death, a theme developed so thoroughly by Wagner from another perspective. Giovanni leads his life in every moment the way he pleases, in absolute sincerity, without considering the consequences.

The other characters, independent as they may be, revolve around him as if their existence were meaningless without his presence. They are not merely satellites trapped in orbit around a far grander being, though; they are autonomous personalities, each one touched, in his own way, by the death of the Commendatore. In my opinion, it is no coincidence that Mozart did not write a grand aria for Giovanni. It is his way of saying that he is not the only meaningful person on the stage. An aria affords an operatic figure the opportunity to share his most intimate emotions and anxieties, and this privilege is granted to all the victims of Giovanni’s impulsiveness: Anna, Elvira, Ottavio, Zerlina, and Leporello. Giovanni’s psychological development must be therefore inferred solely from his interactions with the other characters, in ensembles and recitatives.

Shortly after the murder, in a telling revelation of its impact on him, Giovanni forbids Leporello to speak of the Commendatore: “purché non parli del Commendatore”—nur den Komtur, den lass’ mir aus dem Spiele (Act I, Scene 4, recitative). This particular death, and the subject of death in general, are taboo in his world. Giovanni senses that something completely out of the ordinary has transpired, and he cannot measure the degree to which it will radically change his destiny. Nevertheless, at the end of the first act, he remains impenitent, remorseless and arrogant: “Ma non manca a me coraggio.”—Doch soll nie mein Mut erliegen. He is certain that terrestrial justice is powerless over him. Until the statue of the Commendatore appears in the second act, this proves to be true, and the plot remains realistic, based on human actions and human nature. With the Commendatore, however, Mozart introduces a higher justice, a sudden metaphysical dimension which returns us to the moment of the murder in the beginning of the opera. At this point the cyclical nature of the drama becomes clear and we see that this, the introduction of divine justice, was already inherent in the murder itself, and that the drama has been propelled to this moment with the inevitability of the Commendatore’s theme with its relentless dotted rhythms.

In order to capture the deeper sense of this seemingly bizarre dramatic construction, one must regard the entire opera first through the eyes of Giovanni, then through those of Leporello, and finally from Ottavio’s point of view. Ottavio, who is often portrayed as a somewhat ambiguous, if not weak character, is in fact not the least bit ridiculous, and the proof lies in the importance of the music Mozart writes for him. Perhaps Ottavio is a friend of Giovanni’s, perhaps even an intimate friend. It is not explicitly described this way in the score, but I find it highly probable. The fact that Giovanni seduces a peasant woman like Zerlina is not disconcerting to him; among aristocrats, this is perfectly acceptable behaviour. To do the same with a woman of his own class, however, no less than Ottavio’s fiancée, is truly disturbing, and to murder her father in the process, even if unintentionally, unforgiveable; Giovanni breaks the unwritten rules of the cavalier and now appears to Ottavio a blasphemous individual, one who disregards moral principles and norms.

How far the physical contact went between Giovanni and Anna is immaterial, and speculations of this nature are too base for the subject at hand: namely, that Giovanni awakens feelings in Anna previously unknown to her. Mozart’s only musical insinuation as to what may have taken place between them is the way in which Anna describes the encounter to Ottavio. At the end of her, “Entrar io vidi in un mantello avvolto un uom”— Ein Mann hereintritt, gehüllt in einen Mantel. —(Act I, Scene 13, recitative), the orchestra holds a very sustained chord, after which there is a breathless moment of silence, followed by “che al primo istante avea preso per voi.”—Im ersten Augenblicke wähnt’ ich Dich, Freund, mir nahe. The music tells us that Ottavio would prefer not to know any more than Anna wants to tell him. “ Da lui mi sciolsi…”—mich endlich befreite—Anna then says, confessing an embrace. Nevertheless, poor Ottavio replies: “Ohimè, respiro”—Wohl mir! Ich atme wieder—he seems relieved by her explanation. As I see it, his exhalation symbolizes his acceptance of whatever has happened and his contentedness with her love alone. As long as her fleeting passion for Giovanni has not interfered with her devotion to him, he is magnanimous enough to overlook a surreptitious embrace and convince himself to accept her rather dubious narration.

If Ottavio is often wrongly portrayed as a sheepish and humiliated lover, Elvira can be equally misunderstood as an obsessive and hysterical woman who is unable to get over Giovanni’s rejection of her. When we look more closely, however, we notice her effect on him as a woman still so powerfully attractive that he is able to recognise her scent: “Zitto: mi pare sentire odor di femmina…”—doch still, mir ist, ich atme süssen Weiberduft (Act I, Scene 4, recitative). This moment is portrayed in many productions as commonplace, but is in fact an allusion to the fact that their relationship is not entirely over. Elvira, far more than just an infatuated ex-lover, remains a magnet for Giovanni. Mozart shows this above all through the modulations that take place in the orchestra while she sings. The modulations that support the melodic flow in “Mi Tradi” often reveal aspects of a character that are not obvious in the libretto.

Just as the vocal melody alone represents but one aspect of a character’s personality, a quartet or sextet in a Mozart opera is never simply a quartet or sextet. It is an opportunity for division into smaller groups and individuals, whereby the private and possibly subversive intentions or views of each member or smaller group may be revealed as an aside. Every single voice may be simultaneously saying something completely different. Despite the different texts, though, there is a definite sense of organization, sometimes with main and subsidiary voices, sometimes with combinations of a number of main voices and some subsidiary ones. Mozart’s operatic ensembles explore all the possible combinations inherent in the number of voices. A quintet, for example, can consist of one unit made up of the 5 voices, or any of the following combinations: 2+3; 4+1; 2 +1+1+1; 2+2+1; or 3 +1+1. In each case, the roles can be exchanged during the course of the ensemble piece; the two voices singing together can begin to sing different parts, and their unity can be replaced by two other voices. Mozart makes use of all of these possible combinations of the ensemble in order to serve the development of the plot and give us an insight into the individual position of each character and his or her alliances.

It has been extremely interesting to be able to restudy and rethink this piece with the same cast—with only one exception—in two different productions. I had the good fortune to be able to musically completely restudy this work in the old production of the Staatsoper during our trip to Japan in October 2007, and it is with great joy that we now embark on this new production.