Sunday 2 February 2014

Ending Don Giovanni

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.

For it is, of course, true that, for all our latter day reverence for the musico-dramatic work concept, Don Giovanni has experienced a chequered history in that respect. Indeed, more often than not conductors and/or directors even today will opt for a conflation of Mozart’s versions for Prague and Vienna: largely, one fears, a matter of bowing to singers’ – and audiences’ – demands for extra arias rather than out of genuine dramatic conviction. It is, of course, a hard pill to swallow, to lose one of Donna Elvira’s arias and one of Don Ottavio’s; the Vienna duet between Zerlina and Leporello is generally considered no great loss. However, there has yet to be mounted a dramatic, as opposed to pragmatic, justification for offering the now commonplace succession of arias in the second act. (I might, for instance, hazard a possible explanation, as Devil’s Advocate, in the guise of heightening the elements of opera seria display, striking a blow against Wagnerian notions of dramatic cohesion and continuity, but that case remains to be made.)

More extreme measures, however, were taken in the more distant past. Berlioz, writing of an 1834 Paris staging, was moved to lament:

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.

There persisted, furthermore, the Romantic tradition of omitting the final scene – which, as we have seen, may or may not have some warrant in Mozart’s practice in 1788. For the Mozart year of 1906, Mahler in Vienna not only altered some of the orchestration, made cuts both of complete arias and ensembles and also within certain numbers, and interpolated the finale to Mozart’s Divertimento in B-flat major, KV 287/271h. In a practice that was already being questioned, he and his director, Alfred Roller – the latter, of course, also a crucial figure in the history of Wagner staging – concluded with Don Giovanni’s descent into Hell. Whereas to many modern audiences, and certainly to me, the final sextet introduces a note of bracing, almost Brechtian alienation, framing the action in a sense that both harks back to more ancient traditions as well as looking forwards beyond Romanticism, there was for Mahler and Roller nothing more to say at this point, notwithstanding the oddness of what therefore became the final cadence. However, as Henry-Louis de La Grange notes, even in that fin-de-siècle context, many other recent productions of Don Giovanni had included it, notably that given by Ernst von Possart in Munich. (Possart was the actor for whom Strauss wrote his 1897 melodrama, Enoch Arden.)

The ‘tradition’ seemed to have died out; Furtwängler, whom, amongst post-war conductors, some might have suspected of harbouring such tendencies, certainly did not continue it. (Much to his credit, I am tempted to say.) And then, Claus Guth staged the work as part of a Da Ponte trilogy for the Salzburg Festival, Don Giovanni first seen in 2008 – a little more than a century after Mahler, and thus almost as distant from him as he was from Mozart – and revived in 2010. (Note the transition from speaking of Mahler’s or Furtwängler’s Don Giovanni to the director’s.) The premise, as revealed in a brief programme discussion, was that:

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.

The familiar conflation of the score was employed, barring the Leporello and Zerlina duet. (It seems had been included in 2008, then cut in 2010, when I saw the production.) I found myself quite unprepared for the absence of the final scene, not having been made aware beforehand. Yes, expectations were confounded, which can sometimes be a good thing in itself, and yes, of course there was the Romantic-Mahlerian tradition to which to appeal. In context, however, the feeling of straightforward incompletion was jarring rather than fruitful. It was difficult to avoid the suspicion that Guth had simply misunderstood the nature of the sextet. Its alienation effect might have rendered both work and production more interesting; without it, we veered dangerously close to melodrama, especially odd given the general tone of the production. The problem was not the decision as such as its placing and indeed the director’s reasoning. Guth claimed that Mozart was ‘bowing to convention’, yet throughout the work Mozart had come close to destroying any such concept; the finale could be understood to be still more radical in this context, inevitably to us suggesting Stravinsky and beyond: the neo-Classicism of The Rake’s Progress or at least Neue Sachlichkeit.

Oliver Knussen understands this very well in his fantasy opera (1984-5, revised 1999), Higglety Pigglety Pop! Both Higglety and Don Giovanni end 'outside' their dramas, in bright if tarnished D major – and the Mother Goose World Theatre surely pays tribute to Stravinsky’s work too. The repetitions of Higglety’s closing-scene gala performance, no mere convention but the time-honoured tradition of a play within a play, unsettle as they should. What do they mean? When will they stop? That is a more radical reimagining than simply not knowing how to conclude.

Tellingly, Mozart’s score in performance begged for completion. It did not chillingly come to a halt, after Wozzeck; it seemed rather simply to stop, awkwardly. Although it was interesting, then, to hear an accidental revival of this venerable ‘version’, in practice, however, the inappropriate context served principally to confirm discrediting of the tradition. Here was an instructive case of a director who seemed to have too little knowledge of, or indeed interest in, the score; ‘respect’ for the work would have expanded rather than lessened performative options.

Let us see then, what happens at the Royal Opera House…