When Louis XVI saw the play The Marriage of Figaro, he was a lot more worried than his queen or most of his nobility. He was even heard to mutter something about the Bastille. The play was dead against the nobility. The old jokes were turned on their head, and they were now directed at the aristocracy. They were laughing at their forthcoming destruction, and the play was written by one of them. At the heart of the comedy was the claimed right of an aristo, as they would come to be called, to the body of a peasant bride-to-be. In the play, Figaro, whose bride is threatened, utters these lethal lines to Count Almaviva:
Because you are a grand seigneur, you think yourself a great genius… nobility, wealth, rank, offices! What have you done to have so much? You have hardly given yourself the trouble to be born and that’s about it: for the rest you’re an ordinary person.
Well, not long after this, the play was banned, and not much later, the worst fears of Louis were realised when the people of Paris and France rose up against those ancient feudal claims of the aristos, and the Bastille fell to the Paris mob on 14 July 1789.
Mozart depended on patronage, but he was no admirer of the aristocracy’s claims to hold people down. He wrote two operas in which an aristo asserts rights over a bride. They are his two most popular operas and many would say that they are the two greatest operas ever written. But they are so different.
The Marriage of Figaro was first performed in 1786, just three years before the fall of the Bastille. Mozart and da Ponte had a lot of trouble getting the work cleared for the stage. They left out the purple part above. The Count has designs on the wife-to-be of Figaro. He is thwarted in scenes of high comedy. But the pain suffered by the Countess, his wife, balances the whole opera. She has two arias Porgi, amor and Dove sono, that have an elegiac wistfulness that reminds us that people get hurt by breaches of trust, and that for that matter most jokes involve someone getting hurt. In the end the Count pleads Contessa, perdono, and she does, and the music of the reconciliation can make your hair stand up on the back of your neck – and it drove poor Salieri mad in Amadeus.
Don Giovanni, which was first produced in 1787, is altogether different. The hero is a serial seducer and abuser of power, a totally amoral person, whose real evil is that he remains a source of fascination even to his victims. He starts with an attempted rape and a cold blooded murder, and he never looks back or shows any regret. He does not repent and he literally goes to blazes before our eyes. That end was stated in the first chord of the opera, which one learned critic called ‘the most magically evocative chord in the history of music.’
In perhaps the most perfectly integrated opera ever made, you hardly get the tone of Porgi, amor or Dove sono. The emotional or sexual balance comes from the peasant bride Zerlina who has her own brand of seduction which she airs in two of the best songs of the show. She is in my view pivotal to the drama, to use a footy term, because she is the only woman to defy Don Giovanni, and who displays her own wares to effect.
Both of these operas balance heavy and light. The dramatic satisfaction comes when the balance is right. At the end of the first, you have the reconciliation; at the second, you watch a bad man go down swinging, unbroken by the system.
There may be some tenderness at the moment with the second. This is not the best time in the history of this nation, or any other English speaking nation, to be making gags about people who abuse their position of trust to get sex. And make no mistake – this man does just that knowing that he will likely ruin the person that he abuses. He personifies the arbitrary cruelty of the old regime, like a spider with flies. When Zerlina protests that she is about to be married, Giovanni says that it would be absurd to think that a noble like him could leave a jewel like her to that stupid peasant. There is not one iota of moral difference whether he gets his way by force or deceit – he is a master of cruelty, and his real evil lies in the apparent magic of his power. Don Giovanni lives for conquest and thrives on conflict. There is a bit of Napoleon and Hitler in him as there is in all of us. Are we happy to laugh all this off?
Some of these doubts crossed my mind as I watched the solid performance by the AO. There is nothing to laugh at about rape. There is nothing funny about a person abusing trust for a moment of sensual pleasure that may blast for the victim forever. But this opera is not a lecture in ethics; it is not even a morality tale; it is a work of art, an opera, and people who want to spell out some kind of ‘moral’ from works of genius like those of Shakespeare or Mozart might have more tickets on themselves than is handy. And it may not be such a bad thing to be reminded by a German – or someone from Austria if you prefer – of the danger of surrendering yourself to a cruel egomaniac of magnetic and seductive charm.
The AO production was well set and costumed. The lead has matured to give up that Zorro look, which is good. Neither female lead brought the house down, but after all, Donna Anna is a bit of a pain and Donna Elvira is a bit of a dill. The rest of the cast were solid, and poor Don Ottavio gets two good songs and sustained frustration capped off with a further sentence of twelve months’ chastity at the end. Just how much sexiness you want in this show is a matter of taste, although one member of the chorus seemed intent on a pelvic knee-trembler on one leg which may have given her father pause if he were in the house at the time.
My favourite part of this opera is a little trio near the end of Act 1. It is for a tenor and two sopranos. (One of my recordings has Schwarzkopf and Sutherland.) It is just a short link that you will miss on most highlights discs, but it is one of those moments when prodigal genius leads to a shell-burst of magic. I think Mendelsshon thought that it was the most beautiful music that he had heard. I thought that it was done just right in Melbourne, by the singers in their gowns and masks to remind us of the link to commedia dell’arte. That alone warranted the outlay on the ticket.
The AO are doing Figaro as well later this year, and you be a mug not to catch at least one of them. They are among the title deeds of our civilisation.
There are countless recordings and films of both. I mention just two DVD versions of Don Giovanni. One comes from the Met in 2002 with James Levine, Bryn Terfel and Renee Fleming. It has a traditional Zeffirelli setting. The other comes from Salzburg in 2006. It is directed in current garb on an ultra-modern revolving stage by Martin Kusej who is I gather as averse to shocking people as our Barry Kosky. You get the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Daniel Harding, and Thomas Hampson and Christine Schafer.
Both productions, ultra-orthodox and ultra-unorthodox, are stunning and just about flawless. If I had to pick, I might go for Salzburg, since you cannot trump that band on Mozart, and Mr Hampson is impressively revolting in the lead, although a young woman of Asian extraction nearly steals the show as Zerlina at the Met. The Salzburg production is not for everyone. It will alarm traditionalists, but like or love it, you will not forget it – especially the cemetery and dinner scene at the end. The stone guest is one of the great moments of our theatre, and this version is up to it for me.
I have a soft spot for this piece because it was the first opera I took my girls to and I was a little surprised that they were still awake when the statue of the Commendatore moved.
When Tchaikovsky got his hands on the score of Don Giovanni, he said that he was in the presence of God. Flaubert said that God had made three things – the sea, Hamlet, and Don Giovanni. You would have to have balls or a lot of Brownie points to say something like that. No wonder that poor old Salieri just went crackers.