Essay / Misc.

Don Giovanni in Cultural Encounters

The new issue (Summer 06) of Cultural Encounters: A Journal for the Theology of Culture is now available. If you haven’t seen this journal, check it out: it’s new, so ask your school library to pick it up. Editor Paul Louis Metzger and his team bring together articles that carry on “a biblically informed, Christ-centered trinitarian engagement of contemporary culture.” As a contributing editor, I’ll be writing articles and book reviews for it from time to time.

The current issue publishes my article “Don Giovanni: The Absolute Man and the Patience of God,” which is a theological interpretation of Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni. Here are the first couple of pages, which set up the problem posed by the opera:

Something strange, and theologically significant, happens when you listen to Mozart’s Don Giovanni. The peculiar phenomenon I have in mind has been reported by ordinary music lovers as well as by some of the most insightful critics ever to ponder the work of Mozart. What happens is this: Don Giovanni performs despicable acts of exploitation, seduction, and violence right before our eyes, and we enjoy every minute of it. It is not that we, the audience, are tricked into approving of the actions. They remain loathsome in themselves, and we are never invited to think of the Don as anything but a rogue. Nor is it that we merely anticipate with relish the final judgment which we know awaits the Don, with its reassertion of moral equilibrium: “This is the end which befalls evildoers, and in this life, scoundrels always receive their just desserts.” Either of these possibilities might explain how we could be pleased by watching the actions of a villain, but neither of them is quite as singular as what occurs in Don Giovanni. The pleasure delivered by this opera is something else, something unique and central to this work so frequently hailed as “the perfect opera.”

One way to describe the phenomenon is to say that the audience is held in place by the music as they watch the action of the drama. There are two distinct forces at work, and the audience is pinched between them. Granted that Don Giovanni has a seamless coherence of word and music, without which any opera would fail as an artistic unity, there is nevertheless an uncanny dissociation at its heart, a dissociation between the story and the music. Mozart’s music always transcends his librettos: The Magic Flute is a silly enough text; Cosi fan Tutte, a true opera buffa, is an extended comedy of errors and manners. In both cases, Mozart uses the staged events as excuses for deploying a music that soars miles above the text. But in Don Giovanni, the music asserts itself as a force which is over against the drama, commenting on it, dovetailing with it, and holding us before it. The whole time we are spectators of the events, the music enters our own space and seems to take the side of the spectators. What the music, from our side, says about the drama, on its side, is what is so haunting about Don Giovanni.

Beethoven noticed this. He seemed almost personally affronted by the way the duet “La ci darem la mano” (“Give me your little hand,” or “You put your hand in mine”) matched words of seduction with notes of ravishing sweetness. The duet occurs between Don Giovanni and the peasant girl Zerlina, who he is seducing on her wedding day. This is one of Giovanni’s most reprehensible actions, carried out with forethought and deliberation. It is also, as the only seduction we see carried out on stage rather than reported after the fact, an important case study. What could be more monstrous than a decadent, promiscuous cavalier using his influence to convince a young bride from the lower classes to dessert her groom on their wedding day for a quick sexual tryst? Watching Don Giovanni seduce Zerlina is like watching a bird of prey descend. He is the predator and Zerlina the victim, even when she ultimately consents with such gusto that she seems more eager than the Don himself to go with him and, as their agreed euphemism has it, “ease the pain of an innocent love.” One critic notes of this “major reversal” that “in an attentive production, Don Giovanni should look a little taken aback at Zerlina’s enthusiasm. Who’s seducing whom?” The question is intended as rhetorical, but the right answer remains that the privileged libertine is seducing the peasant, and his unleashing of her own reciprocating desire is simply proof of completed seduction.

Yet of all the pieces in the opera, this particular duet is irresistible, melting, satisfying, and piercingly sweet. What kind of artist uses his virtuosity to make a villain’s 2,000th seduction the occasion of a perfect song? Beethoven’s solution was to rescue the music by abstracting it out of its place in the drama. This he did, shortly after Mozart’s death, by composing a series of variations on the duet, to be played by two oboes and an English horn. This certainly saves the beautiful music. But in situ, in Don Giovanni, the point is that the beautiful music, note for note and cadence for cadence, tracks the seduction and holds us before it. Mozart puts himself in the service of the seduction, casting his own music —the real star of Don Giovanni, and the reason the opera is a classic— in the role of seducer.

Kierkegaard is the critic who has written most forcefully about the seduction inherent in this musical phenomenon, and he, or the pseudonymous aesthete under whose name he wrote, drew a different conclusion from Beethoven. For the author of “The Immediate Erotic Stages, or The Musical-Erotic” in Either/Or, the opera is perfect as it stands (“Don Giovanni deserves the highest place among all the classic works”) precisely because the dramatic seductions and the musical seduction reinforce each other so thoroughly. In fact, Kierkegaard argues, this opera is a sort of revelation of the meaning of music itself, which is the presentation of the sensuous. All of the arts, all aesthetic undertakings, attempt to portray the sensuous, but all media are hobbled by their distinctive constraints: sculpture cannot capture its inwardness, painting must waste its efforts on particular contours, and poetry is most helpless of all because it must work through the mediation of words and language. Mediation is the problem, and the problem is solved by music itself, which alone can portray the sensuous with the required immediacy. In this way, music is not a medium at all, but the thing itself. And Don Giovanni is the realization of pure music because it places no medium between the audience and the sensuous, but inducts them directly into it. “In Mozart’s Don Giovanni, we have the perfect unity of this idea and its corresponding form.”

Kierkegaard’s interpretation of the opera is as ironically charged and idiosyncratically particular as one might expect of Kierkegaard or his aesthete pseudonym, and we need not pursue his ideas here. What is to be noted, however, is how he and Beethoven take opposite lines of interpretation regarding the coherence of the two levels of seduction: the libretto’s account of seduction and the music’s quality of seduction. Beethoven believes they are incongruously united, and in need of separation for the sake of purity and beauty of the music. Kierkegaard finds their meaning to be identical, with the perfection of the opera lying precisely in the ideal match between content and form.

Aside from these radical options of dividing or identifying the two forces, there is another way of addressing the interaction of the drama and the music in Don Giovanni. That way is to take into account the tension between the two forces and to treat them as if Mozart intended to develop them both, to put them in tension, and to bring them, perhaps playfully, in and out of the awareness of the audience. Furthermore, as long as we are gambling so much on the composer’s intentions and banking on his competence as a maestro to accomplish them, we should not shrink from supposing, at least hypothetically, that the entire Don Giovanni phenomenon itself might be doing all of this in service of some descriptive task. The opera may have been given its particular qualities, incongruities and all, because it is successfully mirroring or expressing a reality which has those incongruities. At the risk of reducing everything prematurely to a too- easily labeled quantity, let us call it the world of Mozart. Even more specifically, we can identify it as the spirit which animated the age in which it was composed, or in more contemporary jargon, its culture.

This is where I believe Karl Barth can be an aid to listening. His far-ranging essay “Man in the Eighteenth Century” takes the era of Mozart with astonishing theological seriousness…

Sorry to cut it off just where Barth comes to the rescue, but I can’t just print the whole article here. Check out Cultural Encounters. And if you want to see the tiny sketch that the full article is based on, read an early draft of it in Torrey Honors Institute’s student publication, The Symposium, where you can also read Don Giovanni interpretations by Torrey faculty members John Mark Reynolds and Robert Thomas Llizo.

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