|Lorenzo Da Ponte|
|Sena Jurinac as Donna Elvira (left) and Donna Anna (right)|
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|
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)|
|Luigi Bassi as the first Don Giovanni|
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.