Errol Flynn as Don Juan.
Wednesday, July 7, 2010


Don Juan and Don Giovanni

That’s Errol Flynn as Don Juan in the movie The Adventures of Don Juan. It’s a good movie, and you should see it if you can, but today we’re going to be talking about Moliere’s play Don Juan, and Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni. We’ll probably have more to say about Lorenzo da Ponte’s libretto than about Mozart’s music.

Two great archetypes emerged from Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries, Faust, from Germany, and Don Juan, from Spain. The Faust story originated in the 16th century and was supposedly based on the life of a Johann Faust. It was taken over by Marlowe, and became one of the great non-Shakespearian tragedies. When it returned to Germany in the 18th and 19th centuries, it met up Goethe, and became the basis for his Faust. Unlike the original and Marlowe, Goethe’s Faust is redeemed. He undergoes a sentimental redemption through the prayers of Marguerite. The Faust legend underwent further adaptations by musicians such as Gounod, Boito, Schumann and others. It was, during the 20th century, the source for Thomas Mann’s novel Dr. Faustus. You can find the Faust theme in works such as Damn Yankees, The Band Wagon, and at least one episode of The Twilight Zone.

Don Juan originated in 1630 with a play by Tirso de Molina titled The Burlador of Seville. From there he was adopted by Moliere, Byron, Baudelaire, Shaw, Mahler, and Hollywood. His career has seen him in several great plays, by Moliere and Shaw among others; a satirical poem, by Byron; a supreme opera, Mozart’s Don Giovanni; and symphonic music, Strauss’s tone poem. He’s been an unrepentant lecher, a helpless orphan, in Byron, a freethinker, a roguish, but not damned,, nobleman, and a philosopher.

Both Faust and Juan share the characteristic of being an enemy of God. Faust is an enemy because he yearns for greater knowledge than can be gained through lawful means. His attempts to gain knowledge take him beyond the limits that man is meant to observe. Here we have the roots of every science fiction movie that was made during the 1950s in the aftermath of the atomic bomb. Man is not ready for certain knowledge, he is not evolved enough to deal with the problems generated by atomic weaponry. You find that as subtext in Forbidden Planet, and you find it more overtly stated in movies like The Thing, Them, and others of that era.

Don Juan is the enemy of God because his appetites lead him to reject God. He desires women, and he uses them until he is tired of them. They are then discarded, and he goes in pursuit of a new beauty. In Moliere’s hands he has become a free thinker. He denies the existence of God, and scoffs at the idea of repentance.

In Moliere’s play the main plot centers around Don Juan’s marriage to Donna Elvira, and his attempt to leave her so that he pursue other women. His servant, Sganerelle, who will become Leporello in Don Giovanni, is pious, and is a counterpoint to the Don’s scoffing. Sganerelle gives a speech (“Je n'ai pas grande peine à le comprendre moi, et si tu connaissais le pèlerin, tu trouverais la chose assez facile pour lui” I.1.) about the Don’s conquests that will later become Leporello’s aria Madamina, il catalogo e questo, with its listing of the Don’s loves, including the mille e tre to be found in Spain.

Sganerelle also gets the speech that begins “La belle croyance, que voilà! Votre religion, à ce que je vois, est donc l'arithmétique?” (III.1). This anticipates later generations with their concern over science/religion, evolution and design.

The Don aids in the rescue of Don Carlos, which establishes his bravery, but Don Carlos is part of Donna Elvira’s family and wants the Don either married to Elvira, or dead.

In the course of the day he proffers a dinner invitation to the statue of Donna Elvira’s father. When the statue appears, he makes another invitation to the Don. Juan accepts, and seals his doom. Despite pretended repentance he is seized and dragged to hell. Sganerelle, however, despite his satisfaction at being rid of his employer, is also left without his wages.

Mozart’s opera is an opera buffa, which means that it has comic elements. These are principally the peasant scenes. The Don has attempted a seduction of Donna Anna, which was unsuccessful, and in a duel killed her father. The opera then focuses on his pursuit of Donna Elvira, the peasant girl Zerlina, and his defiance of authority. In the end he meets the statue who tells him “Da rider finirai pria dell’ aurora” (“Your laughter will be silenced before morning.”) The Don invites the statue to dinner with him, and the statue accepts. The Don’s dinner does not go well, and he is dragged to hell.

Mozart’s opera is not as overtly intellectual as Moliere’s play. Where Juan in Moliere is a freethinker and a lover, Mozart’s Giovanni is primarily a lover. Now it is arguable, and I think it is my experience, and one that has some literature in support of the idea, that the adolescent sexual drive, with its accompanying rebelliousness can push one away from religious faith. So it could be that Moliere’s Don uses the freethinking as a way of justifying, or rationalizing, his actions. Mozart’s Don, on the other hand, seems to be completely free of any morality, he is more purely impulsive.

In the hands of Byron he will become a vehicle for satire, and for romantic poetry. Shaw criticized Byron’s character for his lack of philosophical depth. As Shaw points out, unlike Casanova, he does not tell his own story. Shaw will take up the sexual aspect of Don Juan, but in Shaw’s hands the pursuit of sex will become the pursuit of knowledge.

It is perhaps arguable that sex and knowledge are intimately related. Is sex a form of knowledge? Does the act in some way involve a knowledge, knowledge of the beloved? Certainly one is not in ignorance after the act, but is there any knowledge gained?

In Robert Lindner’s Rebel Without a Cause Harold, the protagonist of Lindner’s psychoanalytic tale, is afflicted with an eye disorder. Lindner’s analysis reveals that Harold was witness to the primal scene, and that this was the source of the disorder. I tried to convince some of my lit students that Oedipus blinded himself because he had acquired through his eyes forbidden knowledge, that of the body of his mother. So if we’re inclined to a psychoanalytic turn of mind it may well be that sex is knowledge.

I think it was once popular to equate the forbidden fruit of Eden with sex. Shaw uses that idea in the first play, In the Beginning, of the Back to Methuselah cycle. The serpent whispers the secret of sex into Eve’s ear, and she reacts with horror and perhaps some curiosity.

That view of sex and Eden has probably fallen out of favour though.

Next up is Rousseau’s essay on inequality, and parts of the Social Contract.

Update April 1, 2011—I finally got around to watching Furtwangler’s production of Don Giovanni. This is a production that was done in 1954 shortly before Furtwangler’s death. The Don is portrayed by Cesare Siepi, who has the athletic quality and charm to portray the Don, but who is probably somewhat older than he should be. I think you have to regard the Don and his conquests as being fairly young. Unfortunately, neither Donna Anna nor Donna Elvira is either young or attractive. Since I’m more of a movie goer and movie watcher than an opera goer and opera watcher I tend to think of Flynn as Don Juan. No doubt that reveals my complete and total lack of class but what can I do.

Once you get over the fact that the cast is better suited for radio, at least in terms of appearance, you have to ask how is the singing, the acting, and the staging. The most notable thing, and this may be a defect in my copy, or it may be a defect in the original film is that the sync is off. The lack of sync makes it a bit hard to judge the acting. The opera, as Shaw says in his preface to Man and Superman, reveals “the hero's spirit in magical harmonies, elfin tones, and elate darting rhythms as of summer lightning made audible.” These harmonies, tones, and rhythms come to an end when the statue seizes the Don and carries him off to hell. Up till this point the music has carried us along, and drawn us into sympathy with the Don. The contrast between the gay, loving, defiant, amoral hero that we’ve come to love and the anguished, damned sinner is captured quite well in this production. That chill of fear, of gladness that the poor soul in the wreck ahead of us is not us, is present as the supernatural policemen come to put an end to the Don’s life.

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