Mozart chose to call his opera Il dissoluto punito ossia il Don Giovanni (The Dissolute Punished or Don Giovanni). And yet, the 19th century ignored that periphrasis and saw in Don Giovanni both a flamboyant seducer and a subversive, liberating force. For this new production of Don Giovanni, you have chosen to go back to the original interpretation...
Jan Vandenhouwe: It was important for Ivo [Van Hove] to present a dark and uncompromising Don Giovanni devoid of all empathy, who takes advantage of everyone around him and who has no hesitation in killing: a destructive element who challenges the social order. One has to remember the Jesuit origins of the Spanish play by Tirso de Molina – The Trickster of Seville—at a time when the theatre was supposed to have an edifying function. Don Juan is a parasite who has to be eliminated to restore the balance of the world. In fact, with Mozart, he is punished twice: first by human society—and that is the essence of the role of Don Ottavio who seeks to bring the criminal to justice—but also by the statue of the Commendatore which embodies a more metaphysical form of punishment. This last verdict is of course the more complex to grasp.
How do you stage a punishment that is presented as divine?
Jan Vandenhouwe: In 2005, the Austrian director Michael Haneke [in his production for the Paris Opera] opted to completely humanise the punishment of the dissolute: Don Giovanni is stabbed to death by Donna Elvira and his body is thrown out of the window by the same cleaning staff he had systematically persecuted and humiliated. As far as we were concerned, it seemed important to retain the superhuman aspect which is at the very essence of the opera: After Requiem, Don Giovanni is Mozart’s most religious score. No other composer at the time possessed such an incredible capacity to set the supernatural to music—the stone statute that speaks, Don Giovanni engulfed by the flames of Hell... It’s enough to listen to the brass and the trombones in the section for the Commendatore to be convinced that those are the sounds from beyond the grave...
What crimes does this metaphysical punishment penalise?
Jan Vandenhouwe: If you consider the “voice” of the
punishment—namely, the statue of the Commendatore—you realise that it comes
into play at two specific moments in the opera: first in the cemetery when Don
Giovanni scoffs at marriage; and then again in the finale of Act II when Donna
Elvira visits him to forgive him, and Don Giovanni rejects her. And here we
touch on two key principles. Forgiveness is one of the underlying themes in
Mozart’s operas, whether we think of Le Nozze di Figaro or La
Clemenza di Tito. As for marriage, it was one of the cornerstones of the
policies of Emperor Joseph II, who was the first European sovereign to
legislate on the subject: back then, marriage was regarded as a symbol aimed at
preserving the balance of society by curbing the excesses of the Ancien Regime.
Ultimately, isn’t there something in the debate which crystallizes around Don Giovanni’s character as a seducer or a predator which is evocative of the current news cycle today: On the one side, the growing chorus of voices denouncing male domination and, on the other, those who see that particular liberation movement as undermining their privileges and a threat to their freedom of expression?
Jan Vandenhouwe: The tendency to absolve Don Giovanni of his
crimes first appeared in the 19th century, notably in the writings
of Hoffmann: Don Giovanni henceforth became synonymous with liberation and even
revolution. And yet, Mozart could not be any clearer: when he appears on stage,
his first deed consists of raping a woman and killing her father. And then, a
few minutes later, there he is in the street in search of a new victim... In
reality, Don Giovanni does not represent modernity, but rather, all the abuses
of the Ancien Regime. The “liberty” he advocates has nothing in common with the
liberty associated with the French Revolution: it is that of the dominator who
refuses to tolerate any impediment to his carnal pleasure. Ivo also highlights
the character’s tendency to lie compulsively. if I dare say so, the problem
with Don Giovanni is that he himself believes the Don Juan legend: he has
convinced himself that he is capable of seducing all the women cited in
Leporello’s list. And yet, in the opera, you cannot say that his exploits are
very convincing. Only Elvira is in love with him. Anna rejects him and as for
Zerlina, well, he tries to rape her. The only time in the work where we
actually see him seducing someone is during the duet with Zerlina. But we know
all too well that the young peasant girl is just the umpteenth victim to whom
he promises marriage so he can spend a night with her only to abandon
afterwards, just as he did with Elvira in Burgos. Besides, his endeavours
ultimately end in failure. For a man reputed to have seduced several thousand
women, he comes across as something of a loser...
Where do we find the counterweight to the destructiveness embodied by Don Giovanni?
Jan Vandenhouwe: In stark contrast to Don Giovanni, Zerlina and Masetto are the embodiment of the “natural” couple, in accordance with a notion dear to Mozart that we will find later in Die Zauberflöte: it is a pure and simple love, tinged with a hint of jealousy, eroticism, sensuality, and sexuality… It should also be noted that Masetto is one of the few characters in all of Mozart’s operas who can be described as revolutionary. In Act II, he takes up arms and raises an “army” to go in search of Don Giovanni, determined to finish off and eradicate the old system of oppression and domination that condemns women and the poor to perpetual servitude. Bear in mind, this is 1787, two years before the French Revolution and Masetto’s aria is infused with accents that evoke the revolutionary songs that were being sung by the people at that time.
Don Ottavio, for his part, is the Enlightened Man, the voice of Reason. He says his aim is to “discover the truth”: for this particular era, the reference is clear. Being a person who is respectful of the rule of law, the social contract and human rights, he represents true modernity. Contrary to what the 19th century would have us believe; he is neither weak nor tedious. To help him develop his ideas, Mozart composed two arias which count among the most beautiful that the latter ever wrote for a tenor: two arias in the opera seria style, imbued with profound humanism, which already act as a precursor for Titus. You cannot imagine a greater contrast with Don Giovanni who, strictly speaking, has no aria of his own—except for the fiery “champagne aria” and the canzonetta in Act II—yet the latter is literally “another’s aria” because he disguises himself as a valet to seduce Donna Elvira’s chambermaid.
You link Don Giovanni’s excesses in a historical context with the world as it was before, the world of the Ancien Régime. What resonance does this particular character have in our contemporary society?
Your reading: Dissolute Don Giovanni