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Don Giovanni [English National Opera Guide…

Don Giovanni [English National Opera Guide 18] (1983)

by Mozart

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Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Don Giovanni

Calder, Paperback, 1983.

8vo. 112 pp. English National Opera guides No. 18.


List of Illustrations

The 'Comic' Element in 'Don Giovanni' Michael F. Robinson
Music and Action in 'Don Giovanni' David Wyn Jones
Lorenzo da Ponte Christopher Raeburn

Characterisation in 'Don Giovanni'
Thematic Guide

'Don Giovanni' libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte
English translation by Norman Platt and Laura Sarti

Act One
Act Two
Act Three

Additional Scenes


I rather like this series of guides from the English National Opera (ENO). Despite their cheap paperback binding, despite their absolutely hideous covers*, despite their abundant photographs of poor quality, despite the mediocre printing, despite that they are dated in some aspects and despite the often encountered silly prejudices in their essays – despite all that I rather like these guides. The reason is rather simple actually: each one of these little books, dedicated to a certain opera, contains the full libretto in original language as well as in English translation; of course the latter is a performing translation that was made for singing, therefore it is far from literal and certainly not suitable for improving your knowledge of Italian or German (not to mention that opera librettos are the wrong way for doing this anyway). But the translations in the ENO guides are lucid and coherent enough to give you a pretty good idea what it's all about.

Because the first condition to fully appreciate an opera is to know its libretto in detail. Indeed, before going to the opera house or before playing a complete recording, the dedicated opera lover really should first read the libretto without the music, as a play. Admittedly, it is very difficult. It is often silly, not to say inane, full of monstrous improbabilities, and the poetry is generally third-rate – and no opera, of course, has ever remained in the standard repertoire because of its libretto. Yet, unless you're satisfied with a very superficial understanding of a very complex art, to know the text of a musical work for the stage is obligatory; even listening to highlights, let alone a complete recording, doesn't make any sense if one has no idea of the libretto. I am often astonished by people who tell me, indignantly, how dull this or that great opera is, and then sheepishly confess that they actually have not the least idea what all these people are singing about. Of course it would be dull then.

I have long wanted to start a series of reviews of these opera guides, but I have been inhibited by the difficult matter of rating them. Now, I have no doubt that of all intangible things objectivity is the most non-existent. Still, in this series of reviews I should like to achieve at least some semblance of it, so far as I am concerned of course. That's why – for first and probably last time – I will set definite criteria how I will rate certain books. For the complete translations of the libretti, even though I am no authority to judge how accurate these are, I am ready to give any of the ENO guides half of their maximum rating: 2,5 stars, in other words. But I should like to make it clear that I do not condone opera in translation; listening to Mozart, Verdi and Wagner in English is an unforgivable travesty; but as far as understanding of the libretto goes, an English translation is the best friend of the opera buff whose knowledge of the weird Italian and German, occasionally French and Russian, used in most great operas is but minimal. Everything above 2,5 stars that any ENO guide gets is due to what value its additional materials may have. So it's opera time now.

Mozart's Don Giovanni must be an auspicious beginning: one of the greatest composers and one of his most famous operas, if not the most famous one indeed. It's not an easy work to appreciate, certainly, partly because, secco recitatives and all, it's about three hours long; the first time I saw it on video and on the stage I remember quite well that I was bored to extinction. Things change, though. Giving the opera my full attention repeatedly, exploring the plot, the characters and the music in greater and greater detail, I have come to recognise Mozart's flair for dramatic action and, above all, his truly amazing genius for subtle characterisation. What's most extraordinary is that Mozart somehow manages to achieve all that without turning his music into vulgar coloratura feast (Rossini), test for physical endurance (Wagner) or instrument for voice torture (Verdi). Now these three hours always seem to me much too short. Even those despicable secco recitatives, which are much closer to ordinary speech than most of the accompanied ones, I no longer find tedious and, when performed well, I can actually enjoy them quite a bit; after all, they carry most of the action and have not a negligible role in drawing the characters. There is hardly a weak link in the whole opera: from the stunning overture to the absolutely astounding finale: the hilarious supper scene, the unforgettable confrontation with the statue of the dead Commendatore and finally the sextet, somewhat inappropriate dramatically but among Mozart's most sublime creations musically.

Even though it is a comic opera (opera buffa), and it does contain numerous highly amusing episodes, Don Giovanni is far from light entertainment. This is of course most notable in the almost unbearably haunting scene with the Commendatore in the end when, literally, the hell opens and engulfs Don Giovanni. It is not for nothing that Salieri in the movie Amadeus described it as ''terrifying and wonderful'', nor was it by accident that his ultimate madness commenced with this finale; no other than Bernard Shaw has called it ''beyond all comparison the most wonderful of the wonders of dramatic music'' – and dead right he was. Those two magnificent orchestral explosions that we haven’t heard since the overture announce the entrance of the Commander's statue and then comes the booming bass: ''Don Giovanni a cenar teco'' (''Don Giovanni, you invited me to dinner''). The scene is the apotheosis of supernatural grandeur. I don't think I have ever heard anything more chilling yet irresistible. Once heard the Commander's mind-blowing ''Pentiti!'' (''Repent'') and Giovanni's implacable cries ''No!'' (doesn't need translation, does it?), especially joined by the demonic, and invisible, chorus, are never to be forgotten.

There is something strangely inspiring and even moving in Don Giovanni who would rather go to hell (literally) than repent for his sins. One can feel that the man is no humbug; he doesn't do it for the sake of mere swanking; he is truly convinced that he has nothing to repent. What, as a matter of fact, should he repent? That he seduced thousands of vacuous females? That society, the modern one openly and the contemporary one subversively, have made a hero out of him and at the expense of the poor creatures he deceived? That he lived a life of pleasure, utterly dissolute and immoral? Who is that man – or woman, for that matter – who wouldn't do all that if he/she had the opportunity and the guts?

But let me now go back to my initial intention, namely to review No. 18 from the ENO opera guides. The structure of the book is the typical one for the series. In addition to the complete libretto in two languages, line-to-organised naturally but with all stage directions printed in the middle and only in English, there are also three essays by different contributors who are supposed to explore the historical background of both the score and the libretto as well as to provide analysis of the plot and the music suitable for the intelligent layman who is fascinated by opera but is still in the beginning of his journey in the field. The so called ''Thematic Guide'' actually consists of numerous musical examples, sometimes named but always numbered; the numbers also appear at all places in the libretto where the correspondent musical motive occurs. This is not so tremendously helpful as it might look at first glance – unless you can read music fluently of course. Should you be devoid of that mysterious faculty, you have to search for all places where certain motive appears and to listen extremely carefully in order to make any use of this ''Thematic Guide'' at all.

Also by way of tradition, the volume concludes with Bibliography and Discography. The former is usually nicely organised with short comments in a few paragraphs but it is unfortunately badly dated; even in more modern reprints it is seldom updated with anything from the 1990s. The latter is even less helpful, except perhaps for perfect beginners; it does list several recordings together with casts, conductors, labels and availability on CD or LP; needless to say, the last section is completely obsolete. Nor is there any comment about the strengths and the weaknesses of different recordings; instead, we are usually directed to Alan Blyth's Opera on Record. Well, considering the huge amount of nonsense such discussions of recordings almost always are full with, it is probably an asset for the ENO guides that they skip them. Both the Bibliography and the Discography are usually of very modest help and so is the case here.

The three essays are rather a mixed bag. On the whole, their short length is directly proportional to their substance.

Michael F. Robinson's The 'Comic' Element in 'Don Giovanni' is the finest of the three essays, if a little laboriously written. What Mr Robinson tries to explain is what has puzzled numerous commentators for some two centuries now: what kind of opera Don Giovanni really is: a comic one, a tragic one, or some strange hybrid in between? Mozart and Da Ponte labelled it ''dramma giocoso'' which would rather be an opera buffa, yet the horrifying second part of the finale is anything but comic, not to mention that a number of characters and scenes are rather dramatic, even tragic, in nature.

Like every true masterpiece, Don Giovanni transcends such tremendously superficial generalisations. Still, as Mr Robinson's convincingly demonstrates, it does have all hallmarks of the opera buffa typical for the XVIII century. He makes a most useful separation of the characters in three categories: serious ones (parti serie), namely Donna Anna, Don Ottavio and Donna Elvira; comic ones (parti buffe), namely Leporello, Masetto and Zerlina; and those in the middle between them (mezzi caratteri), namely Don Giovanni himself. And it is by no means a coincidence that all characters in the first group belong to the aristocracy, whereas those in the second group are common folk far removed from the nobility. The opera also has an obvious moral: those who lead immoral and dissolute lives get it in their necks in the end; it is certainly worth recalling that the complete title of the work is Il dissoluto punito, ossia il Don Giovanni, that is The Rake Punished, or Don Giovanni. The moral is indeed so obvious that it might be subjected to various more dangerous interpretations.

Finally, Mr Robinson has some fascinating things to say about the historical development of what is surely one of the most famous stories ever penned. Everything apparently started with Tirso de Molina's El burlador de Sevilla in the XVII century and he could hardly have known that later ages would spawn numerous plays and operas and what not about the proverbial seducer more commonly known as Don Juan, including a famous poem by Lord Byron and a most remarkable symphonic poem by Richard Strauss. What I have found most amazing is Mr Robinson's claim that between 1776 and 1787 no fewer than seven (!) Italian operas on the subject were composed, including one by Bertati (libretto) and Gazzaniga (music) that was premiered in the same year as Mozart's; its libretto was even used, in a rather shameless manner, by Lorenzo Da Ponte when he came to write in the nick of time the text for Mozart's masterpiece, number eight in the series and the only one to survive the test of time.

The essay by David Wyn Jones occupies by far the most tedious pages in the whole book. It may be skipped completely without any loss. It is supposed to be a commentary on the music, but it ranges between severely technical detail and dismayingly pedestrian analysis of crucial scenes. I am sure that Mr Jones' raving about this glorious juxtaposition of D minor and D major is wonderfully revealing for trained musicians, but for a curious layman such as myself it is completely pointless stuff. He may well have spared us his attempts to offer some insight into, for instance, the famous duet ''La ci darem la mano'' between Don Giovanni and Zerlina in Act 1. For he offers nothing but the most painfully obvious for everybody who takes the trouble to read the text of the duet together with the one of the preceding recitative.

Christopher Raeburn's essay is a very dry and rather dull biographical sketch of Lorenzo Da Ponte, the man who wrote the texts for Mozart's three greatest Italian operas, often referred today simply as ''Da Ponte operas''. If anything, Da Ponte himself must have been everything but dull and dry. He was Italian of course, but he had to leave early in life his homeland after some lascivious adventures with the wrong lady. Apparently self-thought and self-made, nobody knows exactly how, but Lorenzo finally became the most celebrated librettist in Vienna, probably the most intrigue-loving city in the world: a milieu that suited him to perfection. The rumour has it that not only was Casanova himself Da Ponte's friend, but the semi-legendary lover even provided some suggestions for the libretto of Don Giovanni and later, after attending the premiere, promptly recognised himself as the main character. Da Ponte himself lived almost ninety years and finished his life in New York where in the early nineteenth century he was regarded as something like authority on Italian language and culture. He also wrote celebrated and vastly fanciful memoirs in which he recognised Mozart's musical genius but expressed some very inane doubt in the great composer's feeling for drama. With such a life some liveliness in Mr Raeburn’s narrative would have been greatly appreciated, but unfortunately he seems perfectly incapable of it. Still, the piece is at least informative.

Characterisation in 'Don Giovanni' is a curious piece which actually consists of three short excerpts from different studies on the subject selected by Nicholas John, the general editor of the series. These contain several provocative and rather fascinating speculations about the characters, Donna Anna and Donna Elvira in particular, but the excerpts are a little too short for one to make a reliable guess whether the books they were extracted from – E. J. Dent's Mozart's Operas (1913), Brigid Brophy's Mozart the Dramatist (1964) and Julian Rushton's Don Giovanni (1981) – are worth reading in their entirety at all. Dent's pioneering study, perhaps, is the only one that deserves a more serious attention.

Should you like to attend a live performance of Don Giovanni today, in any opera house anywhere in the world, the chances are that you will be confronted with poor singing and hideous staging. Fortunately, the opera has been served extremely well on record: live and studio recordings, audio or video ones, abound on the market, stretch some half a century and include a number of the greatest opera singers that the twentieth century has produced. Just take your pick. The opera does require one's full attention and repetitive listening, but it is richly rewarding too.

Apart from the vast range of characters – from perfectly comic to profoundly tragic – and lots of fun in the action, as all great works of art Mozart's Don Giovanni raises several issues of everlasting importance. After all, is it not possible to interpret the concluding sextet as inversion of the traditional moral that the rake must be punished? After Giovanni's awesome defiance of conventional morality, even when faced with eternal punishment in Hell with capital “H”, all other principal characters are shown as pathetically shallow creatures. Donna Anna and Don Ottavio will wait a year and then marry, to become just another bored and boring aristocratic couple; the good-natured peasants Masetto and Zerlina are completely unable to look further than their next meal; Leporello would simply find a new and, he thinks, better master. All of them are thoroughly commonplace and dull folk. In none of them is there even a shade of Giovanni's captivating ebullience, nor of his awe-inspiring courage in the face of death. It is Don Giovanni who makes all other characters in the opera worth existing at all. Is it not people like him, who fulfil their characters to the greatest possible degree, no matter what terrible labels society might put on them, that make our world worth existing too? And our lives worth living indeed.

The ENO guide to Mozart's Don Giovanni is useful almost exclusively because of the complete libretto and its English translation; I daresay there are other translations as well, perhaps not made for singing and therefore more literal and easier to understand, but they are probably a great deal more difficult to obtain. The supplementary materials are to some extent informative but ultimately dispensable, not nearly in the same category as the corresponding chapter in Charles Osborne's critical guide The Complete Operas of Mozart (1978). The libretto, however, is very nicely done for it is quite complete and includes all of Mozart's additions for the first Viennese performance in 1788 (next year after the world premiere in Prague), such as Don Ottavio's extremely beautiful aria from Act 1 ''Dalla sua pace'' (Act 1) which is usually included today, not instead of, but in addition to the more demanding ''Il mio tesoro'' (Act 2) which it was supposed to substitute. Even few scenes that are almost always omitted today are given literal translations for the sake of completeness; there are three of these (nos. 11-13 from Act 2), including Zerlina's threatening Leporello with a knife, and they too were added for the first performance in Vienna; nowadays, however, such farcical nonsense is generally considered rather inappropriate between such dramatic pieces like ''Il mio tesoro'' and Elvira's aria ''Mi tradì quell'alma ingrata''.

For the libretto alone, the volume is well worth acquiring at the modest price it is usually offered. The additional material does contain several shrewd observations but on the whole it is disappointingly commonplace and inessential.

P. S. As far illustrations are concerned, they are numerous but almost always of inferior quality – and rather regrettably, though not unexpectedly, concentrate on Sadler Wells, Covent Garden and the English National Opera; pictures from productions in other theatres, if present at all, are scarce. Still, at least the more or less close shots are passable and it's nice to see many a great singer in this or that role. My personal favourite is Evelyn Lear as Donna Elvira during the 1964/65 season at the Royal Opera House; the almost hypnotic stare in her eyes speaks of formidable resolution and I have little doubt that she was a magnificent Elvira on the stage.


* The question of the covers requires at least an attempt for an explanation. As far as I can judge from the copies I have, most of the guides were first published in the early 1980s and many of them were later reprinted, usually only slightly updated in terms of bibliography and discography but also with vastly different covers. (But it is possible, if not probable, that they were initially published with two different covers, though why one should want to do this I can't even imagine.) Generally speaking, the old covers are vastly superior to new ones; the latter, indeed, are a most dismaying gallery of monstrosities: simply compare both versions of Don Giovanni and you will know what I mean. So in terms of covers one is wise to look for the older editions; in terms of contents the differences are negligible. ( )
3 vote Waldstein | Feb 23, 2011 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0714538531, Paperback)

The English National Opera Guides were originally conceived in partnership with the English National Opera and edited by Nicholas John, the ENO's dramaturg, who died tragically in an accident in the Alps. Most of the guides are devoted to a single opera, which is described in detail—with many articles that cover its history and information about the composer and his times. The complete libretto is included in both the original language and in a modern singing translation—except where the opera was written in English. Each has a thematic guide to the most important musical themes in musical notation and each guide is lavishly illustrated. They also contain a bibliography and a discography which is updated at each reprint. The ENO guides are widely regarded as the best series of their kind and excellent value.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:18:19 -0400)

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