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« Kierkegaard, "Don Giovanni" (part 2) | Main | The Dunwich Horror »
Sunday
Jan292012

Kierkegaard, "Don Giovanni" (part 1)

The first part of a review by this Danish philosopher of an 1843 performance of this work of art.  You can read the original here.

Don Giovanni has been staged yet again.  Compared to many other warmed-over, refined, and not at all nutritious pieces, with this opera the theater has, as our colloquial language puts it, a tasty chunk of meat that will tide you over for a long time.  And the public would be happy to know that there is such a thing, even if it were performed less frequently.  The papers have already voted about the performance both as a whole and in its details, thus about that I will not risk developing so quick an opinion, or one at all about the newspaper's audit and evaluation.  There is a lovely old rule traced to the long-dead Socrates: one should modestly deduce from the little that one knows rather than from the innumerable things that one doesn't.  The newspapers' theater reviews command me to assume the greatest possible modesty and an aesthetic abstinence from any conclusions.

If Mr. Hansen's performance is one which says a lot with universal applicability and admirable skill, it is also one that is ready-made and complete.  And I do not dare to have a general opinion on the matter so ready-made.  On the other hand, there is a single point that caught my interest, on which I would like for a moment to dwell and thereby request the reader's attention, as I do not wish to delay anyone in a hurry, nor waste any businessman's precious time.  I would rather dwell on this detail because I do not consider it a high-water mark in Mr. Hansen's interpretation and version, about which in general I have no opinion apart from the fact that it is indeed a high-water mark, perhaps something this actor performs everywhere at the same level (which, of course, cannot darken a detail's genuine brilliance) or at a lower level elsewhere (which, of course, could only reasonably make the high-water mark more eye-catching).  This point is the duet with Zerlina in the first act where we see, even if we may be of another opinion regarding the performer's importance in the scene, that this ought to be considered an absolute success.

The first thing required of a singer is voice.  The second is presentation, which is the union of voice and mood, as well as something else apart from the voice's suppleness in the coloraturas or roulade, since this is in theory their mutual commensurability and in reality the voice and mood's harmony in the presentation.   The last thing that is required of a dramatic singer is that his mood and feelings be correct given the situation and poetic individuality.  When a singer loses the mood and feeling of his part, he comes off as in the throes of artificial passion; if he is also an actor, he can still incorporate opposites at once into his gestures and movements.  The more he has reflected and practiced managing his voice against the mood's piano, the more combinations he will have at his disposal and, in such a way, the more fully he can give vent to the composer's demands (only when, of course, the composer's work understands when to make demands upon the singer's presentation and is not simply one of those intolerant and unperformable operas).  If he has taken less time to reflect, his mood and character will not have as great a significance.  Yet one thing remains: the universal, all-encompassing reason for mood and feeling, to be able to have voice determine imagination, and to be able to sing with imagination.  Such was the performance by Mr. Hansen which I beheld and admired at the aforementioned point.

For the duet with Zerlina huge demands are made spontaneously.  The first scene with Anna is too stormy for one to recognize Don Giovanni properly; but here everything lies in perfect order, the surroundings have been removed, and we anxiously and attentively wait to see how he will manage his first attack.  And we think: here we are going to learn whether Don Giovanni is a dandy and a windbag (what a person becomes when he wishes to be a Don Juan) who has in Leporello a faithful trumpeter and in Mozart a powerless troubadour, or whether he is indeed the famous Don Juan and whether this opera is indeed our composer's most renowned work.  The composer performs what has to be performed.  The accompaniment is ingratiating and convincing, like a stream's purling recurrence, charmingly returning, whereby the orchestra seems to supervise itself, hold in that pattern, and not allow itself to be concluded.  

All this has a dreamy yet captivating effect, as the scent of a flower may become like a sedative; it leads on into the endless, not with the energy of desire, but with silent craving and aspiration.  Mozart knows full well what he is doing, and the individual personality of a Zerlina does not seem to possess prerequisites that would condition another interpretation, such as, for example: a most powerful arousal of passion in a union of desire, where female lust would translate into energy and the risk of almost competing with Giovanni's natural might; or a female damnation of Giovanni, in which there would arise a boundless female realm; or a vanquished rebellion that founders in its pride; or the whole thing performed with noble simplicity, or defiled with heightened purity; or that same meek intensity that offended once now offends for a lifetime; or that deep faith in God, once disappointed, is now disappointed forever; or infinity's holy passion, led astray into perdition; or female recklessness that enters the light itself, and so forth.  

Zerlina's seduction is at a quiet wedding which proceeds without being called off.  Thus the essential comes to pass: she does not know how it came to be, but it did come to pass and she was seduced.*  And the result of Zerlina's greatest effort in the exercise of reason is this: one cannot explain it.  Now the interpretation of Zerlina is of great importance.  It was therefore a mistake by an otherwise meritorious actress, Ms. Kragh, to sing the replique "No!  I shall not," with strong emphasis, as if it were a decision which had been brewing in Zerlina.  Far from it.  She is bewildered, dizzy in her head, curious about her heart from the very beginning.  If we imbue her with thoughts in this respect, then the whole opera appears erroneous and mistaken.**

The following words, "Masetto's soul will bleed," deal with the same.  If this sympathy had a category, the whole thing would not be possible.  The replique must therefore not mean more and not be sung in any other way than to remain at the level of sudden gestures, such as, for example, staying in one's apron and pushing away Don Giovanni's embrace.  Precisely this makes her beautiful and lovable, and her relationship with Masetto correct.  To detect a work of atonement in the aria "Batti, batti, o bel Masetto" would be pure misunderstanding.  She is still not quite in possession of level-headedness, which can always extend, and quite abundantly, into Masetto's household, but not into Don Giovanni's snare.  She sees that Masetto is angry, so there's nothing else left to do, and she has to speak well for herself, both for his ears, and for her own.  For what this whole thing was is still not clear to her, and in her innocence her innocence is utterly doubtless.  She must be kept in this naïveté; she can only be very wise to Masetto, and he can only be so angry.  Thus neither character should have any atonement to make, as she was just redeemed.  By no means.  This begins again as soon as she sees Don Giovanni, and so again must she go and whimper a bit for Masetto, comfort him, and trust herself finally, that it is Don Giovanni and Masetto who have become enemies, God knows what for, and she has become the person who will have to satisfy them with her talk.

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* Therefore Leporello and Zerlina would be able to engage in splendid conversation when he says to her what he used to say in bygone days to Elvira regarding Don Giovanni, and what most revolted her: "Yes, oh yes!  It is so strange, because as quickly as he is here, so is he gone."  And then Zerlina would say: "It is not that at all, I tell you; one really has no idea how it all comes to pass."

** The system in such an instance would be altered and we would move towards the profound and the Greek, in that Don Giovanni would stumble over a straw, over a little Zerlina, while he fell under the sway of wholly other powers.  The complete effect and the complete unity of the story would be disrupted.  Anna's passion, the murder of her father the Commendatore, the reunion with Elvira, all of this is against Don Giovanni; he is in the process of being stopped and for the first time in his life he is left gasping for air.  All of this has happened so early on, in the first two scenes, that the opera is still at its beginning.  What now of the seduction that is to take place in the play?  One of two: it shall involve either a seduction so complicated and dangerous that he is motivated purely by the thrill, which incites his greatest desire and greatest strength (which, nevertheless, will weaken the effect and be weakened by the impact of Anna and Elvira), or an insignificant, lovable little farm-girl imbued with natural roguishness and childlike qualities, a type of woman that one may find in the north and for whom the Catholic Church has a dubious category.  Don Giovanni is well in his element here, with the impact on the rest of the play not weakened.  This is Mozart's intention, and in this intention the play has its own beautiful unity and Mozart his own joyful mission.  Don Giovanni and Zerlina relate directly to one another like natural force and natural destiny, a purely musical relationship.

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