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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.

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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)
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Elvira (Frittoli) listens to the catalogue aria
© Beatriz Schiller 2012
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Anna (Rebeka) in Act I
© Beatriz Schiller 2012

On May 7, 1783, Wolfgang Amadè 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 Mozart–Varesco 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 Così 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 Mozart–da 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 sentirà"), 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."

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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 tradì 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.

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Zerlina (Erdmann) sings "Batti, batti" to Masetto (Joshua
Bloom).

© Beatriz Schiller 2012

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 but traits of character. In this case, Elvira, Anna and Ottavio arrive at 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. spacer 

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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