My allusion to La ci darem la mano (in Sentimentality in music) reminded me belatedly to catch up on the extensive body of material on the problematic nature of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, from which I cite a mere selection.
As I performed the opera in the pit since the 1970s—effectively “one of the servants”—it hardly seemed my place to reflect on its messages. One likes to think that audiences are more aware since #MeToo, but in my memory of earlier performances, I suspect that many people enjoyed the dramatic frisson and some jolly good tunes without agonising too much over the issues involved—Harmless Fun for All the Family? Among the well-heeled Covent Garden audiences demurely sipping their interval champagne are doubtless victims and perpetrators of sexual violence, yet such a venue may not seem a promising constituency for feminist views.
While the views of Mozart and his librettist Da Ponte are among those considered in the articles I cite below, they (like me) are more concerned with the opera’s later reception history.
Music has the power to conceal as well as to illuminate dramatic agendas; as Roger Kamien noted, “Mozart’s music has made a sinner seem very attractive”—this article, reflecting the mood since #MeToo, incorporates some musical analysis. In this post I relished the aria Protegga il guisto cielo while hardly delving into its message and context.
Writing in 2022, Hannah Szabó notes that E.T.A. Hoffmann’s 1813 story praises the opera, treating the protagonist as a venerable force:
the baritone playing Don Giovanni boasts a “powerful, majestic figure” with a “masculinely beautiful” face that stands out in the provincial town where the performance takes place. […]
Women, once they have met his gaze, can no longer part with him, and, spellbound by his uncanny power, must ineluctably achieve their own ruin. […]
A tyrannical king, he towers above the “puny specimens of humanity whose feeble dreams and plans”—Zerlina’s marriage, Donna Anna’s chastity, Donna Elvira’s infatuation—“he hijacks solely for the sake of his own pleasure”. In comparison, the harem of women he surrounds himself with are reduced to “factory-produced mannequins”, soulless clones who can only be animated by his ever-shifting presence. Among this “vulgar rabble,” Don Giovanni ascends to near-divinity.
This was an enduring view. Joseph Kerman portrayed Don Giovanni as “a romantic hero, a scorner of vulgar morality, and a supreme individualist”. In her fine 2017 article “Holding Don Giovanni accountable”, Kristi Brown-Montesano expresses shock at William Mann’s 1977 misogynistic portrayal of Donna Anna; she finds his position widely echoed in the critical reception of Don Giovanni at the time, heavily skewed in favour of the libertine aristocrat (she makes an apt comparison with James Bond).
Commentators and directors have idealised Mozart’s wilful, seductive, and violent protagonist, crediting him with virtues (unflagging bravery, triumphant self-determination, revolutionary resistance to oppressive societal power, and sensual idealism) that are, at best, only equivocally suggested in the original libretto. […]
The female characters are judged largely in terms of charm and receptiveness to the Don’s don’t-say-no sexual advances. […]
Fast forward 170 years later and you find conductor James Conlon rhapsodising that all three female characters have experienced a sexual metamorphosis, compliments of Don Giovanni: “their erotic impulses awakened, magnified, and irrevocably changed by their encounter with this mythical seducer”.
But meanings change. Liane Curtis published two articles in 2000: “Don Giovanni: let’s call a rapist a rapist” and “The sexual politics of teaching Mozart’s “Don Giovanni”. Szabó notes Catherine Clément’s 1979 book Opera, or the undoing of women, “reframing Don Giovanni as an exploration of the ways that gendered power oppresses men and women alike”. As well as the violated noblewomen, Zerlina’s aria Batti, batti,
the most famous invitation to domestic violence in the genre of opera, * reveals a woman of the lowest social class employing the only tool available to her, that of her “feminine” sexuality—”feminine” in the traditional sense of completely submissive. “Beat me, beat me, dear Masetto, beat your poor Zerlina. I will stand here like an innocent lamb and take your blows,” she sings, a frightening stance to take on the first day of her marriage.
As with La ci darem, it was long possible to delight in the apparent romanticism of the aria:
Yes, Don Giovanni comes from a different time. But this is a poor excuse for partitioning opera/art from contemporary ethical values, forever justifying behaviour that—in any age—is predatory and exploitative. Does the work benefit from this protection? Do we?
She ends thus:
If we really care about opera’s continued relevance, then everyone who loves the art form—directors, conductors, singers, critics, educators, audiences—must acknowledge the connection between what we applaud on stage and what we permit in the workplace, school, home. Because Donna Elvira could tell you, the “Catalogue Aria” is not so funny when your name, or the name of someone you love, is on the list.
Don Giovanni finally meets his downfall not at the hands of wronged women but through divine vengeance. Necessarily, modern productions invariably reflect changing perceptions regarding gender violence, all the more since #MeToo—providing reviewers much food for thought.
Susan McClary was a pioneer in unpacking the sexism of Western Art Music. For Michael Nyman’s scintillating instrumental take on the Catalogue aria, click here. On a purely linguistic note, do read Nicolas Robertson’s brilliant anagram tale on Don Giovanni (Noon? Gad—vini!).
* Cf. this interesting discussion on the song Delilah at sporting events, covering a range of issues.
One thought on “Holding Don Giovanni accountable”
I like your presentation of the Don Giovanni issue
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