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.