DON GIOVANNI  IN HELL AND HEAVEN

                             By Sy  Schechtman

 

Don Juan---Don Giovanni in Italian, Mozart’s favorite   language for most of his marvelous operas--  has always been  the legendary sexual athlete  par excellence  in western civilization.    In the famous catalogue aria  in Mozart’s  Don Giovanni,  Leporello,   the man servant  of the errant Don, explains to a very disconsolate Donna Elvira,  who  has just been  jilted  by his over amorous employer,   that in Spain alone  he has   at least    “mille et tre’  a thousand and three conquests, and in this opera alone  he is avidly  pursuing at least three more  luscious  subjects that Leporello can add to his list of  Giovanni’s   successful female seductions.      As Leporello explains,   Don Giovanni   does not discriminate.    He likes high ranking “baronesse, principesse,  marchessine”  as well as  innocent country maidens who he can be the first to deflower,   and in  the cold winter months  he likes his women   plump  and cosy and thin and willowy in the  warm months  of spring and summer.   Older women also have  a place  in his wide ranging affectionate  scale,  for they can be of value for their general wisdom  as  well  as  their more  grateful cooperation.      And, of course, his exploits  ranged far and wide,  well beyond  the thousand and three  catalogued by diligent Leporello  for Spain.

There is an actual  rival claimant for top honors in the  female  seduction  game, Giacomo Casanova,  who published a  twelve volume  memoir of his lifetime escapades, which featured  hundreds   of accounts of very intimate relations and sexual conquests  of many socially prominent  women, and some men, none of whose names  he dared divulge.   Also there were many meetings and interviews  with prominent politicians of the time, who are named.   However,  Casanova  wrote these volumes when he was  in his seventies, and impoverished,  and it is difficult to authenticate  most of the avowed facts.   And there is no hint of the cosmic overtones that a defiant  Don Giovanni  generated.   

Ever  ready  for  another hedonistic  fling after he has eluded  Donna Elvira once again  he sings the short   bacchanalian  champagne song  in preparation for a  party  at his castle for the  local  peasantry”……Pour the champagne!   Now while the drinking/Stops them from thinking/ Feasting and dancing/ We will prepare./   More girls we’ll pillage/ Out of the village/ Search every  street./ And Search every square.”     But    his  plans   are not  fulfilled.   At the end of Act 1  his  guilt in the killing of Donna Anna’s father,  who had tragically intervened  to  ward off the masked  intruder—Don Giovanni--who was trying to seduce, or rape  his daughter,  is finally firmly established.    Swords  drawn against the hostile  guests  in his palace  he and his  most reluctant  servant  Leporello  face the  somewhat cowed  opposition.   Amid the swelling, exciting music  of Mozart   he   sings his defiance  ……Dreadful dangers gather round me/ Paralyzing my invention/ And this sudden intervention/ throws my plans in disarray.  But my courage shall not fail me/  Though the powers of  Hell assail me!     Let the Day of  Judgment  threaten,/  Faithful to myself I’ll stay!    

Act Two, of course,  brings about the utter downfall of this consummate scoundrel.     But not at first.   He has already had three  affairs;  Donna Elvira   who he must keep eluding, as she is constantly denouncing him, and whom he defensively  has to insist is crazy,  Donna Anna whose father he  also killed in self defense, and then the charming peasant girl Zerlina who we do not have the  time to discuss in this short outline, but she also has a very truculent husband to be by the name of Masetto.   While the  imperturbable Don is  balancing all of them precariously like a juggler  teetering confidently on the seeming edge of collapse,  he  is planning yet   another  escapade  with  the servant  girl of Donna Elvira,    a very fortunate  woman, who while nameless in the libretto is the  recipient of a lovely  serenade by   Don Giovanni   in disguise so that  Donna  Elvira will not  recognize   him.   Suffice it  to say that  Elvira once more is duped into believing  that  Leporello disguised  in Don Giovanni’s   clothes is truly  her ever errant  lover returned and she hurries away with her “husband”  leaving the coast clear for the real disguised Don to  deliver his soothing seductive serenade.  Leporello, it must be said, is always the reluctant accomplice, threatening to quit  Giovanni’s’  employ, but being either cajoled or threatened to stay.    Sadly, in Leporello’s  case, as in most instances, the spirit was willing  but the flesh all too weak.

But   the  hostile   peasants, led by  Masetto,  are still tracking Don Giovanni,   who has attempted  seducing a fairly receptive Zerlina  twice.   Giovanni, disguised as Leporello, is able to outwit  Masetto, and even  beat him up to the bargain,   and  ends up in the neighboring cemetery, seeking    temporary   sanctuary.    Fortunately  Leporello is hiding there   too,  and they soon discover, so  too is the statue of the slain   father  of  Donna Anna---the Commendatore.      And the statue nods his head and speaks in dramatic, stentorian terms.  “Don Giovanni, this night shall see  the end of all your laughter”Leporello is petrified but Don Giovanni,  ever insouciant and imperturbable  invites the statue to dinner.   And the statue accepts.

That fateful night  Don Giovanni, secure in his castle, is enjoying   his evening meal, listening to his favorite table music, (by Mozart) and  Elvira  comes barging in.    While  she still loves him over an above  his supreme callousness, she is only interested now in his eternal salvation  and pleads for him to repent.    He laughingly refuses and invites her to dine with him.  Soon thereafter there is loud knocking on the door and the Commendatore  arrives.   There is still time  for the Giovanni’s  repentance, once more proffered by the  marble statue.   Don  Giovanni insists that he is not afraid,   gives the statue his hand  and then  feels the icy coldness beginning  as the fires of hell ring round him on the stage.    His cries of pain  belie  his prior defiance  as  he  goes down  to eternal damnation.

I have seen this  great musical masterpiece   countless times  in my life  and hope to see it  many times more as health permits.    And I greatly appreciate  the libretto  elaborated by Lorenzo da Ponte,   a literary genius of sorts  in this neglected  and vital  area of  music  making.    But I am not sure of the  desired effect  I should have.    I certainly do not have a catharsis  of revulsion,   or vindication.   Rather it seems that  a serio comic  effect has been attained;  final bemusement  at the  fate of a problematic  individual,   a libertine  who confused his lust for  earthly  material  and  secular pleasure  with the valid spiritual  needs of normal existence.      And that if he would only repent   and then  cheat  a  little morally as most of us do,  a sort of  middle class hypocrisy, it would  satisfy both  the needs of  conventional  society  and those of us who admire  the deeds of unique  heroic individuals.    But to break the mold   completely ---to unleash promiscuously  the primal sexual life force --- is  to encounter the wrath of the gods, and society, as with Prometheus  stealing the fire of heaven and forced eternally to be chained and pecked at incessantly  by    eagles and vultures.    Eternal  damnation  in the ancient classic Greek sense.

But cheer up,  thru the genius of George Bernard Shaw,  we have an alternate conclusion  to the Don Juan story.   Here, in the middle of his play, Man and Superman, Shaw  throws   in  a  profound and very funny, (thou somewhat verbose) Second Act, aptly subtitled  “Don Juan in Hell”.     Since this is Hell the Devil (not a character in our opera)  is the very witty and hospitable host, talking with his  guests Donna Anna,  Don Juan (who, of course, is our  Don Giovanni) and the statue,  our Commendatore,  who  in  “real” life killed  the intruder, the masked  Don Juan, defending the sacred honor of his daughter, Donna Anna.     

Our Devil is very congenial featuring in his domain—Hell—not brimstone and fire   but Love, Beauty, and artistic accomplishment, “feel good” things  that  allow Man to be happy    without  too much   thought or striving.  And also relatively content.  This is fine for the statue of the Commendatore,   who was  sent to Heaven initially for his  moral  rectitude,  but  is now bored to tears with  all the strait laced    “goodness”   of the  place and wants entrance to Hell with its’ more realistic and relaxed standards.    Donna   Anna has  thoughts  on the other end of the spectrum.  Strict Catholic  that she is,  she is sure that she is in Hell by a profound mistake.  Transitional  Purgatory   maybe, and she yearns for the  more rigorous  standards of heaven, where her exemplary conduct will be much admired.    Both the Commendatore and Don Juan, here in Hell,  are fast friends since Don Juan readily admits   that he was not  as good a fencer as  the statue was on earth, and also assents to the old soldier’s excuse that he only was killed in the duel with the Don on earth because he slipped.

Don Juan now   has transcended his libertine, philandering  ways. He is thoughtful, meditative.  Women now are now longer  the ultimate fruition of his  yearning loins.     Higher up,  in thought and contemplation, are his  hopes for attaining  understanding of  the Life Force, which ultimately guides and  even controls   our conduct.     The body beautiful  and its  artistic elaborations  in music, poetry, art and sensual pleasure  are a snare and a delusion  unless one thoroughly understands  one’s own relation to the cosmos, and the Life Force,  which now  can abruptly  sweep one into the arms of Woman even though  against one’s will almost, and certainly  against one’s better interest.  (Which of course was the irresponsible path on earth of the Don).

To this we have the Devil’s marvelous retort proper…….”one splendid body is worth the brains of a hundred flatulent, dyspeptic philosophers”.!

But  Shaw’s Don Juan will still  be the meliorist  par excellence.   In answer to the Devil’s  continuing lure  about the  enticements  and civilized  permissiveness of Hell  is Don Juan’s retort proper……On the Contrary,  here I have everything that disappointed me without anything that  I have not already tried  and found wanting. I tell you that  as  long as I can conceive something better than myself I  cannot be easy unless I am striving to bring it into existence or clearing the way for it.  That is the law of my life.   That is the working  within me of Life’s incessant aspiration to higher organization, wider, deeper, intenser  self–consciousness, and clearer self-understanding……    “God looked at the world and saw it was good……..against the instinct in me that looked through my eyes at the world  and saw that it could be improved..”

Heaven is a big place.  Room enough for Donna Anna  to parade  her virtue  and  respectable lineage, and for Don Juan  to seek  celestial horizons  that  transcend  his   previously  narrow earthbound  scope.    Hell is evidently  rather nice too, especially  for  those  who still have vestiges of mortality    still  clinging  to their  immortal  souls.     And then  we have  dear  old GBS  himself,   planning and conniving with Don Juan  I’m   sure,  for  the  eternal improvement   of the lot of their brethren down below.