Theater and opera in the late eighteenth century were sites of social instruction and experimentation. Many philosophers, writers and officials thought they could be used as vehicles for propagating social reforms. Those writing for theater and opera sought to express their creativity and engage in aesthetic reflection upon society. Enlightenment ideas and reforms and resistance to them by representatives of the old regime provided the central themes for reflection. This was especially true of Mozart and his librettists, Lorenzo Da Ponte and Emanuel Schickaneder, who wrote operas in which these ideas provided the basis for what can only be described as thought experiments. Their artistic masterpieces constitute early and prescient critiques of the Enlightenment, and this despite their utter lack of sympathy for the ancien régime.
The three Mozart-Da Ponte operas – Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni and Così fan tutte -- build on tradition of opera buffa, which is set in the mundane world. They probe the social consequences of values and ideas associated with the old regime as well as the modern world, as envisaged by philosophes. The protagonists of these dramas assume a range of stances, some are committed to existing arrangements and others to the social and individual possibilities opened by changing ideas. Mozart and Da Ponte construct social experiments by throwing different kinds of individuals and tendencies together under characteristic social stresses.
The Mozart-Da Ponte operas maintain comedy’s traditional focus on marriage and social reproduction but engage successively more extreme Enlightenment positions. Marriage of Figaro displays the effects of Enlightenment ideas and reforms on shifting relations between the old aristocracy and its dependents. It tracks the tensions associated with the transition from a feudal to a paternalistic agrarian regime. Don Giovanni looks at the disruption produced by an individualist libertine who adheres to his way of life regardless of its destructive consequences for himself and others. It explores the binary between role entrapment and the Hobbesian risk of chaos when roles are undermined. Così fan tutte provides a sophisticated social onlooker the opportunity to educate the young by destroying their illusions about love, and by doing so, to lay the foundation for a new social order based on equal doses of reason and cynicism. Lorenzo Da Ponte, frequently compared to Don Giovanni for his rakishness, is in fact closer to the cynic pedagogue Don Alfonso, whose experiment with the young lovers displays in miniature the procedures of librettist and composer.
The Magic Flute is the product of Mozart and librettist Emanuel Schickaneder. In contrast to the more realist genre of the Da Ponte operas, Magic Flute uses the conventions of the popular Singspiel, with its fairy-tale plot and fantastic effects, to offer an abstract vision of a new social order. I argue that this seeming utopia is really a terrifying dystopia that offers a remarkably prescient understanding of the character and dynamics of the so-called totalitarian regimes of the twentieth-century.
The Mozart-Da Ponte operas directly address the transformation of social relations from a society of hierarchical orders to one of greater mobility and personal choice. They are set in the present or the near-past and in the near-abroad. The Magic Flute seems to look backward to an ancient, mystical world, in sharp contrast to the matter-of-fact, increasingly secular world of the present. Like the Freemasonry on which it freely draws, it is part of a modernizing project. Its characters are more abstract than real and face generalized challenges. They are defined by social position -- as Naturmenschen [simple men of nature] or aristocrats seeking honor, and respond in predictable ways. In the Mozart-Da Ponte operas the interactions of characters and plots are contingent. In Magic Flute, the story plays out predictably, in the deductive manner of modern social science. The social order does not develop, but is revealed through the instruction and initiation of the educable characters.
VIVA LA LIBERTÀ
The Enlightenment held out the prospect of escaping many traditional political, economic and social restrictions, but this was hardly possible in the Austria of Maria Theresa, Joseph II and Leopold II. Mozart and his collaborators had to experience the Enlightenment largely as an intellectual phenomenon. Mozart was a member of a Masonic lodge, where Enlightenment-inspired books were read and their ideas discussed. Da Ponte was familiar with the most prominent Enlightenment authors and used Rousseau’s Discourses as a teaching text in Treviso.2 In Salzburg, Mozart described his employer, Archbishop Colloredo, as an “inhuman villain,” and was kicked down the stairs by his chamberlain for resigning his post.3 In Vienna, he mocked aristocratic pretensions, sometimes signing his letters “Elder von Schwantz [Lord Pigtail].4 Mozart and his collaborators were painfully aware of the creative, economic and social constraints they faced. To maintain their psychological equilibrium Mozart and his librettists had to limit their economic and social aspirations.
Aristotle insists that the powerless cannot allow themselves to feel anger because they are not in a position to satisfy the accompanying desire for revenge. They can, however, experience this pleasure vicariously when offenders receive their comeuppance.5 Mozart and Da Ponte sought such satisfaction in their art by creating worlds in which they would like to reside or those in which aristocrats and kings were powerless, parodied or even punished. In Marriage of Figaro, Figaro’s opening cavatina, “Se vuol ballare” [If you want to dance] asserts his equality, indeed, his superiority, over his employer the Count. It is sung to an aristocratic minuet, but one with second-beat accents that suggest, at least metaphorically, that on this occasion Figaro is kicking the Count down a flight of stairs.6 Happiness, Mozart wrote his father, “consists simply in imagination.”7
Mozart was a liminal figure in a second sense. He had a strong positive self-image as a musical genius but was treated as a servant and repeatedly humiliated by Archbishop Colloredo of Salzburg and his steward Count Arco. Mozart fared better in Vienna. Through the salon of Count Franz-Joseph Thun he made extensive contacts with the court and became friends with Gottfried von Swieten, a major reform figure and leading representative of the Viennese Aufklärung [Enlightenment]. Mozart still struggled to make a living and rise in status His ambitions were ahead of his time. In the late eighteenth century, poets were increasingly lionized as philosophers developed the concept of artistic genius. Enlightenment philosophes looked to imagination to make individuals unique. In 1768, Rousseau, in his Dictionaire de musique, made a plea for granting higher status to musicians. Beethoven would be the first composer to cash in on growing public respect for, if not awe of, musical genius. Mozart’s Vienna witnessed declining aristocratic support of musical establishments and did not have a large enough middle class to support them. Nor were there effective copyright laws. To make matters worse, Joseph’s war with Turkey brought to a quick end the economic boom that had supported conspicuous consumption, of which new musical compositions and performances were an important component.8
In the late eighteenth century, German philosophy took up the question of music in conjunction with its broader engagement with art.9 In his Critique of Judgment, Kant makes the case for the relationship between aesthetic feelings and moral sense. Aesthetic judgment arises from a feeling of subjective purpose. The latter derives from our understanding of the harmony between an appearing form and our perceptive powers; this coincidence generates a powerful impression of natural phenomena as components of an integrated system.10 In 1800, Schlegel declared that music has "more affinity to philosophy than to poetry."11 Schiller praised music as the most formal and least mimetic of arts.12 Schelling devoted a treatise to art and in a series of lectures delivered in Jena in 1802-03, and argued, like Kant, that art could reconcile the real and finite with the ideal and infinite. Novalis and Schlegel associated the inexhaustibility of interpretation with unendliche Sehnsucht [never ending longing] which extended from the plastic arts to music. Kierkegaard used Papageno and Don Giovanni to define and illustrate the "aesthetic" level of his "Either/Or" dialectic.13 Later in the nineteenth century, Nietzsche developed his concept of the Dionysian through his engagement with Wagnerian opera.14
Philosophical interest in music encouraged the emergence of a new musical aesthetic in the last decade of the eighteenth century. People in German-speaking lands began to intellectualize their musical experiences. This had always been true to some degree with opera seria, but now extended to other forms of opera and, early in the nineteenth century, to instrumental music as well. Leading critics interpreted music as "sonic paradigms of an ideal society.”15 In an influential 1810 review of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, E. T. A. Hoffmann described it as a cosmopolitan state "transcending all political and linguistic boundaries." Others heard in it aspirations of a German national state.16 Mozart wrote at the cusp of this era of change and could not assume that his listeners would associate his music with particular political or philosophical ideas. Some critics nevertheless found hidden meanings in his operas. There is no evidence that Mozart ever intended them as coded texts, but he was undeniably influenced by the emerging link between philosophy and music and his own personal circumstances.
Mozart's La finta giardiniera (K. 196) written when the composer was eighteen years old, reveals the influence of Rousseau and Schiller. It is prototypical sturm und drang. Like Schiller's Die Räuber, written in 1781, its hackneyed story line treats crime as a display of sincere emotion. Title and plot highlight the tension between people and the deceptive, false roles they play. Repression of one’s true self and emotions leads to madness in the opera, but à la Rousseau, the garden is the venue where nature and society can be reconciled and where Belfiore and Sandrina find sanity "to the sound of sweet music.”17 Mozart returned to this theme in his mature operas, where some of his key characters are doubly alienated: from the state of nature where Rousseau believed people could live in harmony with themselves and others, and from society, which deprives them of their identities by compelling conformity to false values.
Zaide (K. 344), written in 1780, draws on opera seria and buffa traditions. It is the first evidence of Mozart using opera to express personal frustrations and aspirations. The libretto is a common enough rescue saga that may reflect Mozart’s sense of being a prisoner in Salzburg, where he was in thrall to tyrannical Archbishop Colloredo. As in the later Abduction from theSeraglio, slaves lament their fate to music based on repeated fourths. Mozart would employ the same motif in Leporello's opening soliloquy in Don Giovanni -- "Notte e giorno faticar" [Night and day, exhaustion] -- where he expresses deep resentment about his servitude.18 Leporello’s emphatic exclamation: “non voglio più servir” [I no longer want to serve] was probably allowed by the censor because it was in Italian. It likely expressed Mozart’s heartfelt sentiments. In Zaide, Gomatz, a captive Christian slave, sings a long and despairing aria in the final scene of the uncompleted opera, where he and Zaide, who has forsaken the court for her love for him, are about to be severely punished. Gomatz is strikingly similar to Romatz, an anagram Mozart coined and often used to represent his name. The enraged sultan is suggestive of the archbishop.19
Mozart was educated by his progressively inclined and widely read father who, for example, championed the use of lightning rods despite their condemnation by the Church.20 Wolfgang was interested in broader cultural developments and accumulated a small library. He was exposed to Rosicrucian and Enlightenment ideas through his membership in the Viennese Masonic lodge Zur Wohltätigkeit. In Paris, in 1764, he met some of the key figures of the Enlightenment. For six months he lived in the home of the mistress of Baron Melchior Grimm, who ran a salon frequented by Encyclopedistes and Rousseau. In Mannheim, where Mozart stopped for some time on the way home from Paris, he was an enthusiastic theater-goer and took in plays by Beaumarchais, Corneille, Goldsmith, Goldoni, Gozzi, Goethe, Lessing, Marivaux, Molière, Shakespeare and Sheridan.21 He was particularly impressed by Goethe’s plays and subsequently attracted to his and Schiller’s classicism. Goethe's classicism of the 1780s attempted to balance individual expression and external reality. His poem, Natur und Kunst, expressed fascination with nature, especially its ability to impose form on all flora and fauna. The artist too must work within forms. For Goethe and Schiller, classicism could help express and shape the character, vision and order of humankind.22 Mozart responded favorably to this development, which mirrored his approach to music. He consistently sought to innovate without violating the general rules of the genres in which he worked. He did the same in his private life where he improvised within, rather than rebelling against, the rules of society.
Viennese musical classicism was an offshoot of Weimar literary classicism. It developed from the earlier galant style associated with Johann Stamitz, François Couperin, C. P. E. Bach and the naturalism of Gluck. Haydn and Mozart were familiar with both styles and proponents of the latter. Like Gluck, Mozart wrote music intended to express the feelings of the characters on stage.23In contrast to Gluck, he never abandoned form, but sought to work within it, or to modify it to suit his dramatic ends. He remained faithful to the guiding concept that individual elements should be subordinated to the whole by homogeneity in rhythm and tempo. His individualism would find expression in counterpoint, orchestral coloring and melodic themes that allowed him to transform a genre while adhering to its formal rules. His most significant structural innovation was the ensemble, which he developed into a complex musical form in its own right.24 In Idomeneo (K. 366) the integration of voices in its ensembles aroused opposition from soloists, who saw them as undermining their star status and with it, the possibility of being the unchallenged center of attention.25
The most revealing statement of Mozart's aesthetics is contained in a letter to his father about Die Entführung aus dem Serail [The Abduction from the Seraglio]. He explains how he has captured Osmin's rage and desire for revenge by going from F, the key of the aria, to A minor, a related key. "Passions, whether violent or not, must never be expressed in a way as to disgust, and music, even in the most terrible situations, must never offend the ear. . . ."26 Like Goethe, Mozart came to believe that freedom was best achieved through mastery of the rules – of all forms of music and opera. This allowed their imaginative exploitation, and bending, but never total violation.
Although his librettists were important, Mozart is the central figure of this chapter. In baroque and absolutist Salzburg, he was treated as a servant. In Vienna, he was sometimes compelled to take his meals in servants quarters but on other occasions entertained in court by aristocracy and royalty.27 He used his talent to eke out an independent living as a teacher, performer and composer, vowing never to go back into service after his humiliating employment with Archbishop Colloredo.28 In Vienna he was accorded more respect than in Salzburg, and through his contacts with Count Franz-Joseph Thun and Free Masons, was quickly integrated in the leading circles of the Viennese Aufklärung. He struggled to work out an Enlightenment-inspired identity for himself. This was a consuming project, as it involved integration of his personal, professional and artistic lives. The quest is already visible in his first opera, Bastien und Bastienne, written in 1768, when he was twelve years old, and consistently evident in the mature works I treat in this chapter.
My interpretations of these operas rest on the premise that there is a close connection between music and text. Over the course of opera's history the relationship evolved. The independence of text from music reached its zenith in the era of Pietro Metastasio (1698-1782), who described his stoic and graceful libretti as "finished works.” His extraordinary standing made it difficult for contemporary composers to edit and change them.29 Gluck took liberties with texts but thought music subservient to them. "I sought to restrict music to its true function,” he wrote, “to serve the poetry by means of the expression. . . without interrupting the action or diminishing its interest by useless or superfluous ornament."30
Mozart took the opposite position. He wrote his father that "in an opera the poetry must be altogether the obedient daughter of the music."31 Other letters to his father about the libretti of Idomeneo and Die Entführung aus den Serail indicate that he insisted on numerous changes, many of them substantial, and all intended to make the text more subservient to his music.32 One can assume that he required the same extensive rewriting from Da Ponte, but his father was dead by the time Don Giovanni was composed so we have no letters to him describing its composition. Schickaneder was a frequent visitor to the Mozart home, and by 1791 almost a family member. The two men worked closely together on Magic Flute; Schickaneder reworked two earlier operas, Sethos and Lulu, to produce his draft libretto. Mozart gave him constant feedback and insisted on numerous changes to make the libretto reflect his dramatic, philosophical and musical goals.33 These libretti are best understood as joint rewrites of existing texts by librettist and composer. As closely as the music reflects the text there are nevertheless tensions between scores and text and within the texts themselves. They should be regarded as largely deliberate and can serve as useful entry points into analyses that strive to provide more holistic understandings of these operas.34 DON GIOVANNI
Don Juan had long been a favorite dramatic figure for exploring sexual passion. The character dates back at least to 1630 and Tirso de Molina's El burlador de Sevilla. Molière produced a version in 1665, his famous, in Don Juan, où le festin de pierre. In 1736, Lorenzo Goldoni published Don Giovanni Temorio, ossia il dissoluto, from which Da Ponte borrowed lines and subtitle. By the late eighteenth century, Don Juan had become a staple; eight operas were based on it in the decade leading up to the Mozart-Da Ponte Don Giovanni of 1787.35 In the nineteenth and twentieth century, it would be taken up by Byron, Pushkin and Richard Strauss, among others.
In 1787, Pasquale Bondini and Domenico Guardasoni, owners of the Nostitz Theater in Prague, commissioned the opera from Mozart following a successful run of Marriage of Figaro. This was fortunate for Mozart and Da Ponte because Don Giovanni could probably not have been produced in Vienna where its text would have been problematic for Joseph II, who acted as his own censor in anything concerning the court theater.36 Da Ponte relied on an earlier libretto by Bertati, which he reworked extensively, and drew freely on other versions of the story as well. The opera premiered in Prague on 29 October and was very well-received.37 It opened in Vienna in May 1788, where it was also successful.
Don Giovanni mixes opera seria and buffa. Donna Anna, Donna Elvira, Ottavio and the Commendatore are seria characters and Leporello, Zerlina and Masetto are straight out of buffa. The aristocrats proclaim their higher concerns and motives while the commoners respond to what Marx would later call “need and greed.” The contrasting status of the seria and buffa characters finds resonance in the music. The three noble avengers – Anna, Elvira and Octavio – are not given true da capo arias, typical of opera seria, but often two tempo rondos with many opera seria features.38 The lower class characters sing arias with more informal structures reminiscent of popular ballads. They mock the pretensions of aristocrats. Leporello remarks that Donna Elvira talks more like a book than a person.39 Don Giovanni observes ironically that “the nobility has honesty written all over its face.”40
As Kierkegaard noted, the Don has no singing style of his own and precious few arias.41 He resorts to recitatives, short ariettas or inserts himself in ensembles of others. Like a chameleon, he adapts his singing to their conventions.42 He introduces himself with a champagne aria “fin ch’ han vino,” which conveys his consuming passion for the physical pleasures of life. His serenade, “Deh vieni” is a cantilena that ends with strophic repetition. “Metà di voi” is little more than an attempt to incite violence. Don Ottavio is the mirror opposite of Giovanni. He is honest and honorable and loves only one woman. He lacks passion and is indecisive and ineffective. His arias, which foreground reflection in lieu of action, heighten the contrast with Giovanni, who acts rather than sings. Ottavio’s arias reveal the signal importance he places on the judgments of others. His singing and comportment reveal that honor and revenge are not only questionable goals but stand in the way of what he really wants: time in the sack with Donna Anna. If Don Giovanni frightens us, Don Ottavio repels us.
Donna Elvira’s arias also undercut her claim for sympathy. Having thwarted Giovanni’s seduction of Zerlina, she sings “A fuggi il traditor” [Flee from the traitor], and this after she has given herself to the Don and is trying to convince herself of the seriousness of his promise of marriage. Donna Elvira’s opening aria, “Ah chi me dice mai” [Ah, who will tell me], drips noble arrogance and deprives her of any appeal. Mozart’s accompanying music is reminiscent of an organ grinder, signaling that Donna Elvira is something of a puppet. By contrast, Masetto, whose buffa arias are comic but cantabile, communicate tenderness and sincere love for Zerlina. Hers in turn reveal lust and concern for Masetto.43
Opera seria and buffa characters interact as does their music. The wedding banquet in Act 1 is masterful in this regard. Three bands simultaneously play three different kinds of dance music with different rhythms. Donna Anna and Don Octavio dance a menuetto in 3/4 time, Leporello, following the Don’s instructions, compels Masetto to do a follia of contradanza in 2/4 and Don Giovanni entices Zerlina into an alemana in 3/8. The first two dances are associated respectively with the aristocracy and bourgeoisie, while the last is free of class associations. It creates a neutral zone where different classes can mix, often for amorous purposes. Using counterpoint effectively, Mozart harmonizes these dances and their different rhythms. Following the Don’s attempted rape of Zerlina, this elaborate structure breaks down and the music becomes cacophonous. It shifts from the key of G to an allegro assai in E-flat while Don Giovanni comes on stage and attempts to blame everything on Leporello.44 A different but equally striking example of class mixture is the arrival of the Commendatore at Don Giovanni’s dinner table. Throughout the dramatic encounter between these two aristocratic figures, the terrified lower-class Leporello acts the buffoon, and somehow succeeds in intensifying the drama rather than undercutting it. This is, of course, a time-honored trope of comedy, exploited effectively by Shakespeare, Cervantes and Molière.
Mozart’s choice of keys and other musical forms offer cues for the listener about the meaning of Don Giovanni and its component parts. The opening bars in D minor announce the dystopic theme of the opera and return to herald the arrival of the Commendatore in the penultimate scene of Act II. In contrast to the often complex da capo arias of the other aristocrats, the Commendatore’s are structurally and tonally simple; they consist of fifths and octaves alternating between dominant and tonic. This is fitting as the Commendatore is more a posture than a person. The duel with swords between the Don and the Commendatore in the opening scene is recapitulated in their last encounter in a duel over keys. This time the Commendatore is triumphant and successfully restricts the Don’s tonality, compelling him to sing his last notes in D minor. This is the key that opens the overture and ends the drama as the Commendatore now drags the Don down to the underworld. D major, by contrast, is the key of reflection. It is used for Leporello's "Madamina, il catalogo é questo," Donna Elvira's "Ah fuggi il traditor" and Donna Anna's "Or sai chi l'onoré." Each of these arias provides information about its singer and Don Giovanni.
Some of Mozart's contemporaries created continuity by writing arias and ensembles around melodies.45 Mozart relies instead on multiple, short, relatively simple phrases that play off one another to create a larger, more complex but nevertheless symmetrical whole. This works well in an opera like Don Giovanni where short phrases, often punctuated by dialogue, move the action along at a brisk pace. Continuity is also maintained by keeping reflexive arias to a minimum and for the most part avoiding music or singing not essential to the plot. Charles Rosen maintains that Mozart creates frames of reference that bracket individual and multiple sections of dialog, aria and ensembles. In Don Giovanni, the initial frame begins with Leporello’s opening aria in F major and finishes before the first secco recitative in F minor, following the death of the Commendatore.46 A larger grouping, built around the key of D, opens with the overture and concludes with the arias of Donna Anna and Don Ottavio, also in D.47
Mozart assigns each character a tonal range and set of musical inflections. When he is not dissimulating, Don Giovanni sings in D and b-flat major, as he does in "Fin ch' han dal vino" and "Deh vieni all finestra." When he confronts adversaries, beginning with the Commendatore, he sings in D major.48 This structure, and that of individual numbers, conveys insight into the characters and their emotions. In Là ci darem la mano [There we shall clasp hands], Mozart uses a variation of the traditional sonata form – A-B-A' -- by opening with a double exposition in the form of A-A'. The exposition is repeated with some new material before the aria moves to its development and recapitulation phases. The double exposition and its repeat give first Don Giovanni and then Zerlina the opportunity to sing about their mutual attraction. There are slight differences in their perspectives, but the sonata form alerts us to the likelihood that they will be resolved in the development section, as they are. Zerlina nevertheless remains ambivalent and Mozart signals her hesitation by slurred notes and chromaticism (the use of pitches, chords, and keys not associated with diatonic collections). The Don is given a major key to pursue Zerlina. Horns warn of his duplicity but woodwinds provide an erotic line that facilitates seduction. The voices of the Don and Zerlina, which start out alternating, gradually come together and merge as Zerlina appears to give in to his advances.49
Tirso de Molina’s original version of Don Juan was a simple morality tale; the Don receives eternal damnation as punishment for his sins; the subtitle of the opera is Il dissoluto punito [The dissolute punished]. By the eighteenth century, the play had become something of a farce, and Don Juan was generally portrayed as buffoon, as he was in the Bertati-Gazzaniga opera of 1787. An earlier version by Goldoni makes sure that the Don is hit by lightning and dies of natural causes. Mozart’s contemporaries found Don Giovanni an enigmatic opera. Some objected to its mix of seria and buffa, seeming violation of musical conventions and the challenging complexity of its score. Others were repelled by the character of Don Giovanni and the forceful, even favorable way, he is presented. There was also the problem of a nodding, perambulating and speaking statue, leading one incredulous reviewer to remark: “A shame it does not eat too.”50 Later Romantics idolized the Don for his daemonic qualities and unwavering pursuit of sexual conquests. E. T. A. Hoffmann and Kierkegaard, and subsequently, George Bernard Shaw and Richard Strauss, described him as a Faustian figure or superman and expression of a primitive life force.51 Twentieth century critics tend toward psychological readings. Brigid Brophy attributes the plot of the opera to the trauma of Mozart father's death and his fear of retribution for rebellion against him.52 Irving Singer says that the opera represents death in general, and cites a Mozart letter in which he describes death as "the true goal of our existence."53 Nicholas Till makes the best case for the most common thesis: Don Giovanni’s sexual conquests are an expression of some other sublimated need.54
Mary Hunter rightly complains that Don Giovanni has suffered from heavy-handed psychological interpretations and "decodings."55 The turn to psychoanalysis is undoubtedly provoked by his self-destructive behavior. His pursuit of women exceeds any natural drive for release; sex for him is an expression of something else. Paradoxically, he never actually seduces any women during the opera despite his long list of past successes. In his unsuccessful quest he violates a series of social conventions and in the process seems to lose, not gain, an identity. He appears to inhabit the state of nature as described by Hobbes, a thought experiment intended to show that people outside of society led an animal-like existence and were driven, without restraints, by their appetites. Don Giovanni has an unquenchable lust for food and drink, not only for sex. Even so, he remains enigmatic because, unlike Hobbesian man, he displays a care-free approach to survival. Life gets increasingly risky for him during the course of the opera. At the outset, he confronts the Commendatore in mortal combat. Later, peasants and a posse of notables hunt him down and he barely escapes by means of a clever subterfuge. Having failed in his sexual quests, why does he continue to hang around Seville and willingly assume additional risk? Could this be because his more fundamental goal – of which he may have only a dim awareness -- is disruption of society through violation of its most sacred conventions?
To complicate our interpretive task, Don Giovanni, as Kierkegaard pointed out, is not at all reflective.56 The closest he comes to offering an explanation for his lust is to attribute it to “an overabundance of sentiment. “If a man remains faithful to one," he insists, "he is cruel to all the others.”57 Borrowed almost directly from Moliere's Don Juan, these lines are superficial and patently self-serving. Don Giovanni clearly has no conscience. Leporello describes him as having a “soul of bronze” and “heart of stone,” an ironic reference as the stone figure of the Commendatore that will prove his undoing. The Don's encounters with the Commendatore and Leporello reveal him to be impervious to rational argument. The only behavioral account we have of him, from Leporello, is nothing more than a list by country of his 1,800 sexual conquests. This multi-cultural accounting, kept by Leporello at his master’s insistence, includes aristocrats and peasants, young and old, fat and thin, tall and short, blondes and brunettes. It is a quintessential Enlightenment document in its effort to reduce everything and its diversity, women in this case, to a set of interchangeable numerical equivalents.58 But they are not all equivalent because, Leporello explains, “Sua passion predominante, È la giovin principante” [his overriding passion is for the young virgin].59 What better way to strike at the core of the social, economic and political order?
The principal impediment to understanding Don Giovanni is to assume that he is a person. This approach reflects nineteenth century understandings of literature and people that stress their interiority and uniqueness.60 In the ancient Greece and Rome – the venues of opera seria -- characters did not have inner lives or even personalities. They represented mixes of traits that drove their behavior. The audiences of Greek tragedies were supposed to connect these traits with particular ways of behaving and outcomes, but not to focus on the individual, who was only a vehicle for the narrative. Characters in Greek tragedies are intentionally constructed as archetypes; to the extent they are distinctive it is a result of the combination of social roles they embody and the skill with which they enact them.61 Philosophy, art and literature in the Renaissance and early modern Europe became vehicles for constructing the individual and exploring and problematizing their potential. Don Giovanni, although he is the central character of an opera buffa is a throwback to the classical world. As with characters in Greek tragedies, we need to look outwards, not inwards, to understand him. In another respect, the Don can be read as quintessentially modern. One of the distinguishing features of the modern state – and of its handmaiden, social science -- is the categorization and numbering of everything, people included.62 To do so, the objects of attention must be made interchangeable and their distinctive, even unique features ignored, if not suppressed. What is emphasized instead is what they share in common with others, even if these communalities are superficial or stretched.
At the heart of my interpretation are the related concepts of Libertà and libertinage. My story, like Don Giovanni's, begins in Spain in the second half of eighteenth century, with the accession of Carlos III in 1759. Low level aristocrats -- like intendants in Louis’s France – were recruited by the king and a few rose to become chief ministers. They ran the gamut from straight-laced moralists like Gaspar Melcior de Jovellanos, a distinguished diplomat and neo-classical author, to the libertine José Cadalso, a colonel, poet and playwright. Most were committed to bringing Spain up to Enlightenment standards of discipline, work and classification. They immediately ran afoul of the Church and aristocracy. The Church feared loss of control and considered it better for people to beg and get its charity than become economically, politically and intellectually independent. The aristocracy was overwhelmingly a rentier class relatively content with its lot as long as their estates provided enough income for a life of luxury in Madrid. Modernization would require aristocrats to return to the provinces and take an active role in managing their estates. The peasantry had little reason to believe it would benefit from reforms; they understood them only to involve more work. Moreover, in eighteenth century Madrid, as in Mozart's Vienna, ordinary people were largely dependent on the consumption industry; the economy of both cities was based on servicing resident aristocrats and their lavish life-styles.63
Reformers sought to rein in theaters and popular pleasure sites like gardens and bull rings, which they perceived as sites of disorder. They recognized that intimate contacts occurred in these venues among aristocrats, prosperous artisans, foreigners and the lower classes. They outlawed capes and large hats – of the kind Don Giovanni wears – on the grounds that they made their wearers invisible to the law. They had in mind not only poor criminals but aristocrats who went to gardens and bull fights to seduce lower class women. Such adventures were very much in vogue and aristocrats routinely mixed with the lower classes for purposes of entertainment and sex. This became known as majismo, a local expression of libertinage, that was immortalized in Goya’s maja vestida [clothed maja]. It involved upper class mimicry of lower class manners. Madrid's lower orders commonly wore capes and hats, which were traditional seventeenth century garb. The upper classes had for the most part adopted the French mode of dress. But when they went out to have fun they changed into lower class attire, although generally made of better material and more elaborate in its decoration. In 1797, Francisco de Goya painted a portrait of Maria del Pilar de Silva, the 13th Duchess of Alba "slumming" as a maja. Queen Maria Louis, wife of Charles IV, was also known to dress this way.64
The reforming ministers were concerned with crime but also objected to the social confusion, loss of legibility, libertinage, laziness and bad hygiene they thought were promoted by capes and hats. Anti-majismo legislation aroused resistance and led to a popular revolt in 1766, known as esquilache riot [riot of the cape and hat], after the Italian Marquess who was chief minister at the time. The government suppressed the demonstrations, which in retrospect came to be considered the first collective revolt against Enlightenment-inspired reforms.65 The riot had the immediate effect of politicizing habits, which encouraged their conceptualization. As a result, majismo become more self-conscious and culturally elaborated and a principal subject of popular theater, literature, music and art, especially inexpensive prints.
Enlightenment-inspired authors and artists, mostly drawn from the small middle class, participated in the rituals of popular culture but gave it a critical edge. Most of them, like Goya, were close to the regime. Among artists and intellectuals, resistance to the upper classes increasingly took on a nationalist edge as a reaction to French influence in the court. Clothes became a focus of their opposition because they were seen as French imports foisted on the Spanish people. The intellectual and popular discourse increasingly emphasized throwing off the foreign yoke. The Queen portrayed in maja dress could be read as an assertion of nationalism. During the Napoleonic Wars, the maja underwent a transformation from a risqué figure into one of national resistance. Libertinage became the personification of Libertà.66
Donning disguise to bridge class and other barriers for sensual ends was not unique to Spain. In Bavaria, one traveler noted, “public dance floors are visited by all classes. . . [and] ancestors and rank seem to be forgotten and aristocratic pride put aside.” In Munich, Leopold Mozart reported to his wife that people routinely donned masks to gamble and carouse.67 In Salzburg, a priest and historian observed that minor nobility dance with waitresses and middle class women. In 1778, Archbishop Migazzi of Vienna considered it an outrage that “Jews, indistinguishable from other by their dress, now frequent inns, ballrooms, and theaters, and mix with Christians who are there.”68
Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais, author of The Barber of Seville (1775) and The Marriage of Figaro (1781), was the link between Spain and Mozart. He spent two years in Spain (1774-76), where he became well-acquainted with writers and intellectuals on both sides of the majismo controversy. He incorporated key features of it in his Marriage of Figaro, the text on which the Mozart-Da Ponte opera is based. While in Spain, Beaumarchais came to believe that the distinctions between tragedy and comedy, so central to artistic theory of his day, were artificial. Opera, he wrote, "is neither a tragedy nor a comedy, but participates in both and can embrace all the genres."69 This lesson too, was taken to heart by Da Ponte and Mozart.
In eighteenth century Europe, libertinage was equated with free thinking and secularism. The life and writings of the Marquis de Sade offered contemporaries a powerful and disturbing example of this connection. So did Casanova, famous for seducing women on his grand tour of Europe and sometimes connected to Don Giovanni in opera productions. By the last decades of the century there was a circle of European writers on libertinage who knew one another, if not always personally, than through their works. Beaumarchais was at the center of this circle and set the Barber of Seville and Marriage of Figaro in Spain because it was an acceptable proximate other. As Montesquieu did with Persia, Beaumarchais could displace French practices and controversies on to Spain. This was a common convention in the late eighteenth century, and Seville became the accepted venue for stories about Don Juan. Removing a play or opera from one's own locale made it more acceptable to the censors, although Beaumarchais and Mozart still ran into difficulties. Spain was considered backward and pre-Enlightenment in its values and practices and thus a perfect locale to contrast Enlightenment modernity with the past. One of the ways Enlightenment writers developed their critiques of earlier periods, John Lukács observes, was to project at least some Enlightenment values back on to key personages in earlier eras.70 Many of the characters in Figaro, Don Giovanni and Così fan tutte accordingly have advanced Enlightenment expectations about justice, class and marriage.
Mozart's three operas with Da Ponte explore different facets of libertinage. Count Almaviva in The Marriage of Figaro is the productive libertine. He lusts after Susannah and gropes the adolescent Barbarina. He is also interested in improving his estate. He is a typical representative of early plantation capitalism. Socially speaking he can be described as an incorporated libertine, as his behavior is relatively constrained and goal-oriented. He is a seducer, but within strict limits. He does not force himself on women; he offers Susannah a contract in the form of money for sex. He renounces the custom – purely a fiction – of the droit de seigneur.71 When society guides him toward better conduct, he lets himself be persuaded to go along because of his economic and political interests. He wants to preserve, not undermine, the order that sustains his privileges, wealth and life-style.
This is not true of Don Giovanni who is a nihilistic libertine.72 He takes pleasure in subverting all values – traditional and Enlightenment – that might sustain a social order. He corrupts and exploits his manservant Leporello, kills a prominent authority figure and beloved father, disrupts multiple marital and romantic relationships through seduction and attempted rape. The Don has no regrets about his behavior or its consequences. He has no desire to fight the Commendatore but when challenged, runs him through with his sword. When the Commendatore's statue speaks to him at the cemetery, the non-plussed Don dismisses him as a vecchio buffonissimo [big old clown].73 Don Giovanni’s life is an assertion of will, but a will not subservient to broader goals. As he is being dragged to the underworld, he refuses to repent because that it would violate his persona, which is all about nihilistic self-assertion. His encomium to freedom – the “Viva la Libertà” ensemble – celebrates all kinds of freedom, not just sexual. It is a mocking aria because the Don's freedom depends on the subjection or disruption of everyone else. The other characters seem unaware of this irony, and join in the singing with strong voices free of any hint of uncertainty.74
The third variant is Don Alfonso in Così fan tutte. He differs from his predecessors in his social detachment. He neither tries to preserve the existing order nor subvert it. His is unengaged sexually, although in some productions he weds Despina, thereby meeting the lieto fine convention of comedy in which all major eligible characters marry in the final scene.75 Alfonso opens up space for the intellectual and pedagogue. He has a decidedly libertine view of pedagogy that is outside the classic and modern orders because enlightenment comes through play, not via dialogue à la Plato and Habermas. He is nevertheless a quintessentially Enlightenment figure in his effort to stage a social experiment. His goal to debunk and demystify and constrain emotions by reason, which he expects to produce a better, more stable order. His theatrical experiment is nevertheless risky because it could have destroyed two relationships.
Theater was a controversial subject in the second half of the eighteenth century. Spectacle was regarded as corrupting and subversive. Rousseau wanted to shut it down, even though he wrote for it. Other figures, among them Joseph II, were more pragmatic and sought only to reform theater. As noted earlier, this orientation reflects the late eighteenth century turn to art as vehicle for philosophy, pedagogy and self-enlightenment. Don Alfonso represents this school of thought in his apparent belief that theater is more effective than regulation in stimulating moral and intellectual development. He becomes a stage manager, and not merely metaphorically, as Jovellanos and Joseph II aspired to be. Despina, his co-conspirator, is a disabused and utterly pragmatic figure. She understands love and marriage as a power game. Her two arias are distinctly instructional; they tell her rather naïve employers not to expect fidelity in men, let alone in soldiers. "Don’t make me laugh," she sings in “Di pasta simile, son tutti quanti," men are all alike, "they are all made of the same paste." The Don Alfonso-Despina partnership is another cross-class alliance, but between people with no illusions about their relationship. Despina does it for the money, and so, in a way, does Alfonso, to win his bet. But more importantly, he represents the libertine as pedagogue.
Marriage is central to all three operas, and the key word in the title of one of them. Marriage is important in a double sense. It was the foundation of the traditional social order but also attractive to Enlightenment philosophers and the emerging bourgeoisie because of its contractual basis. The marriage of Figaro and Susannah approximates the bourgeois ideal. Their relationship appears to be stable and equal, based on love but relatively free of romantic illusions, although each partner expects the other to remain faithful. The problems the couple face are external: Count Almaviva wants Susannah as a sexual partner and attempts to subvert her impending marriage, and Marcellina insists on marrying Figaro unless he can repay his debt. Despite their seeming affirmation of modernity, the aristocrats in this opera have not given up the practice of exploiting the lower orders and they only fail in the end because of Figaro's cleverness and Susannah's cross-class alliance with the Countess. In the final scene, Figaro and Susannah prepare to marry and the Count and Countess are reconciled, at least temporarily. Order is restored but remains precarious because the Count is unlikely to mend his ways in the longer term.
Order is restored in a second respect. Figaro, the servant, has outwitted his master the Count. Figaro is representative of late classical works that present non-aristocrats as capable and self-conscious personalities.76 His successful cunning has revolutionary implications that are softened by having him revealed as the long-lost illegitimate son of Don Basilo and Marcellina. This deus ex machina not only changes his class identity but cleverly removes the principal obstacle in the way of his marriage to Susannah.
In Don Giovanni, marriage – and every other contract – is undermined. The opera opens with Leporello’s aria, “Notte e giorno faticar,” in which he complains of his master's abuse. Worse still, the Don compels him to changes places and plants in his head the idea of becoming a gentilhoumo.77 As this transformation is impossible in the circumstances, Leporello who allows himself fantasize about it, becomes unhappier still. While Leporello sings, the Don makes his move on Donna Anna. He then kills her father, who arrives on the scene intent on saving her honor. The Commendatore's murder puts on hold Donna Anna’s marriage to Ottavio.78 The revenge-seeking Elvira announces that she too has been seduced even though she was preparing to take vows and entering a convent. Don Giovanni next disrupts the relationship of Masetto and Zerlina. In effect, he derails three weddings: Donna Anna to Ottavio, Donna Elvira to Christ and Zerlina to Masetto. We might add a fourth because, if Elvira is to be believed, he promised to marry her. His exploitation of Leporello and his seduction, or attempted seduction, of Anna, Elvira and Zerlina are based on false promises. The Don tries to get Zerlina to violate her marriage vows on the day of her marriage. “That promise means nothing,” he tells her.79
Così fan tutte disrupts but then restores romantic relationships and sexual harmony. Count Almaviva and Despina stage a mock departure for war by Guglielmo and Ferrando, the lovers respectively of Fiordiligi and Dorabella. They return, disguised as Albanians, and move in on each other's mistress. The women are torn between commitments to their long-standing lovers and attraction to their exotic and charming Albanian suitors. The men are at first amused but ultimately troubled by their success at seduction. When their original lovers “return” from the wars, they “discover” their women preparing to marry other men and reveal themselves to have been the Albanians all along -- after suitably chastising their mistresses. A much sobered foursome is reconciled with the help of Count Almaviva and Despina. The last line of the opera celebrates the bella calma that now prevails and is expected to characterize the marriage of the two pairs of lovers. If so, the opera suggests, it will be attributable to the Count's successful use of theater to teach his young male friends and their women something about the realities of life.
For Rousseau, the masquerade, and the theater more generally, was emblematic of social deceit and deceptions. The very art of acting consists of "counterfeiting oneself."80 Following Spanish practice and Beaumarchais's Figaro, all three Mozart-Da Ponte operas freely deploy double deception. Characters disguise themselves in masks and capes to facilitate the social encounters across classes that drive their plots forward. Classes were supposed to remain distinct, a convention reflected in their specific musical forms. In the later Mozart operas, classes and forms mix even blend. In Figaro, costume and associated gestures allow Cherubino to cross the gender divide, a stage transformation made more mind bending by the audience’s knowledge that his role is sung by a soprano. In Act II, Spain meets the Enlightenment when Susannah and the Countess exchange costumes to rendezvous with the Count and Figaro – and unexpectedly, Cherubino -- in a half-wood, half-garden [boscetto]. They intend to entrap the Count but quickly lose control of events. In Don Giovanni, the Don and Leporello exchange costumes with seduction in mind. Don Giovanni also uses a mask and costume to escape his pursuers, leaving Leporello exposed to their near fatal wrath. In Così fan tutte, as previously noted, disguises allow Guglielmo and Ferrando to seduce each other’s mistress and expose them as unfaithful. As with Spanish aristocrats and majas, solicitation of sex is the central feature of these encounters.
In a deeper sense, the escapades facilitated by masks, capes and disguises permit people to escape their identities and associated roles. They indicate the extent to which identities are fragile, social creations. Recognition of this social truth by characters has divergent effects. Some, like the Count in Figaro, are undermined and momentarily humbled, while others, like the two couples in Così, are enlightened. Identities are unstable in another sense: they cannot be sustained as simple, readily defensible binaries. Figaro and Don Giovanni are "middle characters” who violate the traditional division in opera between benign, rational and well-intentioned aristocrats and foppish peasants driven by crude appetites.81 Seemingly lower class Figaro is intelligent and calculating, always one step ahead of his aristocratic employer and uses his talents to preserve his and others’ relationships. The aristocratic Don is also cunning, and undeniably courageous, but mobilizes these resources for disruptive, libidinal ends. In an interesting twist, capes and cloaks permit common folk to display noble values and the nobility to shed honor and social responsibility.
Traditional aristocrats are supposed to be motivated by honor, which can only be achieved and maintained in a robust society where there is a consensus about what constitutes honor, the rules by which it is won and the means by which it is celebrated.82 Figaro, a commoner who, by definition can never gain honor, nevertheless exploits the traditional honor code to frustrate the Count’s sexual designs on Susannah and peasant girls. The Don is out to destroy honor in all its forms without realizing just how dependent he is on it. He needs the constraints propriety imposes on sexual behavior to make seduction difficult and correspondingly rewarding. He derives equal pleasure from shocking society and this too would be impossible in an era of sexual freedom.
Critics have difficulty with Don Giovanni’s final sextet. It is frequently said that the opera should end, as it does dramatically, with Don Giovanni's departure for the underworld in the cold grip of the Commendatore’s hand. The scene that follows – reflections by the others on Don Giovanni’s fate and their own -- is lackluster and anti-climactic. It is also musically anomalous as Mozart began and closed his operas in the same key. Don Giovanni's overture opens with a sustained D-minor chord and the Don’s descent to the underworld ends on this chord. This is deliberate as the overture was about last part of the opera Mozart wrote.83 Some have speculated that the sextet was tacked on to appease the censors. In a 1788 Vienna production staged by Mozart, the final ensemble may have been dropped. It has been omitted by many subsequent conductors. Gustav Mahler refused to include it his productions due to its "repressive morality."84
There are equally compelling reasons for including the controversial sextet. Finales go back to Goldoni libretti and were widely used by the 1760s. At the time of Don Giovanni they were considered an essential component of dramma giocoso and the appropriate means of providing closure. Finales encompassed all the music from the last secco recitative to the end of the act and could range from one to ten numbers.85 Mozart finales generally alternate between solos and duets or trios, and all work up to tuttis (sections in which everyone on stage sings). The final tutti is in a faster tempo, signaling the end is in sight.86 Da Ponte plans for this pattern in his libretti and often employs consecutive entrances of characters to build up to the tutti. Eighteenth century finales served a broader social purpose: they restore social order through dramatic resolution of a collective nature. In comic operas of the early Enlightenment, the most common resolution is marriage. Così fan tutte, although written later, conforms to this pattern. In Don Giovanni, the finale, while not accurately described as a lieto fine, does reestablish the equilibrium between tragedy and farce.87
The sextet fulfills contemporary musical expectations. All the characters, minus the Don and the Commendatore, appear on stage. Each describes the outcome from his or her perspective, followed by a final tutti: “Questo è il fin di chi fa mal.” The sextet fails to provide the emotional satisfaction of Figaro or the intellectual closure of Così. Don Ottavio and Donna Anna reaffirm their plans to marry, but not for another year as Donna Anna insists she needs more time to mourn. One suspects that a year hence she will find another excuse for putting off her remarkably patient fiancé. Donna Elvira will finally marry Christ, as she prepares to take her vows. Her willing entry into the convent represents an iconic rejection of the Enlightenment, which sought to free women from what philosophes considered imprisonment by the Church. Leporello envisions a master who will treat him with respect and is going off to the tavern in the hope of finding one. There is no reason to think his new boss will meet his expectations. Zerlina and Masetto still have each other and look forward to supper and presumably, a roll in the hay. Everyone else is roughly the same as they were before the opera, although Donna Anna has lost her father and Donna Elvira her virginity.
Don Giovanni’s last scene and the final sextet pose as many problems as they appear to resolve. They begin to make more sense when understood as components of one of Mozart’s many larger organizing frames, or "brackets” to use Charles Rosen's term. Let us start with the Don's final encounter with the Commendatore.
Da Ponte claimed to have written Don Giovanni with Dante's Inferno in mind.88 However, the Commendatore does not drag the Don down to Christian hell but to the realm of “Proserpine and Pluto.” This may be because the Enlightenment rejected hell and damnation as silly superstitions, and while Mozart was a believing Catholic, Da Ponte was a Jewish-convert, ex-priest and private atheist. In Così fan tutte, characters also talk about the ancient gods, not Christian ones. The choice of Hades may be a reminder that the Commendatore is an opera seria character and most figures of this kind are drawn from the pre-Christian classical world. From Locke to Kant, many philosophers doubted that moral codes could be enforced merely by reason-induced self-restraint. No less a figure than Voltaire considered a vengeful god essential to deter those who would otherwise act in wicked ways.89 Da Ponte and Mozart look forwards and backwards in this scene – as they do more generally with the character of Don Giovanni. They chose the more value neutral Greco-Roman underworld over its Christian successor, but include the uniquely Christian possibility of repentance. The Don refuses to repent although he can have no illusions that long-term, perhaps eternal, punishment awaits him. Mozart and Da Ponte are telling us, in effect, that the threat of damnation does not work in a world where the will has been liberated from all constraints.
Following one of the most dramatic scenes of all opera, the rather silly moralizing of the remaining aristocrats comes across -- intentionally, I believe -- as shallow and self-serving. It diminishes rather than enhances the values and stature of the sextet. Unlike Don Giovanni, its characters willingly shackle themselves to the chains of stifling social conventions. Don Giovanni's self-assertion and lack of restraint lead to his punishment in an after-life, while the others' renunciation of themselves – selves they have never had the courage to explore and develop – results in continued punishment in this life in the form of repression and restraint, and physical confinement as well for Donna Elvira. The Don is a synecdoche for the Enlightenment and modernity as the others are for the old Europe. For different reasons, neither old nor new can provide happiness or sustain social order in a rapidly changing world. Traditional forms of social control have become unworkable, but new forms allow old injustices to flourish, even to expand their scope given the breakdown of the distinction between liberty and libertinage.
The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries witnessed a general assault on traditional conceptions of morality that were externally enforced. Enlightenment philosophers conceived of morality as self-governance, which in turn provided the justification for people to assume control of the lives in a wide range of domains. Reid, Bentham and Kant all conceived of morality this way.90 In place of custom and dogma, they sought to formulate universal laws based on instinct mediated by reason. This move, which originates with Rousseau, made it theoretically possible for everyone to use self-reflection to discover morality. Goethe's Werther proclaims: “The things I know every man can know.”91 His Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre takes the argument a step further by suggesting that individual moral development is the foundation for social harmony and collective self-realization. The emphasis on introspection and internal governance upgraded the status of art, and of music in particular, as they were looked to as sources of moral insight. In the words of Lessing, the purpose of art is “to extend our capacity for feeling pity.”92 Mozart and Da Ponte used their art to undermine this claim. Their Don Giovanni suggests that turning inwards was only likely to expose an empty core. The real effect of removing constraints is to put people more in touch with their appetites, including the drive for power. How wonderfully ironic that they use music to communicate this insight.
Don Giovanni elaborates the contradiction between the Enlightenment’s commitment to personal liberation and its likely consequences.93 To a lesser extent, Cherubino in Marriage of Figaro points to the same pessimistic conclusion and might be considered a Don Giovanni in training. At their core, Enlightenment philosophers were a conservative lot. French philosophes, Scottish empiricists and German idealists looked for new justifications for traditional social values for fear that they would otherwise be overwhelmed by skepticism. Sexual morality was particularly important to them because, like their more traditional counterparts, they associated sexual license with social chaos. Sex could only by constrained through the institution of marriage.94 Don Giovanni’s assault on marriage is no accident.
Earlier, I attributed the Don’s lack of reflection to his formulation as a classical archetype rather than a modern person. A darker and more challenging reading would see the his superficiality as a product of modernity itself. Liberation, Da Ponte and Mozart may be telling us, does not so much encourage retrospection as it does the outward deflection of reason. It becomes “the slave of the passions,” in the famous phrase of David Hume.95 Instrumental reason, as Weber would call it, takes priority over more inward-looking reason, what Aristotle calls phronesis, and makes it less likely.96 This state of affairs directly contradicts the expectations of Adam Smith, who describes the market as a catalyst for reflections. He reasons that it can teach self-interested people prudence and discipline and lead us to defer short-term gratification for longer-term, more substantial rewards. Don Giovanni is a fictional, dysfunctional but highly effective counter-example.
Modernity has undeniably produced both kinds of people. Neoliberalism would have us believe that Smithian figures are the norm and Don Giovanni’s the exception. Even if they are right – and this is an empirical question -- these personality types are not distributed randomly. The history of the last two hundred years suggests that Don Giovannis are over-represented in the leadership of democratic and authoritarian regimes Don Giovanni could convincingly be set during the Napoleonic Wars with Napoleon cast as this Spanish aristocrate. Like the Don, he used his intelligence and magnetism for utterly self-serving ends. He had an active sex life, but was less intent on pursuing women than in conquering every country in reach. Both quests are assertions of power and successes described as “conquests.” They reflect the same pathology: conquest of women or territory never provides more than temporary satisfaction and acts as a spur to further adventures. Leporello, if cast as one of Napoleon’s aides de camp, could complain about his endless service on and off the battlefield and Napoleon’s utter disregard for his life. He could serenade those being courted by Napoleon with a long list of his conquests. They include large and small countries, those nearby and far away, Catholic and Protestant, kingships, dukedoms and city states, authoritarian regimes and quasi-democracies. For sure, Napoleon would insist on an up-to-date and expanding list kept ready at hand.
Napoleon’s exploits, like Don Giovanni’s, provoked a powerful coalition against him, which he too outwitted in the short-term. Close escapes do not prompt caution in characters like these but more risky behavior that inevitably leads to their downfall. Napoleon initially fared better in this respect. His Commendatore, the Congress of Vienna, only sent him into comfortable exile in Elba. He outwitted his captors and returned to Paris for his final glorious, if utterly destructive, “100 days.” Who knows how long Don Giovanni stayed put in the realm of “Proserpine and Pluto?” Perhaps he too staged a comeback, in cape, mask or other suitable disguise?