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Features

March 2012 Vol. 76, No. 9


(http://www.operanews.org/Opera_News_Magazine/2012/3/March_2012.html)

The Women
In Don Giovanni, Mozart and da Ponte created three of opera's most fully realized
female characters. JAMES M. KELLER listens to the music of Donna Anna, Donna
Elvira and Zerlina.

The three ladies at the premiere of Michael Grandage's new Don Giovanni production at the
Met, left to right above, were Barbara Frittoli (Donna Elvira), Marina Rebeka (Donna Anna)
and Mojca Erdmann (Zerlina)
Johan Elbers 2012 (Frittoli, Rebeka), Beatriz Schiller 2012 (Erdmann)
View More Images
Rebeka as Mozart's Donna Anna
Beth Bergman 2012
(http://www.operanews.org/uploadedImages/Opera_News_Magazine/2012/3/Features/WomenDonGToClg312.jpg)

Elvira (Frittoli) listens to the catalogue aria


Beatriz Schiller 2012
(http://www.operanews.org/uploadedImages/Opera_News_Magazine/2012/3/Features/WomenFrittoli2lg312.jpg)
Elvira (Frittoli) listens to the catalogue aria
Beatriz Schiller 2012

Anna (Rebeka) in Act I


Beatriz Schiller 2012
(http://www.operanews.org/uploadedImages/Opera_News_Magazine/2012/3/Features/WomenRebeka2lg312.jpg)
Anna (Rebeka) in Act I
Beatriz Schiller 2012
On May 7, 1783, Wolfgang Amad Mozart wrote from his home in Vienna to his father
back in Salzburg to address his immediate operatic aspirations. "We have a certain Abate da
Ponte here as a text poet," he informed his father. "He promised to write me something New
after [his current project] but who knows whether he will keep his word or even wants
to! I would love to show here what I can really do with an Italian opera."

Discounting the likelihood of da Ponte's making good on his promise, Mozart suggested a
backup plan involving Giambattista Varesco, with whom he had produced Idomeneo three
years earlier in Munich a collaboration that had frayed the librettist's nerves. Mozart
elaborated by making reference to vocal types standard in eighteenth-century operatic usage:

So I thought perhaps Varesco, provided he isn't angry with me because of the Munich opera
could write me a New libretto for seven characters. The most essential ingredient is this:
it has to be, on the whole, very Comical; and, if possible, include two equally good female
roles; one would have to be a Seria, the other a Mezzo Carattere but in quality both roles
would have to be absolutely equal. The third female character can be entirely buffa, and so
could the male parts.

A MozartVaresco comedy did soon begin to take form L'Oca del Cairo but it was
abandoned in early 1784. Less than two years later, Mozart did realize his goal of working
with da Ponte, and that providential partnership gave rise to three monumental entries in the
opera canon Le Nozze di Figaro (1786), Don Giovanni (1787) and Cos Fan Tutte (1790).

It was in Don Giovanni that Mozart came closest to realizing the plan he had outlined in his
letter. The piece is indeed "very Comical," although its authors called it a dramma giocoso
a "jocular drama" implying that the serious and the comical would rub shoulders in its
pages. Its principals would number not seven but eight, although one, the Commendatore, was
made of stone.

In the case of Don Giovanni, the question of vocal types was not just a theoretical ideal. In the
dense plot of this opera, it was essential that the voices sound distinct and easily recognizable,
the more so given the scenario's wealth of ensemble numbers, in which characters have a
chance to express individualized thoughts. Indeed, the very idea of identifying the unique
sound of a voice is central to the plot at various moments. In the Act I recitative "Don Ottavio,
son morta!" Donna Anna fatefully reveals that she has recognized Don Giovanni's voice as
that of the man who tried to rape her and then murdered her father. "Al volto ed alla voce si
copra il traditore," proclaim Donna Anna, Donna Elvira and Don Ottavio (all together, all
masked) in the banquet scene "The traitor betrays himself by his face and his voice." In an
Act II trio, Leporello recognizes Donna Elvira's voice as she muses alone at her window ("Ah,
taci, ingiusto core"), and he lures her away by imitating Don Giovanni, who gets himself out
of an ensuing pickle by disguising his voice as Leporello's ("Cerca d'imitar la voce di
Leporello," reads the stage direction: "He attempts to mimic Leporello's voice"). Later in Act
II, Don Giovanni tells Leporello that he has just had a near-intimate moment with a girl he
encountered on the street because she briefly mistook his voice for Leporello's; and
immediately after that, the voice of the statue of the Commendatore rings out mysteriously, its
identity causing momentary consternation for the otherwise unflappable Don Giovanni and
terror in the more impressionable Leporello.

The Don and his sidekick may be at the center of the action, but when it comes to vocal
treasures, the richer rewards go to the three women, and especially to the two "equally good
female roles" of Donna Anna and Donna Elvira. While aspects of "a Seria" attach to both of
them, it is Donna Anna who falls completely under that rubric. She is a seria character in a
dual sense, an aristocratic type from opera seria but also unwaveringly "serious," even to an
extent that lends her an uneasy presence in this dramma giocoso. She is single-minded in her
quest to catch the perpetrator of the crimes against her house, and yet her music tells us that
she is the most complex woman in this opera, or at least the one modern audiences are likely
to view as the most realistic and psychologically credible. One of the impressive achievements
of the Mozartda Ponte operas is the extent to which they inject ambiguity into
characterization, and in Don Giovanni, no character is more ambiguous than Donna Anna. In
the olden days, commentators tended to view her as merely cold, and as recently as 1977
William Mann wrote, in The Operas of Mozart, "All men, to her, are beasts, and it would be
beneficial to her personal growing-up if she had been pleasantly raped by Don Juan." This,
one hopes, is not language that a responsible publisher would print today, just three and a half
decades later. Still, its sentiments do not differ greatly from those of stage directors who
would portray Donna Anna as complicit in her own attack a woman whose protestations
against Don Giovanni's departure are no more than the objections of someone unwilling to let
her romantic partner slip away.

Certainly Donna Anna does seem traumatized, but to modern audiences, at least those
acquainted with the horror of sexual assault through the ceaseless tape-loop of Law and
Order: S.V.U., this seems understandable. In fact, it may strike us as remarkable that her
expression covers as wide a territory as it does. The original version of Don Giovanni included
two solo arias for each of the cast's three sopranos, and among them Donna Anna's are
unparalleled in the vocal breadth they demand not even considering the pathos of her non-
aria scenes, which are filled with extreme emotional outbursts and infused with chromaticism
that sounds practically avant-garde even today. One might accuse Mozart of having written a
somewhat unintegrated vocal part for her, with the stentorian "Or sai chi l'onore," in brilliant
D major, requiring a dramatic voice by Mozartean standards, while "Non mi dir," in warmer F
major, draws on a far more tender temperament. But "Non mi dir" travels considerable
distance in its own right, its affective opening leading in the aria's second part to daunting
coloratura requiring clearly articulated appoggiaturas (at "Forse un giorno il cielo ancora
sentir"), florid sixteenth-note runs and athletic leaps as wide as an eleventh. At least one later
opera composer frowned on this extension of character in "Non mi dir": Hector Berlioz
described the concluding Allegro section as "execrable vocalizing that Mozart, driven by some
mysterious demon, had the misfortune to let fall from his pen a series of high notes, with
staccato runs, with cackling and jerky flourishes that lack even the merit of arousing
applause."
Mariusz Kwiecien as the Don in Michael Grandage's new Don Giovanni production at the
Met
Beth Bergman 2012

Times have changed. The passage assuredly arouses applause in most performances today;
and furthermore, the role, which was formerly viewed as the province of sopranos whose
capacities also led them to big Verdi and Puccini roles Zinka Milanov or Leontyne Price,
for example now tends to be assigned to singers who stop short of full-throttle spinto
repertoire. The difficulty of the part is not lessened by its considerable intervallic range and its
relatively high tessitura, which often places the voice between D and F on the top end of the
treble staff. Whether this is in itself a challenge for a singer depends on the individual, but it
would be a burden for many larger-voiced sopranos, whose comfort zone may typically lie just
a bit lower, and for whom a change of register may inhabit precisely that area of the vocal
range.

The other leading female role is Donna Elvira, and it is she whom Mozart would have
considered the mezzo carattere (literally, "half character"), with one foot in the opera seria
tradition and the other planted in a more comic style. Like Donna Anna, she is a soprano,
though her tessitura lies a bit lower and she needs considerable strength in the lower range.
This has led to the occasional casting of a mezzo-soprano in the part, which does no inherent
harm if the range lies comfortably; and it has the potential benefit of differentiating the
timbres of the two noblewomen. It is probably fair to say that her role is less perilous than
Donna Anna's from a vocal standpoint, but plenty of virtuosity is nonetheless built into her
arias, "Ah! chi mi dice mai" and "Ah! fuggi il traditor" to which a third aria, "Mi trad
quell'alma ingrata," was added for the second production of Don Giovanni, which took place
in Vienna in early May 1788, six months after the world premiere, in Prague. One would
regret its absence in a production today.
Like Donna Anna, Donna Elvira is a steadfast character; but where Anna's fixation is bringing
Don Giovanni to justice, Elvira's hopeless goal is to capture his heart. In "Ah! fuggi il
traditor," the seria side of Donna Elvira is displayed in a seemingly parodistic way. It is
essentially a late-Baroque effusion with relentless dotted rhythms, craggy melodic leaps and
Handelian metric displacements. It is, moreover, in the key of D major in this opera the
"seria" key that most often belongs to Donna Anna and it employs an old-fashioned
orchestration of just strings and continuo. Elsewhere Elvira tends toward the key of E-flat and
is backed by a full orchestra whose wind instruments infuse the soundscape with warmth. Her
other arias also project a sense of Classical nobility, if with a less antique veneer.

Yet Donna Elvira is a mezzo carattere part, and that implies that she contributes to the comical
aspect of the drama. Certainly there is something funny about her talent for showing up to
impede Don Giovanni's designs at the most inconvenient moments for him, but apart from that
the humor of her character does not translate easily to modern mores. Today, a woman who is
seduced by an amoral charmer, deceived into thinking that they are engaged and deserted three
days later does not seem an appropriate butt of jokes. Da Ponte, however, sets her up as
ridiculous. Don Giovanni and Leporello debase her entrance by smelling her before they hear
her; they define her as a caricature before she ever sets foot onstage. Leporello proceeds to
insult her with the catalogue aria an amusing tale on the surface, but who would inflict such
a recitation on aristocratic Donna Elvira in that situation? Mozart goes on to portray her as a
frequent hysteric, her dynamic contrasts suggesting what may then have been viewed as a
woman overreacting to defensible male behavior.

Yet the audience grows to love Donna Elvira, or at least to take her seriously, even when the
libretto stacks the deck against her. So do Donna Anna and Don Ottavio, who adopt her as
their confederate much as she adopts Zerlina, whose protection becomes her personal cause.
Ultimately, these will be temporary involvements. She is, in a sense, the reverse of Don
Giovanni. He desires that his liaisons be fleeting; Elvira desires that hers be permanent. He is
thwarted by the fact that she refuses to let go, and that she loves him though he wishes she
didn't. She is thwarted by the fact that he refuses to embrace her, and that he will not love her
though she wishes he would. She goes down fighting and loving and ends up retreating to a
convent.

Compared to Donna Anna and


Donna Elvira, Zerlina is remarkably
uncomplicated. She is the "entirely
buffa" soubrette, a peasant
unconstrained by the rules of
nobility though, as a peasant,
even less protected from Don
Giovanni's prowling than are the
noblewomen. Her arias, "Batti, batti,
o bel Masetto" and "Vedrai, carino,"
are both cast in simple forms,
mirroring her presumed lack of
sophistication. In the former so
Haydnesque in the way its melody
sidles into the tonic trilling
violins and a bouncing obbligato
cello underscore her charms, which
Masetto can never resist. It may be
easier for us to resist it, since the
aria's sentiment is one of the most
distasteful in the entire opera
repertoire. Here she invites Masetto
to brutalize her by beating her,
uprooting her hair and poking out
her eyes, in response to which she
promises to renew her adoration of
him. "Ah, but I see you don't have
the heart to," she concludes, and
apologists argue that her strong
language has been merely in jest; it
is "an arch parody of submission,"
wrote the late Wye Allanbrook. Her
other winsome aria, "Vedrai,
carino," promises "a certain balm I
carry on me" as recompense for the
flogging Masetto has received from
Don Giovanni. It all adds to the
moral hollowness that makes the
action of Don Giovanni so
profoundly unpleasant, even if
Mozart masks much of it in tones of
enticing beauty.

The finale of Act I is a structural


moment where Mozart's operas
habitually intensify not only action
Zerlina (Erdmann) sings "Batti, batti" to Masetto (Joshua but traits of character. In this case,
Bloom). Elvira, Anna and Ottavio arrive at
Beatriz Schiller 2012 Don Giovanni's party masked,
another example of this opera's
players being effectively reduced to only voices. It is Donna Elvira who urges them into
action, her opening phrase, "Bisogna aver coraggio" (We must have courage), sung in
emphatic eighth-notes in the opera's tonic key of D minor. She delivers her line in the spirit of
a resolute march, her tenacity all the more marked for the nervous elaborations the violins
trace around it. Don Ottavio agrees, and he accordingly repeats her music. Donna Anna,
however, is beginning her withdrawal: she voices confusion and fear about their decision to
confront Don Giovanni in his own home. Her music reflects her mind-frame, and her phrases
meander a bit or are broken by rests into irresolution.

She goes through the steps all the same literally, as a minuet strikes up and then the
three, still masked, embark on their exquisite trio. Elvira urges them on, her phrases insistently
pushing the music forward. The three manage to project a unified front when Zerlina calls out
in terror from another room "Gente, aiuto!" yet another example of action motivated by
the recognition of a voice. Confusion ensues as the maskers scramble to help Zerlina, who is
now completely out of her depth. "Soccorretemi, o son morta!" she cries "Help me or I am
dead!" her words echoing Donna Anna's earlier lament "Don Ottavio, son morta!" In
musical terms, Zerlina becomes for the moment largely indistinguishable from Donna Anna
and Donna Elvira. Mozart takes care in this opera to distinguish his three ladies through their
distinct vocal characters, but here he plays a different suit. In merging their musical characters,
he finds a further way to make a point at this moment of intense dramatic import. As the music
courses toward the act's conclusion, Donna Anna, Donna Elvira and Zerlina play essentially
interchangeable roles, even to the point of sometimes singing their lines in unison. Don
Giovanni has viewed them that way all along; for him, women are essentially interchangeable.
But when they unite in the Act I finale, we sense that their sisterhood is powerful enough to
sustain them even in a confrontation with the demonic Don.

JAMES M. KELLER is program annotator of the New York Philharmonic and the San
Francisco Symphony. His book Chamber Music: A Listener's Guide was published last year
by Oxford University Press.

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