The Soul of a Democrat

DON GIOVANNI, music by Amadeus Mozart, lyrics by Lorenzo Da Ponte, Tour 2016, Glyndebourne, 22nd Oct, 4pm.

Don Giovanni is the second of the three great operas Mozart wrote with the librettist, Lorenzo Da Ponte, a sequence of increasing bleakness, from the relatively joyous Marriage of Figaro, where the Count is forgiven his intended philandering, via Don Giovanni, whose fate is a kind of catharsis, we can all go home sated with a sense of justifiable revenge, to Cosi Fan Tutti, a conflation of wilful blindness that leaves us with a very bad taste in our mouths.

These operas were written and first performed around the time of the French Revolution, Don Giovanni just before, Cosi Fan Tutti just after. But somehow, they seem to exist, today, in a pre-revolutionary, prelapsarian, bubble. Whether or not they are performed in wigs and buckled shoes, the powder and stockings are understood, always present in the playing, both musically and dramatically. Mozart is a kind of cultural constant, filed under the catch-all heading classical. No matter whose head rolls, what country falls, what fashion might come and go, Mozart is always around, solace to the ruling class, visible or otherwise.

However, a bit like Mr Dick in David Copperfield, who can't keep the severed head of King Charles out of his memoirs, the guillotine is an ever present shadow, a looming reality that cannot be ignored, a metaphorical hand of fate, a warning to the audience, 'this is you, and you cannot look away'.

And though we think of these works as Mozart's, Mozart's Don Giovanni etc., the operas are collaborations, forged in difficult circumstances. An unsung hero (get it?), Lorenzo Da Ponte wrote the words and it could be argued that the words, the story, the play are just as important as the music, though that's not generally how performances tend to come across.

Lorenzo Da Ponte was a pretty interesting guy. He began his working life as a Roman Catholic priest having previously converted (his father wanted to marry a Catholic) from Judaism. He conducted his life without much regard for his calling, being convicted of offences to do with brothels. Wherever he is now, I'll bet he's thinking, 'if only I had a penny for every time they played those things I did with that Mozart', because in life he was driven by circumstance from Venice to Vienna to London to New York, pursued all the way by penury. When he wasn't writing scripts he was trying to keep body and soul, and his various families, together by being a teacher, a grocer, a Professor of Italian, and an impresario, not too financially successful in any guise, but leaving an extraordinary legacy, not just in operas but in American opera institutions.

No matter how radical and revolutionary Da Ponte's, or for that matter, Mozart's, private inclinations may have been, the operas needed to wrap their complexities in attractive, and to an extent, unthreatening packages. Just as Shakespeare, Da Ponte re-worked older, familiar stories, but with a twist. And unlike the shy, retiring Shakespeare, we know enough about Da Ponte to think that Don Giovanni may well be a self-portrait, a fantastical re-imagining of himself as a wealthy aristocrat. On the stage, anything is possible.

If you set aside the music for a moment, which, granted, is hard to do, the script can start to look quite a bit different from the fairly conventional, fairly impersonal way it is often played. Da Ponte, no doubt, imagined these characters as flesh and blood; Donna Anna, whom he is discovered with at the beginning, is a very willing partner in their dalliance; the accusation of rape only comes after Don Giovanni kills her father when her father attacks him. Giovanni's attempt to draw the bride Zerlina away from her husband to be could be seen as a rescue mission, which is wilfully misinterpreted by those who mean Don Giovanni harm.

Da Ponte was a man of his age, reinventing himself multiple times, energetic, mobile, with no respect for authority of tradition. He was an American before he even went there. He had the soul of a democrat, the instinct for violence of a pirate. He was a natural revolutionary.

Mozart, in contrast, had led a pretty constrained life. There's no doubt about the sublime music, but the energy, the instinctive understanding of the multiple layers of society, the anger barely constrained under the surface, the humour, the imaginative fire, that was Da Ponte.

Opera singers are first and foremost opera singers. Which is fair enough; these aren't the kind of songs you can sing with your friends around a piano in a pub. And operas, performed over and over again by opera singers, can build up a kind of hard layer, like paintings covered in varnish multiple times, until the characters aren't people any more, but something else, another kind of life form. A little harsh?

It's hard to see something with genuinely fresh eyes, and hard to jettison two hundred years of tradition. But if you look really hard, you can see Lorenzo Da Ponte struggling to get out, leap over the pit and shock the well-heeled, to drag the brothel into the salon, the hoi polloi into the stalls and revolution to a benighted land.

Now that would be something to see.

Paul Corcoran