Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Island of the Dead - Venice, Italy

San Michele Cemetery - Venice, Italy

Gods' aid, let not my bones lie in a public location
With crowds too assiduous in their crossing of it;
For thus are tombs of lovers most desecrated.
May a woody and sequestered place cover me with its foliage
Or may I inter beneath the hummock
of some as yet uncatalogued sand;
At any rate I shall not have my epitaph in a high road. 
---from Homage to Sextus Propertius by Ezra Pound

(Venice, Italy) That is the monumental entrance of the Island of San Michele, where Venice buries her dead. November 1 is All Saints' Day and November 2 is All Souls' Day, or the Day of the Dead, here in Italy. There is a free shuttle vaporetto out to San Michele and back so everyone can tend to the tombs. The American poet Ezra Pound is buried here in Venice on the Island of the Dead, and also happened to die here in Venice, most remarkably, on All Saints' Day, two days after his 87th birthday on October 30, 1972.

Today is October 31, or Halloween, which has been one of my favorite holidays ever since I was a child. When I lived in Los Angeles, I would spend a good week decorating my house with dead bodies and skeletons, and setting up a proper graveyard under the white birch tree. I attracted kids from miles around, and some adults, too. 

In fact, the first year I moved into the house in Los Feliz, back in 1988 before it was properly furnished, my sister and I decorated every room with a different spooky theme: the coffin room, the fortune teller room, etc. and threw a huge party complete with sound effects and lighting -- I even got the Frankenstein monster from Universal Studios to come, since he was a friend of mine.

It was all in good fun, and there was certainly nothing religious about it, more like a Disneyland Haunted Mansion theme. To me, any holiday that can inspire Serious White Men to get creative, dress up in costumes and loosen up a bit is providing a service to mankind. One of my favorite costumes was worn by a fellow who was normally very... uptight. He dressed all in white and carried a big black felt marker, calling himself "Graffiti Man," and had people sign his clothes all night. To me, Halloween in the States reflects Carnival in Venice more than the Day of the Dead. 

When I solidly arrived in Venice in 1998, after deciding to make it my home (I had been here several times before, but that is another story), I had one of the few carved pumpkins around, and there were no celebrations except a small one in Campo Santa Margherita with the students. Halloween has been slowly growing more popular, with shop windows filled with cobwebs and witches.

This is what the Catholics think about that:

Halloween 'pagan' says Church group


'Don't trample on our culture,' bishop says


(ANSA) - Vatican City, October 29 - Halloween is pagan and against the spirit of Christianity, an influential Catholic Church group said Friday. Chiming in with the Vatican's annual warnings on the festival, the (Pope) John XXIII Association said: "Halloween was born as the perpetuation of a pagan cult which evolved over time and linked up with esoteric and occult practices". "We are faced with a sort of revival of neopaganism which, as such, is in open contrast with the spirit of Christianity". 

"Does our society really need all these messages exalting horror," asked the association's head, Giovanni Paolo Ramonda.

"At a time which should be devoted to the holy memory of our saints and souls, people unthinkingly set up 'noir' banquets, crime dinners and afternoons for children in macabre masks. "Everyone should be reminded that Halloween comes from an ancient pagan ritual in the British Isles practised by the Druids, the Celts' ferocious priestly caste".
The Northern League also disapproves:
The Northern League party, which jealously guards northern Italy's Celtic past, also came out against the feast this year, accusing it of being "inauthentic". "Halloween is not part of our identity," said the Northern League's mayor of the town of Calalzo di Cadore, Luca De Carlo.
Click HERE to read the entire ANSA article.

It may surprise some of you to learn how fierce the Northern League is about their Celtic roots, but if we take a quick look at a map, you will see that the Celts were here in Northern Italy and Austria before the Romans came along and started started conquering everyone. 

Overview of the Hallstatt and La Tène cultures.     The core Hallstatt territory (HaC, 800 BC) is shown in solid yellow,     the eventual area of Hallstatt influence (by 500 BC, HaD) in light yellow.     The core territory of the La Tène culture (450 BC) is shown in solid green,     the eventual area of La Tène influence (by 250 BC) in light green.The territories of some major Celtic tribes of the late La Tène period are labeled.

The ancient Celts celebrated Samhain, which was a festival to welcome the dark part of the year. From Wikipedia:
Samhain (play /ˈsɑːwɪn//ˈs.ɪn/, or /ˈsn/)[1] is a Gaelic festival held on October 31–November 1. The Irish name Samhain is derived from Old Irish and means roughly "summer's end".harvest festival with ancient roots in Celtic polytheism, it was linked to festivals held around the same time in other Celtic cultures, and continued to be celebrated in late medieval times. Due to its date it became associated with the Christian festival All Saints' Day, and greatly influenced modern celebration of Halloween.

It also had a dark element. From Wikipedia:
"The ancient Celts believed that the border between this world and the Otherworld became thin on Samhain, allowing spirits (both harmless and harmful) to pass through. The family's ancestors were honoured and invited home while harmful spirits were warded off. It is believed that the need to ward off harmful spirits led to the wearing of costumes and masks. Their purpose was to disguise oneself as a harmful spirit and thus avoid harm. In Scotland the spirits were impersonated by young men dressed in white with masked, veiled or blackened faces. Samhain was also a time to take stock of food supplies and slaughter livestock for winter stores. Bonfires played a large part in the festivities. All other fires were doused and each home lit their hearth from the bonfire. The bones of slaughtered livestock were cast into its flames. Sometimes two bonfires would be built side-by-side, and people and their livestock would walk between them as a cleansing ritual."

I don't know what goes on in other parts of Italy, but in Venice, the Day of the Dead is still a big holiday. There are special colorful treats called fave or "beans" in the shop windows. I found an interesting article that appears to be from the early 1900s called "All Soul's Day - Venice" from a website called "Old and Sold."

"There is one old custom connected with this festival of the dead which still survives in Venice, and recalls a Latin, or even an earlier superstition. The pious man in Ovid's " Fast [sic] (should be Ovid's "Fausti") rises at midnight to fling black beans behind his shoulder. Nine times he flung his beans, and then the ghost was laid. 

The Venetian does not fling away his beans; he eats them. In Venice this custom of eating beans through the octave of All Souls' is extremely ancient. The monks of every cloister in the city used to make a gratuitous distribution of beans on All Souls' Day to any of the poor who chose to come for them. A huge caldron was placed in the middle of the courtyard and the food ladled out to the crowd. 

The gondoliers did not come with the rest, but had their portion sent down to them at their ferries. This grace was granted to them in consideration of the fact that all the year round they rowed the brothers across the canals for nothing. In-deed, though the custom is almost extinct, they still do so you may sometimes see a brown-cowled friar crossing a ferry with no other payment than a pinch of snuff or a benediction. 

As the Venetians grew more wealthy true beans became distasteful to the palates of the luxurious, who were yet unwilling to break through the custom of eating them on All Souls' Day. The pastry cooks saw their opportunity, and invented a small round puff, coloured blue or red or yellow, and hollow inside; these they called fave, or beans; and these are to be seen at this time of the year in all the bakers' windows. 

If a man should happen to be courting at this season it is customary for him to make a present of a boxful of these fave to his lady. But the pious mind has never been quite at ease under the gastronomic deception; and so, though you may hate beans and keep your hands from them as scrupulously as any pupil of Pythagoras, should your cook chance to be a good Catholic you will assuredly, about the month of November, have beans set before you for dinner in Venice."

For me, there is a way to celebrate each holiday, Halloween, All Saint's Day and the Day of the Dead, though I do share the Church's concern that the commercialism of Halloween could consume the other two days entirely as it seems to have done in the United States -- though I really don't see that happening in Venice since mass at the Basilica was standing-room-only this morning, and the cemetery is always full with people tending tombs every single day of the week, holiday or not. It would be interesting to know how the Day of the Dead was celebrated by the ancient Venetians, and whether masks were involved. 

Also buried on the Island of the Dead:  Igor Stravinsky, Joseph Brodsky, Olga Rudge, Emilio Vedova, Franco Gasaglia, Zoran Music, Jean Schlumberger, Sergei Diaghilev, and Luigi Nono

Ciao from Venice,

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Italy, Defend Your Heart

(Venice, Italy) The Fondo Ambiente Italiano (FAI), or the Italian Environmental Foundation was established in 1975 to "emulate the English National Trust." (For Americans, a similar organization would be the National Trust for Historic Preservation.) Several years ago, I was in a location in Wales managed by the National Trust where I purchased some very fine furniture wax, the old-fashioned kind that you must rub hard into the real wood to keep it alive. To me, that is symbolic of the kind of work these type of foundations do. In fact, FAI declares that it bases its work on five principles: knowledge, pragmatism, consistency, independence and quality. Since FAI is a foundation, we can agree those are principles upon which any solid foundation should be built. FAI safeguards the heritage of art, nature and the Italian landscape.

The Venice Chapter of FAI is putting their unique imprint on fundraising by hosting a series of events with the theme Personaggi stravaganti a Venezia tra '800 e '900 , which Google Translate amusingly interprets as "Oddballs in Venice between 1800 and 1900." Let's call them "unique personalities" or "extravagant characters."

The series kicked off on October 15 at Ca' d'Oro, featuring Concetta Lo Iacono reporting on the famous ballerina, Maria Taglioni (1804-1884) who lived for a time at the palazzo. Taglioni's claim to notoriety was shortening her skirts so the audience could see her excellent en pointe.

On October 21st, Ida Tonini and Guido Zucconi spoke at the Hotel Palladio on Giudecca about Fredric Eden (1828-1916) and the colorful and controversial Austrian artist and architect, Friedensreich Hundertwasser (1928-2000) owners of the most mysterious garden in Venice, The Garden of Eden, an event I am sorry to have missed. Visited in the past by the likes of Proust, Rilke, Cocteau, Henry James, Thomas Hardy and D'Annunzio, the enormous walled garden is a source of unending curiosity to this day. Click HERE to read an excellent post from British librarian Jeff Cotten's blog, Fictional Cities; here is an excerpt:

Henry McCarter
"Eden and his wife Caroline bought the artichoke garden on the, then semi-rural, island of Giudecca in 1884. They transformed the six acres into an English-style paradise, complete with roaming cattle, statues, and rose trellises. It's tempting to think of Gertrude Jekyll helping out her elder sister, but Jekyll's fascination with gardening did not, it seems, develop until years after the creation of the Eden's garden. It was then, and remains, the largest private garden in Venice (although its exact size is the subject of argument). ...

...The sociable Edens made the garden into the social centre of the British ex-pat society and attracted visitors like Proust, Rilke and Henry James in it's turn-of-the-century heyday. Gabriele d'Annunzio has an episode set in the garden in his novel Il fuoco. Frederick Rolfe, Baron Corvo, author of The desire and pursuit of the whole (and something of a side-thorn for the ex-pat society of the time which gathered in the garden) even offered his services to the Edens as poultry manager during a period of skintness. ..."

Next up, on October 28 at 5:30PM at the Archivio di Stato in Campo dei Frari, Mariachiara Mazzariol will discuss one of the greatest publishers of his time, Ferdinando Ongania (1842 -1911). 

The Disquieting Muses
by Giorgio De Chirico
On November 11th at 5:30PM at Ca' Giustinian, La Biennale headquarters, in the beautifully restored Sala delle ColonneGiorgio Colombo will shed light on the surrealist artist, Giorgio De Chirico (1888-1978), founder of the scuola metafisica, and who was an annual visitor to Venice.

On November 15 at 6:00pm at the Istituto Italo-Britannico over at Palazzo Pesaro Papafava, Maria Stella Florio will speak about Rawdon Brown, a historical scholar who came to Venice for a two week vacation in 1833 and never left -- he died in Venice in 1883. A great friend of John Ruskin, Rawdon Brown managed to explore the Venetian State Archives and uncover volumes concerning England and its relationship with Venice which were published as "Calendar of State Papers in the Archives of Venice." He also bought the mysterious palazzo Ca' Dario in 1838.

On November 18 at 5:30PM at Palazzo Pisani, the Conservatorio Benedetto Marcello in Santo Stefano, Venice's music conservatory -- the same palace where  Don Giovanni and The Man of Stone was held -- the spectacularly rich American, Winnaretta Singer de Polignac (1865-1943), an heir to the Singer fortune and wife of the Prince Edmond de Polignac, will be honored by Vitale Fano. FAI has decided to make the restoration of Palazzo Pisani one of their projects, sure to attract international music students from around the globe. From Wikipedia:

"In 1894 the Prince and Princess de Polignac established a salon in Paris in the music room of their mansion on Avenue Henri-Martin (today, Avenue Georges-Mandel). The Polignac salon came to be known as a haven for avant-garde music. First performances of Chabrierd'IndyDebussyFauré, and Ravel took place in the Polignac salon. The young Ravel dedicated his celebrated piano work, "Pavane pour une infante défunte", to the Princesse de Polignac. Many of Proust's memorable evocations of salon culture were born during his attendance at concerts in the Polignac living room."

On November 25 at 5:30 at the Tribunale di Venezia - Aula di Corte d'Assise, Franca Zanchi and Antonio Franchini will reveal information about one of Venice's most shocking scandals, The Russian Affair -- the trial of Russian Maria Tarnowska (1877-149), which made front page headlines all over Europe. The setting was yet another palace, Palazzo Maurogonato, which today is the Hotel Ala. There is even an unproduced film script. From Wikipedia:

"In 1907, one of her lovers, Nicholas Naumov (also spelled Naumoff), killed another one of Maria's lovers, Count Pavel Kamarovsky, in Venice, allegedly upon her instigation. The Countess Tarnowska, as she was commonly called, was arrested that same year in Vienna and transferred to La Giudecca penitentiary in Venice, where the trial was to be held. The trial, locally called the Russian affair (l'affare dei Russi), began on March 14, 1910, and ended on May 20 of the same year, with the conviction of both defendants. Maria Tarnowska was found guilty but was sentenced to serve a relatively mild term of only eight years in prison, thanks to an ingenious defence (it was one of the first to include Freudian analysis of the defendant's personality and motives) – and, possibly, due to the leniency of the presiding judge.[2]"

Finally, on December 14 at 5:30PM at Palazzo Fortuny, Enric Bou will entertain with tales about the great designer, Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo (1871-1949). From Wikipedia:

"Nowadays the Museum Fortuny is housed in the Venezian-Gothic Palazzo, the former home, studio, showroom and "Think-Tank" of Mariano Fortuny (1871–1949) who acquired it at the beginning of the century. Fortuny invented in his Palazzo the Delphos gown, a gown based on the ancient Grecian style; and the Knossos Scarf, a silk scarf also inspired by this civilization. Fortuny also created new methods of dying textiles and well as ways of printing on fabrics. He created the Fortuny cyclorama dome, a stage lighting innovation that could be used to create lighting effects such as a bright sky or a faint dusk; and the Fortuny lamp, for indoor lighting."

For those of you fortunate enough to be in Venice, attending these events will be like stepping into the pages of Marcel Proust. For those of you in other parts of the world, I suggest putting on some Wagner and getting your copy of Proust's À la recherche du temps perdu down off the shelf. If you would like to support FAI, please click HERE.

For further information:
Studio Systema
Tel. +39 041 5201959
Fax +39 041 5201960

Ciao from Venice,

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Sir Peter Blake, The Butterflyman, alights in Venice

The Butterflyman in Venice
(Venice, Italy) Sir Peter Blake is called the Founding Father of Pop Art. Born on June 25, 1932, he is now seventy-eight-years old and in better form than ever. He has created a fanciful character called "The Butterflyman," a stately gentleman who travels from town to town with a magic butterfly wand and an open book, releasing butterflies that float gently in the air, spreading happiness and charm. Last night, October 9, 2010, the Butterflyman alighted at the Galleria Michela Rizzo here in Venice to present "Venice Suite," a show curated by Valerio Dehò in collaboration with the Paul Stolper Gallery in London -- where, by the way, you can see Peter Blake chum Damien Hirst's butterflies in "The Souls." Above you see the Butterflyman and his winged companions in front of the Palazzo Ducale.

I think the Butterflyman lives in the forest, and, indeed, there was a inkjet on canvas showing him in that environment. Then, after he gets fully charged with enchantment, off he trots to places like Paris and Venice and Holland, sprinkling gaiety into the atmosphere.

Now, that is just my opinion since I did not think to ask Sir Peter where the Butterflyman lives. I did, however, ask Sir Peter if he deliberately planned to open the exhibit on October 9th to coincide with what would have been John Lennon's seventieth birthday, and he said, no, and that I was the first one to remind him of the significance of the date. In any event, there was a picture of The Beatles on display, and, of course, Sir Peter Blake will be tied to them forever as the artist who created the cover of Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

In addition to the Butterflyman, the Venice Suite exhibition consists of a series of 20 screenprints set in Venice that are also available as a box of  postcards. My favorite, that lovely girl flying over Rialto on a ball, was not there; perhaps she is sold out. Peter Blake said that he created the exhibition specifically to fit into Michela Rizzo's gallery. He knew the dimensions of the space and planned accordingly. He also remarked that his life had speeded up considerably. In fact, he has a major exhibition at The Museum of Everything in London opening next week on Wednesday, October 13th.

Some of the screenprints were rather dark with airplanes about to crash over Rialto and wild beasts. Moira Jeffries wrote an interesting piece for The Scotsman last year entitled Peter Blake interview: Cut out and keep that sheds some light:

In 2007, he went back there for only the second time in his life, to support his much younger friend Tracey Emin, who was showing at the Venice Biennale. "As it happens it was a total disaster," says Blake. "We arrived at the airport and they had lost our luggage. After three hours of tracing it, we went into Venice with an Italian critic who was meeting us. We went to get on a water taxi and it moved… and I fell about four feet on to my knee. I was in agony the whole time, taking painkillers."

In the prints the city's tourist spots have been transformed by all kinds of surreal mischief and disaster. There are ice and penguins, boat races and parades. "I think what happened is that they started to become a bit surrealist and I started to push it. What wouldn't you see if you visited Venice? You would never see the Aurora Borealis for example and it seemed unlikely that Venice would freeze over."

In contrast, a new series of works set in Paris are all butterflies and charm. "It may well refer to the fact that I was in pain all the time in Venice, there are aeroplanes about to crash and wild animals. They are nightmares whereas the Paris ones are dreams."

Click HERE to read the entire article. 

There was also a wonderful diamond dust Marilyn inkjet print, among other delights. After the opening, Stephen and Joanita Green hosted a magical, mystical Paint it Blake! party at their home in Palazzo Mocenigo with colorful balloons bouncing around the dance floor, colorful nibbles to eat -- including genuine cotton candy -- and colorful vinyl music from 1965 to 1967 with the artist Luca Cabot doing a great job as the dee-jay for the evening; he even had an original Sergeant Pepper album spinning on the turntable. 

As I watched what is perhaps the most famous album cover in history spin round and round, the Beatles in their satin day-glo military outfits surrounded by iconic characters and flowers, it made me long for the days when an album was a work of art with lyrics like librettos, new technology allowing harmonies never before possible, classical mixed with pop and sitars, electric mixed with wood, brass and strings, and melodies everyone could sing; melodies that became part of the atmosphere itself, pouring out of car windows and homes and into the schools and streets. The world was filled with color, color, color everywhere, color in clothes, color in sound, colorful tastes and smells, food coming over from India and the East, a barrage of color that stimulated the eyes and nudged everyone awake. 

As John Lennon sang in Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!, "Having been some days in preparation a splendid time is guaranteed for all." Having Sir Peter Blake in the palace was even better than Mr. Kite himself, his fanciful energy inspiring everyone, and, indeed, a splendid time was had by all. 

Ciao from Venice,
Venetian Cat - The Venice Blog

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Don Giovanni and The Man of Stone

(Venice, Italy) The title of La Biennale's 54th International Festival of Contemporary Music, which concluded on October 2, was Dongiovanni e l'uom di sasso -- "Don Giovanni and The Man of Stone" -- so that was the theme running through the program directed by Luca Francesconi which consisted of 27 world premieres (18 commissioned by La Biennale), 15 Italian premieres, 77 composers, 31 events including concerts, installations, audio-visual performances, choral music, workshops, seminars and meetings.

Here is the Don Giovanni synopsis from Wikipedia: "Don Giovanni, a young, arrogant, sexually prolific nobleman, abuses and outrages everyone else in the cast, until he encounters something he cannot kill, beat up, dodge, or outwit."

The full title of the opera by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte is Il Dissoluto Punito ossia il Don Giovanni Dramma giocoso in due atti. The English translation of this varies, and is seen as "The Dissolute Punished," "The Punishment of the Libertine" etc. What is the most difficult to translate, however, is dramma giocoso, which is translated in La Biennale's program as "playful drama." From Wikipedia:

"Dramma giocoso (Italian, literally: jocular drama; plural: drammi giocosi) is the name of a genre of opera common in the mid-18th century. The term is a contraction of "dramma giocoso per musica" and is essentially a description of the text rather than the opera as a whole. The genre developed in the Neapolitan opera tradition, mainly through the work of the playwright Carlo Goldoni in Venice. Characteristic of drammi giocosi is the technique of a grand buffo scene as a dramatic climax at the end of an act. ...
...the only works of this genre that are still frequently staged are Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's and Lorenzo da Ponte's operas Don Giovanni from 1787 and Così fan tutte 1790. However, Mozart entered these works in his catalogue as "opera buffa"."

To me, what was missing in Don Giovanni and The Man of Stone was the feeling of playfulness, reflected in the works produced in the mid to latter part of the 1700s -- the same time the United States of America was being created and the Republic of Venice was being destroyed. I longed for more of that marvelous Venetian sense of humor, something I found lacking in the present production. Whenever we start to lose sight of the fact that it is The Divine Comedy, not The Divine Tragedy, mankind always gets itself in trouble. 

The Venice Effect permeates the original composition of Mozart's Don Giovanni through men like Goldoni, Salieri, and Da Ponte himself, who was friends with none other than Casanova -- that Venetian master of seduction. Both Da Ponte and Casanova have the notorious claim to fame of being banished from Venice by the authorities.
Thanks to Peter Schaffer's brilliant play and film, Amadeus, (which won 7 Tony Awards and 8 Academy Awards) most of us are familiar with the life of Mozart. From Wikipedia:

"Amadeus is a stage play written in 1979 by the English dramatist Peter Shaffer, based on the lives of the composers Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Antonio SalieriAmadeus was inspired by Mozart and Salieri, a short play by Aleksandr Pushkin which was later adapted into an opera of the same name by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Shaffer then adapted Amadeus for a film released in 1984."

And what about Antonio Salieri?

"Antonio Salieri (18 August 1750 - 7 May 1825) was an Italian classical composerconductor and teacher born in the Republic of Venice, but who spent his adult life and career as a faithful subject of the Habsburg Monarchy."

Venetian Antonio Da Ponte had already written the text for two operas with Venetian Salieri by the time he hooked up with Bavarian Mozart to write Le Nozze di Figaro in 1786, and then Don Giovanni in 1787. Also in 1786, Da Ponte had written the libretto for Il burbero di buon cuore  based on a play by the Venetian Carlo Goldoni. Da Ponte was born a Jew, became a Roman Catholic priest, and was later thought to be an Anglican. He ended up in the United States as the first professor of Italian literature at Columbia College, and used to tell tales about how he had insisted to Mozart that Don Giovanni have a comedic flair to make the subject more palatable to audiences. 

"Lorenzo Da Ponte (10 March 1749 - 17 August 1838) was a Venetian opera librettist and poet. He wrote the librettos for 28 operas by 11 composers, including Mozart. [His] widowed father converted himself and his three sons to Roman Catholicism in order to marry eighteen-year-old Orsola Pasqua Paietta. She was only four years older than Da Ponte, then 14 years old."

"He was born Emanuele Conegliano in a Jewish ghetto near Venice in 1749. When he was fourteen, his widowed father remarried, this time to a Catholic, requiring the family to convert to Catholicism, whereupon Emanuele took the name of the officiating bishop. He eventually entered a seminary, mastered Hebrew and the classical languages (in which he wrote poetry), and soon was promoted to professor, then vice rector -- all the while carrying on several love affairs.

He was ordained at age 24 and assigned to a church in Venice, where he caroused with the likes of Casanova and Gozzi for six years. Though he arranged entertainment for a brothel and got a married woman twice pregnant, among other forgivable unclerical escapades, the authorities found some of his poetry unforgivably seditious. He was brought to trial -- in absentia, for he had already fled to Vienna -- and banished."
Click HERE to read the entire article, which I strongly recommend you do.

The story of Da Ponte is the humor I am talking about. I think it is very amusing that the very first professor of Italian literature in the United States was a Venetian Jewish Roman Catholic priest thought to be an Anglican, who carried on numerous love affairs, was married with children and died at the age of 89.

So, what happened to poor Don Giovanni at this year's Biennale to make everything so dark and depressed, the female broken down into body parts? To me, it was the influence of the Father of Existentialism itself, Søren Kierkegaard. According to the La Biennale's program notes "...three key scenes of the 'old' opera and eight 'new' works commissioned by La Biennale, will correspond to the three stages of seduction laid down by Kierkegaard in Either/Or..." 

With Mozart dead and Da Ponte having himself a grand time over on the other side of the Atlantic, Kierkegaard, a depressed Dane who went to his death at age 42, a celibate bachelor, got his hands on Don Giovanni and flipped the story on its head. This is the man who is going to give us advice about the three stages of seduction??? 

Kierkegaard - Man of Stone
Dr. David Naugle has written a paper entitled Søren Kierkegaard’s Interpretation of Mozart’s Opera Don Giovanni : An Appraisal and Theological Response which can be found by clicking HERE. In it, Naugle remarks

"In Kierkegaard’s 1839 journal, this rather disturbing entry is found which speaks of the influence the play Don Juan had on his own life. "In a sense I can say of Don Juan what Donna Elvira says to him: ‘Thou murderer of my happiness.’ For in truth: this play has so diabolically enraptured me that I can never forget it. It is this play that has driven me, like Elvira, out of the calm night of the cloister”" 

No wonder Elvira has become such a tragic character over the years. The thing I find interesting about Kierkegaard is that he never married, though apparently he was deeply in love with Regine Olson, and she with him. He proposed to her on September 8, 1840, and then, in one of the world's most famous break-ups, suddenly ended the relationship on August 11, 1841 -- the dates are important because he had already become obsessed with Don Giovanni, which seemed to make him go mad. He wrote Regine cold letters pretending that he didn't love her, even though he would cry himself to sleep over her. From Wikipedia:

"Kierkegaard seems to have genuinely loved Regine but was unable to reconcile the prospect of marriage with his vocation as a writer and his passionate and introspective Christianity. Regine was shattered by his rejection of her, and was unwilling to accept Kierkegaard's breaking of their engagement, threatening to kill herself if he did not take her back.[4] Kierkegaard attempted to quell this through actions which made it appear that he did not care for her at all and make it seem that Regine had broken it off. ...
... Regine was crushed by the whole affair, as was Kierkegaard, who described spending his nights crying in his bed without her.[5] The story of the engagement became a source of gossip in Copenhagen, with Kierkegaard's flippant dismissal and apparently cruel seduction of Regine becoming wildly exaggerated. Regine's family reacted with a mixture of confusion, finding Kierkegaard's actions incomprehensible, to outright hatred for causing Regine such pain...." 
Over the years, there are many theories as to why Kierkegaard did such a thing, but I think it is nothing more complicated than the fact that his father had married the maid after knocking her up, then ran around hollering that he had earned God's wrath and that none of his seven children would outlive him. Sure enough, five of the kids died before Dad did, all except Soren and his brother Peter, who became a bishop. Knowing your siblings have dropped dead because your father has earned the Wrath of God Himself is enough to make any kid go crazy. And Soren Kierkegaard seemed to have inherited his father's wrath -- the wrath of God -- which he could not focus on his own children, because he had none. Instead, Kierkegaard punished the only woman he ever loved (look God, no kids!), became celibate (look God, no kids!) and then turned his wrath on the Danish National Church, putting God's wrath right back where it belonged. From Wikipedia:

"During the ten issues of Øjeblikket the aggressiveness of Keirkegaard's language increased; the “thousand danish priests“ “playing Christianity“ were eventually called “man-eaters“ after having been “liars“, “hypocrites“ and “destroyers of christianity" in the first issues. This verbal violence caused a sensation in Denmark, but today Kierkegaard is often considered to have lost control of himself during this campaign.[72]
Before the tenth issue of his periodical The Moment could be published, Kierkegaard collapsed on the street and was taken to a hospital. He stayed in the hospital for over a month and refused to receive communion from a pastor. ... Kierkegaard died in Frederik's Hospital after being there for over a month, possibly from complications from a fall he had taken from a tree in his youth."

After watching what Julie Taymor did with Shakespeare's The Tempest, I would love to see her take on Don Giovanni, and inject some light back into the darkness. Or, perhaps, someone should make an opera out of the life of Lou Andreas-Salomé, novelist, poet, and psychoanalyst, friend to Freud and mistress to both Rainer Maria Rilke and Friedrich Nietzsche, and someone who could teach Don Giovanni a thing or two. From Irving Stone's The Passions of the Mind, about the life of Sigmund Freud:

One of the more interesting visitors to the Congress was a woman whom Sigmund had long know about. Lou Andreas-Salomé, who had been given an intensive course in psychoanalysis by her then lover, the Swedish psychotherapist, Dr. Poul Bjerre, who had brought her to the Congress as a guest. Lou Andreas-Salomé was Russian-born, from a prosperous and cultivated family. She had married Andreas because he threatened to commit suicide if she did not. Her one condition was that she would never be obliged to have intercourse with him, a condition which Andreas accepted. A young serving girl had been brought in to take care of his needs, and had by now given him two sons. This freed Lou Andreas-Salomé to wander the world. She was a published novelist, poet, essayist, friend of the literati of a good many countries. She had been Rainer Maria Rilke's mistress during the years in which he produced his most creative poetry; and had been Friedrich Nietzsche's last and most desperate love. Nietzsche had said about her:
     "She was prepared like none other for that part of my philosophy that has hardly yet been uttered."
     Dr. Bjerre told Sigmund:
     "Lou's grasp of psychoanalysis is instantaneous and profound."
Lou Andreas-Salomé was now fifty. She had never been a beautiful woman, but remained enormously attractive, with an intelligence and spontaneity, an outgoing charm which attracted all men and most women, except Nietzsche's sister, who had jealously called her "an arch fiend," even though Lou Andreas-Salomé had refused Nietzsche's importuning to marry him. She rejected contemptuously the idea that she was a femme fatale; she simply claimed to be a free spirit, with money of her own and the liberty to travel; an "independent human being." She never fell in love except with men of talent, and usually great talent, and never gave herself completely to her love affairs. When the bloom wore off, and she met another interesting man, she terminated one affair and commenced another. No one knew how many of these affairs she had had in the past thirty years, but neither did anyone think of her as promiscuous. She reserved her inner core for herself, moving on  to the next man and to a higher stage of her own intellectual and artistic development. Sigmund was struck by the grasp and clarity of her mind. There was nothing coy or flirtatious in her manner. She asked if she might write to him in Vienna and come to see him. He agreed.

Whoever reaches into a rosebush may seize a handful of flowers; but no matter how many one holds, it's only a small portion of the whole. Nevertheless, a handful is enough to experience the nature of the flowers. Only if we refuse to reach into the bush, because we can't possibly seize all the flowers at once, or if we spread out our handful of roses as if it were the whole of the bush itself -- only then does it bloom apart from us, unknown to us, and we are left alone. 
Lou Andreas-Salomé.[7] 

Kirkegaard never reached into the bush, and the rose bloomed apart, and unknown to him, and he was left alone. Don Giovanni refused to repent for all the deliberate cruelty he inflicted on others, and the Man of Stone took him down to dinner in Hell. Lou Andreas-Salomé did not repent because she did not have to -- perhaps she's dining at a table somewhere in the ether along with Mozart and Da Ponte.

Ciao from Venice,