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Shadow and light find tense accord in The Met Opera's 'Don Giovanni'

A chilling scene from Ivo van Hove's production of 'Don Giovanni' at The Metropolitan Opera.
The Metropolitan Opera
A chilling scene from Ivo van Hove's production of 'Don Giovanni' at The Metropolitan Opera.

The Metropolitan Opera concludes its 2022-2023 Season with two new productions of Mozart operas, Don Giovanni (1788) and Die Zauberflöte (1791). The former will be broadcast as part of the Toll Brothers - Metropolitan Opera International Radio Network on Saturday, May 20 at 1 p.m., at 90.1FM - WRTI and streaming at wrti.org.

Don Giovanni is the second of three masterpieces Mozart wrote with collaborator and librettist Lorenzo da Ponte, the other two being Le nozze di Figaro (1786) and Così fan tutte (1790). All three explore evolving sexual politics of the time, but only Don Giovanni condemns the trauma caused by a major character.

This production by Met debutante Ivo van Hove opened on May 5 to a glowing review in the New York Times. Along with Peter Mattei (Don Giovanni), it stars Federica Lombardi (Donna Anna), Ben Bliss (Don Ottavio), Ana María Martínez (Donna Elvira), Adam Plachetka (Leporello), Ying Fang (Zerlina), and Academy of Vocal Arts alum Alfred Walker (Masetto). The cast is led by conductor Nathalie Stutzmann, The Philadelphia Orchestra’s Principal Guest Conductor.

On the title page of Don Giovanni’s score, we see the opera’s full title: Il dissolute punito, ossia il Don Giovanni (The Rake Punished, or Don Giovanni). Just below that, it is described as a Dramma giocosa, or playful drama – a work that has both comic and serious elements. Yet at the center of this opera is a serial seducer with at least 2,065 documented conquests that we first meet fleeing a failed rape attempt, which ends with him murdering the victim’s father. The rake, unable to repent for his sins, is punished when he is dragged to Hell by the ghost of the murdered man. Still, in this context, how do we find both dark and light within the drama?

Let’s start with the overture. One can only imagine its impact on an 18th-century audience. Mozart begins with one of the most terrifying openings of any opera up to this time — an intense, prolonged chord in the key of D minor. The German composer and music theorist Johann Mattheson, who ascribed emotional qualities and characteristics to key signatures in 1713, characterized D minor as melancholy, concerned, and serious. After Mozart ruminates in this mode, the clouds part, the sun breaks, and his violins chase each other in a frivolous and playful D major, a key described by Mattheson as joyful. Mozart ends the overture modulating into F major, the relative major key of D minor, as Act I begins.

The curtain opens and we meet Leporello, manservant to Don Giovanni, complaining about his job while having dreams of being a gentleman. While he continues in F major, Donna Anna runs in followed by an intruder who has attempted to rape her in the dark. Both the assaulted and the assailant sing in a minor key, while Leporello brings us back, temporarily, into the major with a comic patter to accompany Anna and the intruder. The chiaroscuro effect of light and dark permeates this score, the giocosa to the dramma.

This is not to suggest that Mozart thought his violent opening scene was funny. Leporello comes out of the commedia dell’arte buffo tradition and is there for comic relief; Donna Anna comes out of the opera seria tradition and follows the formal style of music of that genre.

Mozart shows how seriously he treats her assault in one of the most harrowing scenes in opera. She has realized that the nobleman and her social peer, Don Giovanni, was the unknown intruder who forced himself on her. In an extended accompanied recitative, filled with minor and diminished chords, she vividly relives the events that took place offstage before the curtain rose after the overture. Again, we can only imagine how audiences at the premiere reacted to such a raw depiction of sexual violence onstage. This leads to her rousing call for vengeance, “Or sai chi l’onore,” sung in D major.

The other characters in the opera have a bond as victims of Don Giovanni’s hubris, entitlement, lies, deceit and sexual addiction in one way or another. If Leporello is an enabler due to rank and employment, everyone — from the aristocratic Donna Anna and Don Ottavio, to Giovanni’s abandoned wife Donna Elvira, to the peasant newlywed couple of Zerlina and Masetto — has to pick up the pieces of their lives after the preceding 24 hours or so between the Don’s attempted rape of Donna Anna and his comeuppance.

Mozart's 'Don Giovanni' in a new production at The Metropolitan Opera.
The Metropolitan Opera
Mozart's 'Don Giovanni' in a new production at The Metropolitan Opera.

We only get to know these characters through the ways Giovanni impacted their lives. If we are introduced to each of the characters in Act I as it leads to its dramatic climax of the attempted rape of Zerlina, we can sympathize and understand them through their more reflective Act II scenes and arias as it leads to the denouement.

Still, we see each of the characters as survivors. Donna Anna asks her fiancé, Don Ottavio, to allow her one year to heal from trauma before they marry. Donna Elvira decides to enter into a convent. Zerlina and Masetto will go home to dinner and start their life together, while Leporello will head to the tavern to find himself a better master. Each is true to themselves, looking forward to the future as the sun, which was hinted at in the overture, shines again in a brilliant and triumphant D major epilogue.

In my teens, the movie Amadeus changed my life forever. It introduced me to classical music and opera—I couldn’t get enough of it.