Earlier in the week we went to watch Mozarts Don Giovanni at Covent Garden. The production was cleverly staged and, on the whole, well-paced. Much to my surprise, I was familiar with all the tunes, but not the story. I suddenly realized I had never seen it before. It has a much better libretto (by Lorenzo Da Ponte) than most Mozart's operas, full of clever puns and situational comedy, social commentary, and even almost psychological depth--perhaps because Don Giovanni is a shameless womanizer, the persistent strain of misogyny, which mars so many of his operas -- as the movie, Amadeus, notes -- is much less present. (Donna Anna performed by Rachel Willis-Sørensen is, in fact, an interesting character who evolves through the opera).
Half way the first act Don Giovanni takes advantage of his noble status to interrupt a joyous wedding among peasants. The whole scene has strong echoes of the so-called Droit du seigneur, the right of the noble man to have sex with his virgin peasants on their wedding night. (The idea is the driving force of Braveheart.) At first, Zerlina* is horrified, but under the influence of his flattery and her own wishes for a better life, against her better judgement -- she understands the Don's intentions for her are not noble -- the idea of a new beginning starts to grip her. (A very good version of the whole scene sung and acted by Rodney Gilfry and Liliana Nikiteanu can be seen here; see also an appropriately creepy one performed Bryn Terfel and Hei-Kyung Hong conducted by James Levine.)
"La ci darem la mano" [There I will give you (my) hand"] is one of the most famous duets; it has a honey-sweet melody. The night I saw it, Chen Reiss and Mariusz Kwiecień sung it with achingly beautiful, haunting intensity. Unlike most versions, which emphasize the closing sequence (Andiam-let's go!), Kwiecień lingered on the key line, Io cangierò tua sorte.--I will change your fate.
There is quite a bit of art that is intended to beautiful and once firmly thought beautiful and great, and where (say) because of changing sensibilities the aesthetic experience is marred or worse, because what it portrays is not at all lovely; where if there is an aesthetic experience at all it's something of an antiquarian interest. [Fill in your favorite example from, say, the history of painting.] If such art still seduces, it's because of a self-conscious bracketing by the viewer.
Zerlina's duet with Don Giovanni is not like that. Before and after, we're not made to forget that Don Giovanni's actions are immoral and also an abuse of the very idea of nobility (and part of the abuse is Don Giovanni's infection by all-too-many-modern ideas--book-keeping, his sensual materialism, his courageous rejection of the gods, his willingness to embrace liberty in which high and low are mixed, etc.). Mozart confronts us with the art of the flattering demagogue, who tells is what we want to hear. And as Mozart shows, this can be cripplingly beautiful.** (Of course, eventually, Zerlinia's akrasia gives way to what she knows can't be true, innocent love.)
The duet is, thus, disturbing not just because we are all, in principle like Zerlina, capable of being seduced -- and the experience of watching the duet, thus, enacts what it represents -- but also because Mozart lets us steal here a glimpse of his suspicion of his great craft and, thereby, change your fate.
*Later in the opera, to console Masetto with his humiliations, she offers herself up to be punished by him; this makes his humiliation worse, and he refuses this solution.
**Near the climax of the opera, while Don Giovanni is anxiously waiting his mysterious dinner guest, Mozart allows himself to make fun of the capacity of his own musical art of making light of awful situations.