Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Don Giovanni at the Gaiety

Anyone who wants to find out what all the fuss is about in opera could do a lot worse than to make his or her way as far as the Gaiety next month, where Opera Ireland will perform Mozart’s Don Giovanni, a constant delight to audiences in the 222 years since its premier in Prague in 1787.

Mozart wrote or collaborated on twenty-two operas during his short life – not a man to spend much time leaning on the shovel, Mozart – but three in particular stand out as exceptional, even for him. They are 1786’s Le Nozze di Figaro, 1787’s Don Giovanni and 1790’s Così Fan Tutte.

The reason those three stand out is because of the man who wrote the librettos. Most opera librettists don’t get a look-in – who ever raises a glass to Francesco Maria Piave? – but Lorenzo Da Ponte was a horse of a different colour. Born a Jew, Da Ponte’s father converted to Catholicism for reasons of eighteenth century expediency. Da Ponte, in an in for a penny, in for a pound moment, took holy orders, but was run out of that, and out of his home town of Venice as well, for showing a marked preference for committing sins of the flesh rather than condemning them.

Da Ponte eventually pitched up in Vienna and the court of the Holy Roman Emperor, Joseph II, known to history – insofar as he’s remembered at all – as Marie Antoinette’s Da. Joseph appointed Da Ponte as Poet to the Theatres in 1783, and that was how Da Ponte ended up sharing a desk with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart thirteen years later.

There is no question about which of the two supplied the genius in the relationship. There’s a marvellous vignette at the start of the movie Amadeus that shows just how overwhelming Mozart’s talents were in comparison to, well, just about anyone else, really. But Mozart still needed a dramatist to supply the bones on which to pin the melodies, and Da Ponte was just the man.

Figaro, Giovanni and Così are music dramas about boys meeting girls. But whereas much of opera is, by necessity, painted in broad strokes, there is a tremendous depth in characterisation and dramaturgy in those three operas that is very seldom replicated elsewhere in the canon. Da Ponte was a man of the world, one who was no stranger to fighting in the lists of love, and he was able to bring that vast experience to bear in his writing. Indeed, in the case of Don Giovanni, the greatest lover of all, Da Ponte’s own memoir of the composition of that masterpiece suggests he was just the man for the job:

A bottle of Tokay at my right, the inkstand before me, and a box of Spanish snuff on my left, I sat at my table for twelve consecutive hours. My landlady's daughter, a pretty girl of sixteen (for whom I wish I could have felt only paternal affection) came to my room whenever I called for her, which was very often, especially when it seemed to me that I was losing my inspiration.

Lock up your daughters, indeed.

Don Giovanni is the story of man who loved women, and whom women loved back. Until such time as he dumped them, of course, at which stage he invariably sends in his valet, Leporello, to clean up the mess while he himself moves on to further conquests.

The opera is subtitled “Il Dissoluto Punito, The Rake Punished,” as Don Giovanni meets his comeuppance at the end, but raking does not meet the disapproval now that it did once. Vide Colin Farrell. So a modern interpretation now sees the amorous Don as something of a Hugh Hefner of the Enlightenment, here for a good time, not a long time.

Whatever the rights or wrongs of that, the eternal human drama of boys and girls and the glory of the music remains magnificent and inviolate through the ages. Kierkegaard said he thought Don Giovanni perfect; George Bernard Shaw was obsessed with it, and wrote in a review in 1891 that he never expected to see a performance of Don Giovanni he liked in his lifetime. As the notorious old curmudgeon still had over half a century left in his span, An Spailpín hopes GBS found a production that was at least middling in the following fifty-nine years.

Opera Ireland have rather cleverly cast two brothers, Paul and Peter Edelmann, as the Don and Leporello. Leporello represents us, Joe Schmoe, in the drama. Ostensibly there as a foil to the dissolute and feckless Don, there are hints throughout the text that Leporello only wishes he had half the success himself. It will be fascinating to see how they tease it out.

Interestingly, as well as the shows in the theatre itself, Opera Ireland are broadcasting the opening night performance in two venues, the Park Inn Hotel in Smithfield Village, Dublin 7, and Meeting House Square in Temple Bar, Dublin 2. It’s a bold and praiseworthy initiative, but the scheduling is unfortunate. Because at half past five on that Saturday evening the rugby teams of Ireland and England will be having their own operatic encounter, and it may not be easy to concentrate on the opera while a gang of boozed up rugger fans razes Temple Bar.

But never mind – as a taster to the show, here’s the great Welsh baritone Bryn Terfel performing the Catalogue Aria, where Leporello reveals to a horrified Donna Elvira that she’s just a single name on a long, long list, from a performance in 1997. Enjoy.

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