Friday, June 1, 2007

Mozart as Class Warrior

My guess is that anyone familiar with Mozart who reads the above title will assume that I am about to launch into something about The Marriage of Figaro, which can probably go on record as the first opera ever written on the subject of class warfare. However, regular readers should be aware that I have been writing about Don Giovanni in anticipation of the new San Francisco Opera production that opens this weekend. This will be the focus of my attention, provoked by my attending the Opera's "Insight Panel" last night. One of the first comments to emerge in the discussion came from Stage Director Leah Hausman (mounting a production conceived by David McVicar). By way of context, I was fortunate enough to see the final dress rehearsal on Wednesday night with a couple of friends who sing in the Symphony Chorus, and we were all puzzling over the set design. We eventually agreed that it looked like nineteenth-century Paris, with a strong flavor of Sue's Mystères de Paris (not intended as a compliment). Hausman recognized that this had nothing to do with da Ponte setting the opera in mid-seventeenth-century Seville; but that particular detail did not matter because "the story is timeless." So I figured I should try to set down in writing why I feel this is a thoroughly wrongheaded way of approaching this particular opera.

This is not to say that I think that the opera has to be set in seventeenth-century Seville; but what I do think is that the fundamental machinery behind the plot is not so much Giovanni's unceasing appetite for seduction (which is more of a surface feature) than with the dynamics of the relationships between nobles and commoners. Unless you have a setting that is consistent with that kind of radical class gulf (which is really not the case in nineteenth-century Paris), the details just do not make sense. I do not think I have read any text that explores this point of view; but, having had my fill of all those writers who cannot address anything other than the man's sexual exploits, I think it is about time to look for other directions!

First of all, while there are only three commoners in the dramatis personæ, they all play critical roles. Leporello is the first character we see; and, in the course of the opera, we see as much of him as we see of Giovanni, both together and separately. We also see him cover a broad spectrum of attitudes and motives towards his actions, so he is the most multidimensional character of the bunch. Masetto, on the other hand, stands in relation to Giovanni in exactly the same way that Figaro does towards Almaviva. Masetto may not have Figaro's wit, but he shares Figaro's defiance at being pushed around by those who social norms have declared to be his "betters." Masetto knows that Giovanni is "in charge;" but he is also willing to act on his defiance. Then, of course, there is Zerlina, who, to continue the Figaro analogy, is no Susanna. She knows how to control Masetto but is highly vulnerable to Giovanni. There are a variety of ways in which a director can attribute motives to her; and, unfortunately, none of these seemed to interest McVicar or Hausman. Suffice it to say that Mozart keeps her wavering between indecision and a commitment to take the lead.

On the other hand we have the Commendatore's properly noble household, complete with a virginal daughter (Anna) and her betrothed (Ottavio). The one place where I agree with Hausman is that it makes sense to play Ottavio as sexually repressed by the mores of his class. Unfortunately, she had no good way to make this "work" in her staging. Indeed, once Ottavio finally commits himself to take action against Giovanni, he does so by summoning the police (which, needless to say, is not in the da Ponte libretto)! Anna, on the other hand, is interesting only in her reaction to Giovanni, which is that, over the course of the 3.5 hours of this opera, she gradually evaporates before our eyes. Musically this means that her material keeps getting softer and higher at the same time, almost as if she is metamorphosing into one of those angels that we encounter in Gabriel García Márquez. Complementing Anna is Elvira, who is as all-too-human as you can get; but the distinction has a lot to do with class, which is why I chose to go down this path in the first place.

Elvira's problem is that, in having "lost" her husband (i.e. having been deserted by him), she has also lost her class status. As an abandoned wife, she is no longer fit for the norms of the nobility; but she also does not belong among the commoners. Nevertheless, Mozart has endowed her with the gift of being able to "speak" to both, each in a different musical language. When Elvira breaks up Giovanni's first move on Zerlina, her music is sharp, angular, and accented, very much in the same spirit of her monologue-of-indignation that introduces her to us. Having rushed Zerlina off to a safer place, Elvira then encounters Giovanni "offering his services" to Anna and Ottavio. This time, however, her music is far more temperate, which is why it makes sense for Anna and Ottavio to take her for nobility, since they know nothing about her unfortunate past. At the dress rehearsal I saw, Twyla Robinson had a clear understanding of this contrast; and, as a result, really nailed the part. Therefore, I was not surprised when, at the Insight Panel, she talked about the opera as "Elvira's journey." That journey, of course, ends in a convent, which is really the only place it can lead, since she can no longer fit anywhere else. She is the most tragic victim of that class system, far more tragic than any character we encounter in Figaro.

That leaves Giovanni himself, and he is really the engine that drives all the plot machinery forward. If we are to take Figaro as context, there is nothing about his behavior that violates the norms of his class; so he comes across as someone who does what he does because he can do it, seeing no reason for any deeper explanation (even if he tries to cloak it in the language of "providing a service," the kind of deceptive language that, today, would probably make him a better consultant than seducer). Ultimately, his is a shallow character; but it is through his own shallowness that da Ponte and (more importantly) Mozart can explore the depths of all the other characters, both noble and common.

What, then, happens to the class struggle? There is no utopianism here. Once Giovanni's soul has been relegated to the fires of Hell, there is no reason for the tenuous alliance of nobles and commoners that led them to his castle. Elvira goes to her convent, Ottavio goes off to give Anna a year's delay on the wedding, and Zerlina and Masetto go home to dinner. Order has been recovered from Giovanni's many disruptive acts. Everyone is now back in their proper place; and, if those acts are to be remembered at all, they are likely to be recalled as (in the words of a dramatist far better than da Ponte) "a midsummer night's dream."

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