Kasper Holten’s new Royal Opera production of Don Giovanni has caused quite a stir. I cannot comment, since I have not seen it, and shall not do so until 14th. However, one feature I have gleaned from reports – and I should stress that this is second-hand – relates to the ending. Apparently, the opening of the final scene is cut, so that we only hear the final ‘moral’. A journalist claimed earlier today that Mozart had done the same in 1788. Quite how he knew is unclear. It is clearly a sign that investigative journalism is anything but dead, since I am unaware of any Mozart scholar being party to the details of what precisely was performed at those Vienna performances. In fact, of course, we do not know – and that is in many ways more interesting. Mozart may have omitted the final scene completely, or he may not. The 1788 Vienna libretto does not include it, though a Vienna score (not an autograph) does. Moreover, there was also the possibility of a cut within the scena ultima, running from ‘Ah! certo è l’ombra che m’incontrò!’ to ‘Resti dunque quel birbon’; there are four ‘new’ bars, marked Andante, to facilitate that transition. It does not sound as though that is what happened at Covent Garden; even if it were, the intriguing reality remains that we do not know what Mozart (and Da Ponte) did in Vienna, so why claim otherwise? As Julian Rushton points out in his Cambridge Opera Handbook to the work, it may well be the case that different ways of ending the opera were tried out.
There is nothing intrinsically wrong with doing so now, though it seems to me that one ought to have good reason. Another ‘version’ about which we know frustratingly, yet intriguingly, little comes from 1850: Wagner’s lost Zurich revision. He describes it as a Bearbeitung in a letter from early that year to Theodor Uhlig, and speaks of having 'carefully nuanced' (sorgfältig nüancirt) the orchestra, made a new translation, and various other changes, which, without a score, it is not always easy fully to understand. That is, of course, if we take what he has to say not only at face value - there is no particular reason we should not - but also as his final thoughts on a work he would conduct eight months later. In any case, Wagner ends that particularly discussion with the playful, 'Nun genug von dieser Flickarbeit!' ('Now, enough of this patchwork maintenance!') There are extant, tantalisingly, a fragment, discovered in the late 1990s, comprising nine bars of off-stage trumpet cues, also dialogue cues and another fragment of just two bars held by the University of Leipzig. Chris Walton, one of the few to have considered this material, speculates that Wagner’s revisions were less radical than might have been implied, perhaps exaggerated as part of a marketing ploy. At present, however, we might with equal justification speculate otherwise. We simply do not know. Perhaps, however, one day an imaginative and/or foolhardy composer might even dare to enter the mediated realm of reimagining Wagner’s reimagining – aided by a sympathetic director and cast.
It is a pity that it was considered necessary to take various dances, extended, lopped off, reordered, and orchestrated according to the method which seems to me so inimical to musical sense and the interests of art, from other works of Mozart, and insert them into Don Giovanni; without these additions the absolutely pure style of this sublime score, boldly breaking the public habits of the last eight or ten years, might have completed this important revolution.
Moreover, a reference to the Stone Guest scene, ‘the trombones, which have been silent for some time,’ suggests that, in contravention of the score, they had been heard earlier – though, given Mozart’s reorchestrations of Handel, dismay might be misplaced.
Mozart tried to deal with all of our lives in the three hours he had for this opera. But what if he managed to compress everything that moves and occupies us into this framework? We must die. What do we do with our lifetime? Do we conform and subordinate ourselves, do we break out, do we try to fit in or break loose, cut our ties?
Interesting enough so far, but the problem was that Guth’s realisation failed to live up to the promise. What it boiled down to on stage seemed closer to a reality television programme: how would someone with three hours left to live decide to spend those three hours? By taking drugs and trying – unsuccessfully – to have sex with a good few women in a forest, all with the help of a slightly subordinate friend. I say ‘slightly subordinate’, since it was not at all clear what the social relationship between the protagonists might be. Blithely casting aside distinctions of order was one thing, but like many directors, Guth did not provide an adequate substitute.