Thursday, June 14, 2007

Don Juan, Casanova & Me

Not that I'm in their league. But I have been thinking about the famed seducers of women since attending a performance of Mozart's "Don Giovanni" by the San Francisco Opera last weekend. Like many of you, before I started paying attention, I conflated the two, not realizing that the Spanish lothario from Seville is a myth and that the Venetian nobleman was a real person. In the public's mind, they are both womanizers, to be generally admired by men and mostly condemned by women. In a culture that praises monogamy, such serial skirt-chasing is outside the pale. And for the most part, these debauchers and their ilk have been men (although Pierre Choderlos de Laclos' novel Les liaisons dangereuses featured a female version, and Brigitte Bardot starred in "Don Juan,ou si Don Juan était une femme"). Since the myth of Don Juan first surfaced as a play in the early 17th century, different authors have attempted to spin the myth in different directions. And because I've been called a "butterfly," the Thai slang word for donjuanism, by several internet correspondents, I would like to examine the men, the myths and the practice of faithlessness.

First the opera: My companion and I found our seats in the next to the last row of the "nosebleed section" of the War Memorial Opera House where the usher apologetically assured us the acoustics were excellent even if we could barely see the stage. But as the performance began, two large video screens dropped down from the ceiling of the upper balcony, allowing us to see the singers (and even their tonsils) up close; OperaVision had debuted the week before. The story of Il dissoluto punito, ossia il Don Giovanni, literally "The Rake Punish'd, or Don Giovanni," was not easy for me to follow, and because the air conditioning was not working and it was rather warm, I occasionally dozed off. Opera is an acquired taste. After seeing the film "Callas Forever" several years ago, a fictionalized account of the last years of Maria Callas, I collected a number of her arias for my iPod, along with other operatic hits. Last summer I saw a performance of several of Stravinsky's symphonic operas at the Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires and enjoyed it, but this was my first full-length opera in the flesh. So I'm a neophyte, but I'm working on it. With the help of a number of books, a recording of the opera conducted by Sir George Solti, and a viewing of the Joseph Losey film version of "Don Giovanni," I now feel prepared to blog a bit about it, and to try and make some sense of Don Juan and Casanova.

Suffice it to say that in Mozart's version, Don Giovanni (the Italianized Don Juan), having jilted Donna Elvira, attempts to seduce Donna Anna who, already being engaged, objects. So does her father, the Commandatore, who gives chase. Giovanni kills him. Rather than show any remorse, he proceeds to look for new conquests, first the peasant girl Zerlina, on her wedding day yet, and then Donna Elvira's maid. Although Elvira and the fiancés of Anna and Zerlina, Don Ottavio and Masetto, try to bring Don Giovanni to justice, he escapes, and is enjoying a banquet at home when the ghost of Donna Anna's father comes a-calling. The Commandatore demands that the sinner repent, but Giovanni refuses. In the last scene he is dragged down into the fires of hell, and the chorus sings
The wages of sin is death!
And evildoers always die
the death they have deserved.
I found this moralistic ending rather puzzling. I knew from the film "Amadeus" that Mozart was not exactly a prude. His first serious infatuation was for his cousin Maria Anna Thekla, to whom he wrote letters filled with sexual innuendo. Before settling down with Costanze, he had loved the ladies and was fond of crude humor. And he apparently was secretly in love with Constanze's older sister Aloysia. Both Mozart and the author of the librettos for his three major operas, Lorenzo Da Ponte, were nominally Catholics, not Calvanists. Da Ponte's family had converted from Judaism and he had even been ordained a priest as a youth, but had given up the practice to be court poet under Emperor Joseph II. One of Da Ponte's biographers, Anthony Holden, describes how the libretto for "Don Giovanni" was written:
Settling down to his tasks with a bottle of Tokay to his right, an inkstand in the middle, and a box of Seville tobacco to his left, he wsa further distracted by the serving girl, his landlady's daughter, briefed to supply his every need -- including some her mother had not bargained for. In two months, nonetheless, Da Ponte delivered his manuscript to Mozart, who set it to music in time for a triumphant Prague premier on October 29, 1797.
So the author of this moralistic "Don Giovanni" also had his wicked ways. Even more interesting is that Da Ponte was a distant cousin of Giacomo Casanova, the infamous real-life libertine, who, in 1797, was in retirement and working as a librarian in the castle of Dux, Bohemia (now a part of the Czech Republic). In his autobiography, Historie de ma vie, he mentions 122 women with whom he had sex. Casanova reportedly met with the composer and author and gave them a few pointers about Don Juan as they were completing the opera. A fictionalized account of this meeting is at the center of the novel Imagining Don Giovanni (2001) by Anthony Rudel, son of Julius Rudel, conductor of the New York City Opera for 35 years.

Just a little research turns up a wealth of information. The tale of Don Juan was first recorded in the early 1600's in a play by Tirso de Molino called "El burlador de Sevilla y el convidado de piedra (The Trickster of Seville and the Stone Guest)." All of the elements of "Don Giovanni" are there, the attempted seductions, the murder, and the descent of Don Juan into hell at the hand of the murdered man's ghost. But as the myth evolves over the centuries it is seen from different perspectives. Some authors see Don Juan as a womanizer, a cruel seducer out for sex wherever he can get it. But others see him as a man who truly loves every woman he seduces, and who liberates the beauty which exists within every woman. In José Zorillo's play, "Don Juan Tenorios," Don Juan is a true villain who ends up killing both Doña Ines and her father. But when they come back as ghosts for a tug of war over Don Juan's soul, the daughter eventually wins and pulls her lover up into heaven. "Don Juan Tenorio," first performed in 1844, is the longest-running play in Spain and is presented every year. My companion at "Don Giovanni" grew up in Cuba where she said she saw it many times.

Everyone has had a hand in the legend. The hero of Moliére's play, "Dom Juan, ou le Festin de pierre," first performed in 1665, repents and asks for confession before he dies. In the 19th century, Lord Byron wrote a long epic poem, "Don Juan," in which the hero is, satirically, the seduced rather than the seducer, the product of a repressive Catholic upbringing who accidentally falls into love time and time again. Unfinished at his death, it is considered by critics to be his masterpiece. Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard in Either/Or considered "Don Giovanni" to be the supreme illustration of the exuberance of aesthetics compared to the dull wisdom of ethics. Never before, he wrote "has sensuousness been a principle," and that conception originates in opera because "the genius of sensuousness is...the absolute subject of music." And Don Juan, as we know, is the king of sensuousness.

French poet Charles Baudelaire wrote "Don Juan aux enfers" and British playwright George Bernard Shaw included a modern Don Juan in his play "Man and Superman." In The Myth of Sisyphus, Existentialist French philosopher Albert Camus sees Don Juan as an archetypical example of the absurd man. Don Juan was a likable rogue in American movies starring John Barrymore, Douglas Fairbanks and Errol Flynn, and in a more recent film Johnny Depp plays a Don Juan undergoing analysis with Marlon Brando. In Jim Jarmusch's "Broken Flowers," Bill Murray portrays a thinly veiled Don Juan fallen on hard times. Songs have been written about Don Juan by the Pet Shop Boys, They Must be Giants, and Joni Mitchell. More recent plays about him have been written by Ingmar Berman (also a film), Suzanne Lilar and José Saramago, and novels have come from Sylvia Towsend Warner, Paul Goodman, Peter Handke and Santa Cruz author Douglas Carlton Abrams who recently published The Lost Diary of Don Juan.

Don Juan, or Don Giovanni, is clearly larger than life, or too large for this life. Like Goethe's Faust, he is a literary figure who stands for transgressing limits. Cultural historian Marina Warner writes that "Mozart's Don Giovanni quickly became a hero of Romanticism precisely because he is so headstrong, seizing what is forbidden -- sex -- at the risk to his own life and soul." Don Giovanni's heroism is "exalted and purified by his damnation." He is the Faust who does not regret his pack with the Devil, the Adam with Eve who refuse to despair after the Fall, "for they prefer mortality to Eden, human experience to perfect bliss." Warner also suggests that it is men rather than women who are "the ultimate targets of his exploits...the men who hold the women in their keeping: fathers, husbands, fiancés." The seducer, "by robbing a man of his women's virtue, grew himself in reputation and stature as surely as if he had seized valuables of a material order." She sees women as prizes at stake in a struggle for power between men.

Another writer suggests that an important theme of "Don Giovanni" is forgiveness, exhibited by Donna Elvira's feelings of pity for Don Juan after he is dragged off to Hell and she chooses to enter a convent for the rest of her life. Certainly the women in Mozart's opera -- Anna, Elvira and Zerlina -- have the central roles and some of the best arias. Don Juan is strangely one-dimensional, all penis and no intellect. His foil, the Sancho Panza to his Don Quixote, is Leporello, his servant, who makes fun of him throughout the opera. Zerlina and Anna, after a year of mourning for her father, will get married. Is the message of the Don Juan story then that monogamy is the only allowable goal?

What does it mean to be Don Juan now, a "butterfly" in today's world, a lover of women, an appreciator of their beauty, flying from flower to flower, inhaling their scent? The older I get, the more I find women attractive, all ages and all sizes. In Thailand, where age is considered less important than it is in the Brad Pitt and Paris Hilton-obsessed west, I am learning to flirt again, to enjoy the pleasures of embodiment. Seduction in the 21st century can go both ways. Long live Don and Doña Juan(na)!

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