Is he a rapist or a seducer? A great lover of women or a sex addict? These questions hover around the fictional figure of Don Juan. In his first appearance, in the Spanish Golden Age play “The Trickster of Seville” by Tirso de Molina, the actions of the title character are condemned – the whole point of the play is that a life lived in sin results in a quick trip to hell. In Mozart’s opera “Don Giovanni”, the original title included the phrase “Il Dissoluto Punito” – the Rake Punished. For centuries the story of Don Juan – sexual conquests by the hundreds, murder, ghosts – have been catnip to artists, poets, playwrights, composers…. and sometimes this life is celebrated as much as it is censured.
Most powerful and sometimes most troubling is Mozart and da Ponte’s sublime opera version. This work never fails to move, impress and sometimes overwhelm with the power and breadth of its music. The overture alone, perhaps the greatest opera overture ever written, is an epic battle of good and evil set to music, a compelling fight in which it is uncertain who will triumph. But on the stage the portrayal of the Don is a problem. Many accomplished baritones have sung this great role, and in most productions the tendency is to err on the side of bonhomie. The black side of Don Giovanni – the abductor, rapist and murderer – is often downplayed, and instead, he is portrayed as a lover of women, a vigorous, jolly Casanova who unfortunately does kill Dona Anna’s father, but for the most part just really, really likes girls. Most opera singers don’t want to embrace the evil, and often try to make the character likeable in a way that they would never try to do with, say, Iago. It is something about the admiration men hold for a great seducer.
It takes a brave, brave singer to “go there,” and the astoundingly versatile Swedish baritone Peter Mattei – as fine an acting singer as we have on the opera stage today – has the right stuff. Recently at the Metropolitan Opera, in a production by former Donmar Warehouse director Michael Grandage, Mr. Mattei created a complex and amoral Don, manic, fearless, lustful, frightening, feral and yes, sexy…alarmingly both terrible and wonderful. Using his great height to full advantage Mr. Mattei dominated those around him by sheer physicality, in a lethal combination of size and droit du seigneur, which he wore like a cloak. When the Don entered Zerlina’s engagement celebration, his eyes lit up at the women present as if he were looking at a box of chocolates – so many tasty morsels! We saw him again and again use sex as a precision tool, to influence, intimidate, persuade, overpower, even just to shut a woman up – he focused on his prey with a gleam and ferocity found only in Nature. He was at his most vibrant when hunting, and like most profligates, otherwise dead inside: one could see both his emptiness and his searing need for his next fix as if by X-ray. And yet this Don rued killing the Commendatore, and when kneeling on the floor over the body his regret was surprisingly genuine. In his final encounter with the Stone Guest he was engaged and even relieved – at last! Someone to challenge him! Someone with the power to stop him? Something different to do, anyway, with a greater thrill and bigger risk, and damn the consequences.
Rapist or seducer? Lover of women or sex addict? In the hands of a brilliant interpreter the answer is, all of the above. It is a truly great performance when the portrayal of a deeply heinous life, without sympathy, kindness or fellow feeling, can yet evoke in us human understanding. Thank you Mr. Grandage, Mr. Mattei, Mr. Gilbert, who conducted magnificently, and most of all, W.A. Mozart, the founder of the feast.
©Poets Sinews, 2015. Reuse with permission.