by Sam Juliano
The writer Gustave Flaubert opined that “the three finest things in creation are the sea, Hamlet and Mozart’s Don Giovanni. The philosopher Kierkegaard wrote that Don Giovanni is a work without blemish, of uninterrupted perfection. Virgil Thomson was no less flattering: “Don Giovanni is one of the funniest shows in the world and one of the most terrifying. It is all about love, and it kids love to a fare-ye-well. It is the world’s greatest opera and the world’s greatest parody of opera. It is a moral entertainment so movingly human that morality gets lost before the play is scarcely started.” Beyond that Shaw, Goethe and Wagner considered it the greatest opera ever written. Today this 1787 canonical work of Western culture continues to hold the stage as one of the most-performed operas worldwide, and the one above all others that is seen as the purist expression of the intellectual and dramatic possibilities of the operatic form. At New York City’s Metropolitan Opera, Don Giovanni has been performed over 500 times in about sixty seasons between 1883 and the present. Surely no other opera has been as debated and analyzed, and no other, with the possible exception of Bizet’s Carmen has been held up as the model, the one work that in a number of ways can serve as a definition of the form.
Opera boasts no villain more unrepentent than the great and terrible Don Giovanni, who in the course of the magnificent work that bears his name, assaults every woman he encounters, kills one man, beats another half to death, and humiliates his serving man regularly – yet nowhere expresses any semblence of remorse, anxiety or sympathy for his victims. Even as he is dragged away to hell, Don Giovanni refuses to save himself, Don Giovanni refuses to save himself by renouncing his crimes. He refuses, even to be afraid. In his relentless consumption of women, his disregard for the dignity of others, and his steadfast inability to experience human emotion, the Don is a monster. But he’s a glorious monster, who remains heroic in his willingness to accept the consequences of his acts. While virtually every other character in the opera calls out for help at one point or another, Don Giovanni refuses, and neither expects or desires kindness, companionship or pity, even in his final extremity. His profound amorality would seem to place Don Giovanni in contemporary times, rather than the hero of an eighteenth-century opera composed by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
And yet, by Mozart’s time, the legend of Don Juan was already antiquated, so much so that its origins are obscure. By 1787, when Mozart crafted his own interpretation, the tale had already appeared in numerous forms, including a play by Moliere, and more usefully for Mozart and Lorenzo da Ponte, his librettist, an opera by Giuseppe Gazzaniga. Nothwithstanding the Don’s pervasiveness, the story was dismissed as ridiculous and vulgar by nearly every critic and intellectual of the era. The only explanation for its frequent adaptation was seemingly its indisputable popularity with everyone else. This drawing power is probably what attracted Mozart to the tale, for he was composing the opera for Prague, then considered a provincial backwater where the audience was likely to prefer the spectacular to the elevated. Though it was apparently received with acclaim in that city, Don Giovanni was disdained in Mozart’s own Vienna. Emperor Joseph II declared that though the music of the opera was beautiful, it was meat too tough for the teeth of the Viennese. Mozart is said to have replied: “Give them time to chew on it.” And of course the composer was right, as a mere quarter of a century after its composition, reverent musicians and audiences were hailing Don Giovanni as the pinnacle of Mozart’s genius.
Joseph Losey saw Don Giovanni as the chance to bring a new sense of urgency to this masterpiece by taking it out of the opera house, utilizing authentic Venetian locations and signing on world class singers, by taking advantage of the visual and audio enhancements that the cinema can enable. In the late 70’s when the film was being shot, the dolby stereo surround process was just being perfected. The diverse director, whose distinguished catalogue includes highly-regarded works like The Criminal, The Servant, The Prowler and The Go-Between reportedly loved jazz far more than opera, but coveted the opportunity to helm a work that could well be seen as the definitive cinematic interpretation. Losey, who was born in Wisconsin, studied in Europe with Bertolt Brecht, and then to returned to direct several films that are now considered to be Hollywood classics. During the McCarthy witch hunts he was blacklisted and moved to the United Kingdom, where his association with Harold Pinter yielded three exceptional films, two aforementioned: The Servant, The Accident and The Go-Between. With some British backing he moved his crew to Italy for the Mozart masterpiece, and applied his personal stamp on the production, though at least a few vocal dissenters claim the film bears nothing of his style or presence. In truth this version of Don Giovanni bears both thematic and aesthetic simularities to earlier works, including a few of the Pinters. Elements of bisexuality, narcissism and sado-masichism present in Don Giovanni are found in The Servant with the servant and master relationship and in The Accident between master and pupil. In Losey’s Monsieur Klein and The Big Night there is a pervading ‘father’ theme that is of course a major concern of Don Giovanni, as well as a venue for personal crisis, where the character is learning the truth about himself. The use of mirrors runs through much of Losey’s work including Don Giovanni, where the elusiveness of truth is a major theme. And then there are the sets which in a Losey film invariably reflect ‘frame of mind.’ This is compellingly displayed in Mister Klein, The Servant and The Accident, but one can also see this in some of the earlier films and in The Go-Between. It is nowhere as apparent as in Don Giovanni, where the psychological underpinnings are the very essence of the story. Elements of fire and water are trademark allegorical devices, and again they inform in large measure the state of mind.
Much like his contemporary the prolific opera master Franco Zeffirelli, Losey favored traditional interpretations, which of course allowed for some arresting cinematography, costume and locations, which were superbly embellished by superlative lighting, (which harkens back to the director’s theatrical background.) Techically the film is often brilliant – the use of Palladio’s Villa Rotunda Venetian mansion provides a ravishing backdrop for the performances. This is a Don Giovanni of light and shadow, of rich tapestries and provocative close-ups, where arresting images and framing abound. Much of the credit must go to cinematographer Gerry Fischer and art director Alexandre Tauner, who have made the most of the choice settings. Losey excels with his direction of the female characters – whose roles are so vital to the dynamic of the piece. The scene where Donna Anna recognizes the murderer of her father is chilling – image, tone and performance coming together in perfect harmony. Her character is balanced with the resigned, but determined Donna Elvira, who believes despite all evidence that Don Giovanni’s salvation can still be somehow attained, and the flighty and independent Zerlina, who believes she can handle the cavalier (and her husband Musetto) on her own terms. The male characters of course persusively imbue the black humour, complicity and latent homosexuality that can be drawn from the relationship between Don Giovanni and his valet Leporello.
The transference from stage to screen is no hinderance for the splendid performers who carry home the day with beauty and power. Ruggero Raimondi is true to Mozart and Da Ponte’s characterization: he’s cold, sinister and shameless and he posesses a powerful voice. Kiri Te Kanawa as Donna Elvira has always been a vocal seductress with her smooth as silk voice, and she delivers one of her finest performances. Edda Moser as Donna Anna is emotionally expressive and Jose Van Dam is marvelously elegant as Leporello, Teresa Berganza is a sympathetic Zerlina, even if she’s admittedly too old for the part, John Macurdy as Il Commendatore leaves a haunting impression, and only Kenneth Riegel as Ottavio is unimpressive.
In any case, getting back to the work, it can be safely asserted that the death of the Commendatore and his revenge are the most essential parts of the opera. Gazzaniga’s opera, (the source for Da Ponte and Mozart) which was in turn based on other sources, was based on those essentials, but it was only one act. Da Ponte and Mozart had to fill out the time between the Commendatore’s death and his reappearance in the form of the avenging statue. Apart from a call to repentence and a supernatural warning, no events have any real bearing on the denouement, since the Don is not defeated by any human revenge or pursuit. The rest of the opera is therefore filled with the opera-buffa game of disguises. Historical accounts have revealed that Da Ponte later claimed that Mozart had wanted to write a serious opera and had to be persuaded to add the comedy. Mozart may never have even considered if he was writing about crime and punishment or divine vengeance, since most of his operas had concluded in the theatrical convention of divine or imperial clemency; this time the divine intervention was simply of the opposite sort. Still, this was the first opportunity since Idomeneo to write serious, heroic and tragic operatic music. Mozart can invariably be compared to Shakespeare, not least for the mingling of laughter and tears, but while Shakespeare used the powerful close juxtoposition of tragedy and comedy, he surely has no parallel to Don Giovanni’s last scene in which the great heroic duet with the Commendatore is not merely followed, as Duncan’s murder is, but actually accompanied by the patter of the buffoon.
The music of Don Giovanni contains some of Mozart’s most extraordinary and unforgettable compositions. In Act I, with “Madamina! il catalogo e questo” Leporello boasts of his master’s triumphs: “Here are valid statistics of his conquests from border to border. In Italy, six hundred and forty, and so forth.” This is followed by a tender duet between Don Giovanni and young Zerlina, inviting her to his castle (“La ci darem la mano”) which implores her to become his wife. Then a short, beautiful trio with the three maskers, Don Ottavio, Donna Anna and Donna Elvira, “Protegga il giusto cielo,” asking for heaven’s help. The mood of the music at the end of the ballroom scene quickly changes from farce to near-rape. Other memorable arias include “Deh, vieni alla finestra”, the Don’s soft serenade to Elvira’s maid; “Il mio tesoro,” Ottavio’s request to friends to stay with Anna while he persues Giovanni, and then Donna Alvira’s “Mi tradi” where she cries: “He betrayed my love and honor. Though I hate him for his shameful deeds, I still pity him. But my heart speaks of vengeance.” Another lovely aria is Donna Anna’s “Non mi dir” (“Say No More”), in which she says she can’t consider marriage while her thoughts are on her murdered father. Of course Mozart sounds a deeply tragical note at the outset of his overture. The introduction is an “Andante”, which he drew from the scene of the opera in which the ghostly statue of the murdered Commandant appears to Don Giovanni while he is enjoying the pleasures of the table. Two groups of solemn chords command attention and “establish at once the majestic and formidable authority of divine justice, the avenger of crime.” They are followed by a series of solemn progressions in stern, sinister, unyielding, merciless, implacable harmonies. They are made to sound like the colossal strides of approaching Fate, and this awfulness is twice raised to a higher power, first by the violins. Former director of the New York Philharmonic, Lorin Maazel, served as conductor of the L’Orchestre de l’Opera National de Paris, and his reading here for Losey’s film remains one of the finest on record.
In the ever tenuous world of the opera film, where disperate arts simultaneously converge and stand apart, Joseph Losey’s Don Giovanni is one of the most consummate achievements in validating film’s natural kinship to an ancient art form.
How Don Giovanni made the ‘Elite 70.”:
Pat Perry’s No. 15 choice
Sam Juliano’s No. 16 choice
Allan Fish’s No. 27 choice
Here is the trailer to the film: