RAVINIA OFFERS A MAGNIFICENT DON GIOVANNI

When opera arrived in Chicago, Mozart’s masterpiece Don Giovanni lagged behind in public approval. The Chicago Tribune reports that in 1867 “Don Giovanni has literally fought its way into public favor here. When first produced it attracted only musicians who recognized its intrinsic worth. But year after year Don Giovanni audiences grow larger and larger. And last night it accomplished  what it has never done before in Chicago – it drew a crowded house, one of the largest audiences  ever assembled in the Opera House. People have at last begun to recognize that there is music in the immortal work of Mozart, that its instrumentation is rich in effects and that its arias from buffo to tragic are models. Verdi, Bellini, Donizetti and the smaller fry having attained a foothold long ago we are glad that at last there is room for Mozart who had some reputation in his day and was reputed to be quite a musician, and who will live when the florid composers of the Italian school are forgotten.”[i]

Mozart had said, “In an opera, poetry must be altogether the obedient daughter of the music.”

To that end, he took great care in selecting his librettists. In February of 1787 Mozart, in Vienna, asked his old cohort Lorenzo Da Ponte for a new libretto. Da Ponte suggested the legend of Don Juan. In Da Ponte Mozart found a classically educated poet familiar with all of the many tellings of the Don Juan story.  Da Ponte’s The Life of Lorenzo Da Ponte (1819), contains an explanation of why Mozart chose him as his inspirational poet:

“Because Mozart knew very well that the success of an opera depends, first of all, on the poet…..that a composer, who is, in regard to drama, what a painter is in regard to colors, can never do without effect, unless excited and animated by the words of a poet, whose province is to choose a subject susceptible of variety, movement, and action, to prepare, to suspend, to bring about the catastrophe, to exhibit characters interesting, comic, well supported, and calculated for stage effect, to write his recitativo short, but substantial, his airs various, new, and well situated; and his fine verses easy, harmonious, and almost singing of themselves….

Da Ponte had two other librettos in the works, so he appropriated from another libretto, Giovanni Bertati’s 1787 libretto Don  Giovanni Tenorio o sia Il Convitato di Pietra. Into it Da Ponte wove elements from Tirso  de Molina’s El burlador  de Seville, Moliere’s Le Festin de Pierre, and Goldoni’s Don Gionanni Tenorio o sia Il Dissoluto.

Da Ponte worked quickly:

        “I sat down at my table and did not leave it for twelve hours at a stretch – a bottle of tokay to my right, a box of Seville snuff to my left, in the middle an inkwell. A beautiful girl of sixteen (I should have preferred to have loved her only as a daughter, but …) was living in the house with her mother, who took care of the family, and would come to my room at the sound of the bell. To tell the truth, I rang the bell quite often, especially at moments when I felt my inspiration flagging.”[ii]

Offering a suggestion here and there was Da Ponte’s old friend, Casanova himself:

‘Through the years since the opera was written [Casanova] and the Don Juan prototype have become synonymous, while the rascally Leporello is an echo of Casanova’s equally rascally servant Costa. It is known that Casanova was at the first performance of Don Giovanni, so what must have been his thoughts as he watched this portrait created by the friend who knew him so well? It is even possible that Casanova was with Mozart and Da Ponte when they were putting the finishing touches to score and text, for among his papers at Dux there is a sketch, in his handwriting, of what appears to be an alternative version of the escape scene. No one knows how or why it came into being. Nor will anyone know to what extent Da Ponte was reminded of Casanova as he painted his picture of Don Giovanni, but there are many striking parallels. In the opera Giovanni exclaims to Leporello, ‘Women are more necessary to me than the bread I eat or the air I breathe!’ Perhaps, during their long conversations in Vienna, Casanova had expressed exactly these sentiments to Da Ponte”[iii]

Da Ponte joined Mozart in Prague in October. Three weeks later the opera came out.

Chicago celebrated the centenary of Mozart’s death in 1891 with a grand production of Don Giovanni by the Abbey Grau Italian Opera Company fresh from New York’s Metropolitan Opera. The audience in the four-year-old Auditorium Theatre was composed mostly of Germans. Chicago’s elite absented themselves from the performance, perhaps fearing that their presence might be construed as an endorsement of wanton fornication. Nevertheless the audience was treated to a fine production and the applause was frequent and loud.

Antonio Magini-Coletti (1855 – 1912) played the Don. He possessed a big, vibrant, dark-hued voice of outstanding quality., and his breath control was considered exemplary. His Donna Anna was the legendary Lilli Lehmann (1848-1929). W.J. Henderson wrote of her that

“she was possessed of that rare combination of traits and equipment which made it possible for her to delineate the divinity in womanhood and womanhood in divinity, the mingling of the unapproachable goddess and the melting pitying human being.”[iv]

Our age has been hard on the old Don. Critics have called Mozart’s character just about “every name in the  book.” But historically the world saw him quite otherwise. Mozart fan and Don Juan playwright George Bernard Shaw published a short story in August of 1885 entitled “Don Giovanni Explains”. The story relates a strange encounter between an opera goer and the spirit of Don Giovanni on an after-opera train ride. The rake explains his behavior:

“I was a Spanish nobleman, much more highly evolved than most of my contemporaries, who were revengeful, superstitious, ferocious, gluttonous, intensely prejudiced by the traditions of their caste, brutal and incredibly foolish when affected by love, and intellectually dishonest and cowardly. They considered me eccentric, wanting in earnestness, and destitute of moral sense

““Though I was the last of the Tenario family, members of which had held official positions at court for many generations, I refused to waste my time as a titled lackey; and as my refusal was, according to the ideas of my time and class, extremely indecent, I was held to have disgraced myself. This troubled me very little. I had money, health, and was my own master in every sense. Reading, travelling, and adventure were my favorite pursuits. In my youth and early manhood, my indifference to conventional opinions, and a humorously cynical touch in conversation, gained me from censorious people the names atheist and libertine; but I was in fact no worse than a studious and rather romantic freethinker. On rare occasions, some woman would strike my young fancy; and I would worship her at a distance for a long time, never venturing to seek her acquaintance. If by accident I was thrown into her company, I was too timid, too credulous, too chivalrously respectful, to presume on what bystanders could plainly perceive to be the strongest encouragement; and in the end some more experienced cavalier would bear off the prize without a word of protest from me. At last a widow lady at whose house I sometimes visited, and of whose sentiments towards me I had not the least suspicion, grew desperate at my stupidity, and one evening threw herself into my arms and confessed her passion for me. The surprise, the flattery, my inexperience, and her pretty distress, overwhelmed me. I was incapable of the brutality of repulsing her; and indeed for nearly a month I enjoyed without scruple the pleasure she gave me and sought her company whenever I could find nothing better to do. It was my first consummated love affair; and though for nearly two years the lady had no reason to complain of my fidelity, I found the romantic side of our intercourse, which seemed never to pall on her, tedious, unreasonable, and even forced and insincere except at rare moments, when the power of love made her beautiful, body and soul. Unfortunately, I had no sooner lost my illusions, my timidity, and my boyish curiosity about women, then I began to “attract them irresistibly. My amusement at this soon changed to dismay. I became the subject of fierce jealousies: in spite of my utmost tact there was not a married friend of mine with whom I did not find myself sooner or later within an ace of a groundless duel. My servant amused himself by making a list of these conquests of mine, not dreaming that I never took advantage of them, much less that my preference for young and unmarried admirers, on which he rallied me as far as he dared, was due to the fact that their innocence and shyness protected me from advances which many matrons of my acquaintance made without the least scruple as soon as they found that none were to be expected from me. I had repeatedly to extricate myself from disagreeable positions by leaving the neighborhood, a method of escape which my wandering habits made easy to me, but which, also, I fear, brought me into disrepute as a vagabond. In the course of time, my servant’s foolish opinion of me began to spread; and I at last became reputed an incorrigible rake, in which character I was only additionally fascinating to the woman I most dreaded. Such a reputation grows, as it travels…”Absurd stories about me became part of the gossip of the day. My family disowned me; and I had enough Spanish egotism left to disdain all advances towards reconciliation. Shortly afterwards I came actually under the ban of the law.

Of Leporello’s list of his “conquests”, Shaw’s Don explains

“The list contained the names of six women who had undoubtedly been violently in love with me, and some fifteen to whom I had paid a compliment or two. The rest was a fabrication, many of the names having been copied from the account books of my servant’s father, a wine shop keeper.”

David Bentley Hart  notes Don Giovanni’s unique nature:

 “Juan is not familiar to us at all today, and the reason our cultural imagination no longer has much room for him—and would certainly be incapable of producing another figure like him—is that he, far more than the buoyantly eternal Quixote, is a figure fixed in a particular cultural moment. He is not timeless, but only epochal. He personifies a long but circumscribed historical episode, apart from whose ambiguities and energies he is unintelligible: that twilight interval stretching between the late Renaissance and contemporary secular modernity. Juan was the greatest immoralist of European literature precisely because he served as the negative image of the moral convictions and capacities of his time and place, the exemplary contradiction of an entire and coherent vision of the good, whose story magically combined a certain nostalgia for fading cultural certitudes with a certain cynicism toward them. So, when the values of his time disappeared, he dissolved with them.

In truth, if he could speak to us today as clearly as he did to earlier generations, it would not be in the amiable tones of someone familiar to us but in a distant, almost prophetic voice, full of ironic moral reproach. He would tell us not of ourselves—of either our virtues or our vices—not even satirically. Instead, he would remind us of a vanished magnificence, inseparable from a now largely abandoned conception of what it is to be human.[vi]

Don Giovanni has gone on to play a significant role in Chicago’s opera history. From 1946 to 1954 the city had no resident opera company. Three people changed everything: Carol Fox, a student singer; Lawrence Kelly, a businessman; and Nicola Rescigno, a conductor and vocal teacher. By forming the  Lyric Theatre of Chicago in 1952, their plan eventually  restored  the city to the front ranks of international opera companies. On February 5, 1954, the Lyric Theater presented its “calling card,” a star-studded  performance of Mozart’s Don Giovanni at the Civic Opera House. The success of that production made possible a three-week season in autumn of 1954 consisting of 16 performances of 8 operas; 12 of those performances sold out the 3,600-seat theater.

Recalling that production of   Don Giovanni at the Lyric Opera,  Chicago’s historic critic Claudia Cassidy said:

 Don Giovanni. takes talent, cartloads of flesh and blood talent, and a touch of genius helps. And there it was, a wonderful  Don Giovanni., when the Lyric made its astounding successful debut.”

Miss. Cassidy surely would have stood applauding for the Don Giovanni presented at the Ravinia Festival on Saturday, August 13.. Musical director James Conlon and stage director Garnett Bruce demonstrated beyond a shadow of a doubt Robert Browning’s old adage that “less is more” applies equally to the production of grand opera. A few chairs, a few masks, and two hats, a dagger and a pistol constitute the props and scenery for this production. And nothing is lacking! The opera depends upon the actors and the music, as it should, and the stripped down production delivers more than most so called “fully-mounted’ productions. The directors made sure that there could be no chance that a auteur-director’s “happy idea’ could stand between Mozart’s brilliance, the musicians artistry, and the audience.

For such a concept to succeed, a great company of singing actors is needed. And Ravinia has assembled the best, starting with its Don Giovanni. The production features  the traditional Don Giovanni, one described by opera historian and seer Conrad L Osborne as, “a magnetic rogue.” This Don is “the scoundrel hero” envisaged by all the the classic Don Juan creators, and rarely seen in contemporary productions seeking sensitivity. This Don is the only conception of the character which can, and does, work with the masterful music and libretto.: “Not anti-hero, but hero: among the men of the audience he arouses envy; among the women he arouses arousal.”{vii}

And the man who embodies the Moliere/DaPonte/Mozart vision is Lucas Meachem. I have followed Mr. Meachem’s career whenever possible, and have always been impressed. I first saw him as Choregus in the 2017 Lyric Opera production of The Trojans.

Then I saw his Marcello in the 2018 Met Opera’s La Boheme and wrote “Lucas Meachem’s Marcello provides one of the most detailed and nuanced characterizations of Marcello you are ever likely to see.’

Now this. An unforgettable Don Giovanni who embodies everything  Osborne says the Don should convey. He swaggers, he jokes. Instead of hiding his masculinity, he flaunts it. The text and the music come alive as never before with such a manner. And the women love it. As they should.

The first woman to desire the Don’s virility is Donna Anna, who chases him, not from her bedroom, but in order to bring him back for more. “Entra Donna Anna rattenendo Don Giovanni. She clings to the Don’s arm. Non sperar, se non m’uccidi ch’io ti lasci fuggir mai! There’s no hope, unless you kill me, that I’ll ever let you go!”

As played by the wonderful Rachel Willis-Sorenson, Doona Anna embodies all of the women who have entered, and will enter, his life. They pursue him, after he has pursued and won them Ms. Willis-Sorensen has been hailed as one of the great Dona Annas, and nothing about her Ravinia performance could cause anyone to question that summation She looks perfect, she sounds perfect, and she has a fertile intelligence which invents bits of business which clarify not only her character’s psychology, but also helps explain the plot development. For example, when she encounters the Don  later, the Don begins caressing and kissing her hands. As he does so she evinces a look of recognition, thereby undermining her later explanation that she recognized her assailant’s “voice.” She lies to cover the facts of her infatuation and cooperation in the seduction. This helps explain not only her own behavior but also that of the other women. When caught in a sticky situation, the opportunity to escape via lying, can work, even for women.

The first woman, chased after the Don, leaving her bedroom. The next woman we meet, Donna Elvira has been chasing the Don all around the world, so great has been the passion he aroused in her. Donna Elvira was portrayed brilliantly by Amanda Majeski as a one woman Valkyrie, tracking down her man at any cost, using threats,, not to punish the Don, but to convince him to accede to her demands for more passion. I have enjoyed Ms. Majewski’s work many times -2014 in Lyric Opera’s La Clemenza di Tito, 2015 as the Countess in Lyric’s The Marriage of Figaro, 2016 as the Lyric Opera;’s Marschelin of Der Rosenkavalier. Most recently she created an unforgettable Fiordiligi in Phelim McDermott’s  2018 Coney Island Cosi fan Tutti at the Metropolitan Opera. Her portrayed of Donna Elvira hints  that a touch of madness has crept into the lady’s psyche and contributes to her comic determination

The last woman to fall for the Don is the peasant girl Zerlina, She leaves her groom-to-be on her wedding day to follow her heart sick dreamy infatuation for the Don. Only her realization that the fling might just be a case of droit de signor, as in The Marriage of Figaro, causes her to call for rescue. Janai Brugger’s portrayal is a delightful, as is that of Brent Michael Smith as her beau  Masetto.  Saimir Pirgu’s robust Don Ottavio eschews the wimpy characterization frequently found in productions of his opera. His choice gives the Don a greater challenge in seducing his fiance. Leporello was played  by Brandon Cedel with charm, finesse, and strong voice. On behalf of the men in the audience Mr. Cedel adroitly admired the Don, as he should. But at the same time he was quick to champion the women who think themselves wronged.A clever balancing act, well executed by the singer-actor.

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra provided glorious music appropriate to the top-notch production unfolding before them., The Apollo Chorus of Chicago ably made the various choruses part of the operatic action.

In keeping with Lorenzo Da Ponte’s training in a seminary, the opera ends with a message, as in the medieval Morality plays:

Questo è il fin di chi fa mal,
e de’ perfidi la morte
alla vita è sempre ugual! ecc.

This is the end which befalls evildoers.
And in this life scoundrels
always receive their just deserts! etc.

This was finest Don Giovanni I have ever seen, or may ever see. It resurrected the breathtaking “awe”  Flaubert felt when he declared The three finest things in creation are the sea, Hamlet , and Mozart’s Don Giovanni.”

[i] Chicago Tribune, May 24, 1867, p. 4,.

[ii] Rodney Bolt, The Librettist of Venice. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2006.

[iii] Sheila Hodges, Lorenzo Da Ponte, University of Wisconsin Press,2002.

[iv] W.J. Henderson, The Art of Singing, New York, 1938.

[v] https://slate.com/culture/2016/10/what-don-giovanni-an-opera-about-a-charismatic-rapist-can-teach-us.html

[vi]‘https://www.firstthings.com/article/2011/07/a-splendid-wickedness

{vii Conrad L. Osborne,Opera as Opera. The State of the Art.New York: Proposito Press, 2018, p.214.

 

 


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