Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Some thoughts on Mozart and Lorenzo Da Ponte

(Originally published in the Royal Opera's programme booklet for Don Giovanni.)

Lorenzo Da Ponte

Stung by a review of Don Giovanni, which extolled Mozart’s music without so much as mentioning his librettist, Lorenzo Da Ponte cautioned: ‘A poet deserves to be esteemed no less because he labours on a well-known theme’. Poets from antiquity onwards would doubtless nod assent: what often proves of interest is divergence from previous retellings, the Orpheus myth our archetype, rather than inventing an ‘original’ tale. Quality is the thing, Romantic infatuation with originality notwithstanding. Yet librettists do not furnish completed works; ideally, they proffer a springboard for music, even when composer and librettist are one and the same. (That Wagner composed some of Tristan’s music before completing his poem says nothing about æsthetic priority.) Mozart’s libretti were always provisional in nature, pending various musical decisions. He was not unusual in that: consider the richly documented collaboration between Strauss and Hofmannsthal, wherein we read Strauss on Der Rosenkavalier’s opening scene: ‘delightful: it will set itself to music like oil and melted butter … You are Da Ponte and [Eugène] Scribe rolled into one.’ Now we certainly do not perform operas we consider only to boast good libretti, such as those Da Ponte wrote for Salieri and others, yet we speak of ‘Mozart’s Da Ponte operas’ as a particular – and particularly successful – trilogy. For, even if occasional difficulties inevitably arose, Mozart’s working relationship with Da Ponte proved easier and its results more unambiguously triumphant than the composer’s collaborations with other librettists. We have only to glance at earlier treatments of the stories in question to appreciate both men’s contribution. Without elevating Da Ponte over Molière and Beaumarchais, we appreciate that Da Ponte knew or would heed a composer’s requirements, including what should be left open.

Sena Jurinac as Donna Elvira (left) and Donna Anna (right)
For instance, the Romantic claim that Donna Anna desires Don Giovanni has received puritanical criticism, apparently deaf to erotic truths voiced in Mozart’s score. Even from an ultra-literalist reading of the libretto, it is by no means certain that Anna has not been seduced by Giovanni, nor that she has not in some sense sought seduction – and him. Da Ponte’s openness or ambiguity has enabled Mozart’s, or at least the audience’s, further development. Anna can hardly be said to burn with desire for Don Ottavio, though she certainly burns with vengeance and thus with feelings towards her father and Giovanni. The most unambiguously seria and therefore superficially ‘eighteenth-century’ character thus also looks forward towards the tragic conflicts of nineteenth-century opera and drama, Schiller as much as Wagner, just as Idomeneo had harked back to French tragédie lyrique (Gluck, even Rameau) and forward to Don Giovanni. (It did not benefit from a librettist such as Da Ponte though, long remaining ‘problematical.) Nineteenth-century musical drama is not straightforwardly born in opera buffa; it is at least as much a product of dramma giocoso, in which the whole world, socially, politically, sexually, æsthetically, metaphysically, becomes a stage.

In the absence of documentary evidence, we may argue ad nauseam about Da Ponte’s precise intention in calling Don Giovanni a dramma giocoso. However, although Carlo Goldoni neither invented the term nor employed it consistently, it retains the connotation of his operatic reforms, combining parti serie, noble characters from the world of serious opera, with parti buffi from comic opera – servants, peasants, etc. – with music set accordingly. Goldoni also often creates characters lying somewhere in between: di mezzo carattere. Whether or no Da Ponte intended something qualitatively different from Le nozze di Figaro by employing the term ‘dramma giocoso’, and whether Mozart deliberately used another (unlikely), Don Giovanni develops Goldoni’s tradition, not least by introducing ensembles in which serious and comic roles combine – and compete, just as in emergent bourgeois society.

Cesare Siepi as Don Giovanni
The mezzo carettere Giovanni is a nobleman, of course; however, his essence is instability, transforming all around him. It is no coincidence that noblemen would soon stand at the forefront of revolution in France, sans culottes operatically brought onstage by social ‘superiors’. We may note here the wish of Giovanni’s creator, Luigi Bassi, for a full-length aria, the sort of request to which Mozart was generally happy to respond (as in the additional ‘Mi tradì’, for Vienna’s Elvira). With Giovanni, however, avoidance of social typecasting is maintained by denial, upon which neither composer nor librettist seems to have wavered, of such a definitive portrayal. There may have been revolutionary trouble ahead for Almaviva, but the societal dissolution threatened by his licentious successor – ‘Viva la libertà!’ – is quite different: he dances on an existential volcano. Note Mozart’s quite startling emphasis upon Da Ponte’s words: trumpets, kettledrums, martial rhythms, and manifold repetition. The words might have passed for nothing in another setting, yet they had to be there in the first place. Exchange of clothes in the second act may primarily be a comic device, but also dramatises social and sexual tension – and transgression. Giovanni, notably, relishes the role-play more than Leporello.

Moreover, and this is Da Ponte’s doing, Giovanni is the only character to connect the other members of a small principal cast. He is socially cohesive, connecting noble Anna and peasant Masetto, and socially corrosive, undermining those orders or estates upon which such different social and musical characters rest. Elvira comes closest otherwise, but her (gendered) concerns relate entirely to her own feelings: she has no connection with the Commendatore. (That said, Da Ponte, let alone Mozart, renders the female characters far more sympathetic than his librettist predecessor, Giovanni Bertati. Likewise, it is Da Ponte’s masterstroke, of which Mozart takes full advantage, to keep the Countess, Figaro’s trump card, up his dramatic sleeve to open the second act.) The celebrated metrical combination and dislocation of socially-defined dances in the first-act finale – aristocratic minuet, middling contredanse, and plebeian Teitsch – are Mozart’s own, whirling eighteenth-century society to the very edge of the abyss, yet they extend rather than contradict Da Ponte’s libretto.

Max Slevogt, The Champagne Aria (1902)
That near-Faustian heroism which is the opera’s most telling legacy to the nineteenth century is most overwhelmingly expressed in Mozart’s music – Nietzsche berated Wagner for allegedly believing that all music must follow the Stone Guest Scene – yet again, Da Ponte is supportive. Tirso de Molina’s ‘original’ Juan, always intends to be pardoned through confession, though his cynicism will not be rewarded, his catchphrase, ‘Tan largo me lo fiáis’ (‘You give me such long credit’), proving in no sense heroic. Molière’s Juan is an atheist whose hypocrisy becomes increasingly marked. The atheist heroism of Da Ponte’s Giovanni intensifies. All three dramas nevertheless possess a fundamental religious element, which other re-tellings, not least the commedia dell’arte, had relegated to supernatural colour. The content-less – in more sense than one – kinetic energy of Giovanni himself, carelessly fizzing away in the ‘Champagne Aria’, is founded upon the libretto’s presentation avant la lettre of Goethe’s negating Mephistopheles. It finds fulfilment in our hero’s definitive self-opposition to the Commendatore’s tragic voice of orthodoxy. A-theism is defined by absence, negation.

Luigi Bassi as the first Don Giovanni
By contrast, Leporello, superstitious though probably in everyday practical terms a cheerful agnostic, cannot achieve his master’s atheist heroism. Leporello’s buffo interjections remain just that: interjections into a drama transformed verbally and musically, the dotted, neo-Baroque rhythms of both strings and Giovanni’s vocal line conveying otherworldly gravity. Mozart, as he would in his Requiem, pours proto-Wagnerian chromatic wine into Handelian bottles, less creating a mismatch – for the languages are not so very far apart – than permitting slight disjuncture so as to suggest new metaphysical vistas. Archaic trombones reach back further in musical history to recall not only the equali of Habsburg state funerals, not only Handel’s Saul and Israel in Egypt, but above all their ancient association with death and the supernatural. Mozart had employed three trombones in his early Waisenhausmesse, KV 139, its ‘Crucifixus’ an extraordinary premonition of the Day of Judgement. Here, however, such intimations attain final consummation. Christ’s Passion is relived and transformed through a Fall prefiguring Tristan in atheistic defiance, the more telling granted the Roman Catholicism of Mozart and the Abbé Da Ponte.

For we should understand Mozart’s operas better if we attended more closely to his sacred music, Stravinsky’s ‘Rococo sweets of sin’. Da Ponte certainly renders the peasant couple, Biagio/Masetto and Maturina/Zerlina more rounded characters than in the earlier Bertati-Giuseppe Gazzaniga opera. Crucially, however, Da Ponte introduces their loving reconciliation (‘Vedrai, carino’), fully exploited by a composer peerless in expressing the miracle of forgiveness. Its locus classicus lies in Figaro, the Countess’s radiant benediction vouchsafing not only human but divine grace, Da Ponte’s direction that the Count kneel before her when seeking forgiveness having set the theological scene. Man’s sinful nature is not denied, for we do not believe that the Count will remain faithful; nor, despite Da Ponte’s necessary excision of Beaumarchais’s most provocative political challenges, do we believe that the feudal society upon which Almaviva’s power rests will remain standing. Yet that ambivalently redemptive precedent renders all the more devastating Così’s non-redemptive non-resolution: further Mephistophelian negation in an unspeakably cruel ‘school for lovers’. Mozart’s most sweetly seductive sado-masochism, ravishing horns of cuckoldry (Fiordiligi’s ‘Per pieta, ben mio’) lingering long in the mind’s ear, lays bare the cruellest truths of the catastrophic delusion we name romantic love. It proceeds furthest beyond the ‘merely’ cynical libretto, which has nevertheless acted as springboard: added to, subverted, deepened. If Don Giovanni’s closing moral is not quite sung through its successor’s clenched teeth, it attains in its after-shock an almost Brechtian alienation, Giovanni’s challenge unforgotten. Further disruption and dislocation are deferred, but that is all. In all three operas, we travel pre-emptively beyond Wagner: further each time, redemption and transcendence first undercut and eventually unattainable. For Da Ponte and Mozart, there can be no Liebestod.

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