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,

1 comment:

  1. 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.