The hidden story of Don Giovanni, Mozart’s Jewish opera
A rake seduces women and murders their male relatives with impunity until the statue of one of his victims invites him to supper and drags him to hell. It sounds silly, but for two centuries it was the most-favored plot device in Western literature. Don Juan was the invention of Tirso de Molina, a Spanish monk from a family of converted Jews. Concealed in its puppet-theater plot is a Jewish joke: Don Juan exists to prove by construction that a devout Christian can be a sociopath, and by extension, that the Christian world can be ruled by sociopaths. The Enlightenment’s most insidious attack on Catholic faith, then, came not from atheists like Voltaire, but from a Spanish monk with buried Jewish sensibilities.
A century and a half later, another converted Jew—Emmanuele Conegliano, known as Lorenzo da Ponte—reworked Tirso’s play as a libretto for Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and the result was an utterly unique work of art. It is pointless to argue about whether Don Giovanni is the best opera ever written, because it is a genre unto itself—the musical tragi-comedy, or “drama giocoso,” as Da Ponte put it. Mozart’s combination of tragic and comic elements turns the world inside out. From the first bars of the orchestra to the final note, we are unsure whether we should laugh, cry, or feel fear. If you don’t leave the theater confused, you haven’t been listening.
Mozart’s anti-hero seduced 2,065 women, his servant Leporello recounts in the celebrated Catalogue Aria. As a literary archetype, Don Juan’s conquests are just as prolific. One scholar lists 1,720 published variants on the theme since Tirso de Molina printed The Trickster of Seville in 1630, in the middle of the Thirty Years War. For the two centuries between Tirso and Byron’s eponymous epic poem, Don Juan bestrode the literary imagination like no other personage in history.
In a post-Christian world that has lost interest in the problem of sin and salvation, Don Juan is passé. By 1821, when Juan appears in Byron’s eponymous masterwork, Juan was on his farewell tour. E.T.A. Hoffman’s and Kierkegaard’s fascination with the subject is a response to Mozart’s astonishing music, not to the literary theme. Baudelaire’s poem “Don Juan in Hell” and Shaw’s intermezzo of the same title make Juan into a defiant hero. Desultory efforts to recast Don Juan as a Freudian case history still crop up from time to time, but lack conviction and much of an audience.
Juan held the audience of the 17th and 18th centuries in thrall, because he personified the Christian world’s foreboding about its own vulnerability. Tirso’s trickster poses an impossible paradox for the Christian concept of salvation: The story is not about eros, but evil. Christian society is founded on the premise that it requires “only one precept,” as St. Augustine put it: “Love, and do as you will.” Once humankind accepts the utterly unselfish love of Jesus Christ, Christianity asserts, the elaborate body of Jewish law becomes redundant, for Christian love will elicit the right behavior spontaneously.
The trouble, Tirso demonstrates, is that society that depends on conscience has no defense against a sociopath who has none. Don Juan is a predator inside the Christian world with no natural enemies. Juan enjoys murdering the male relatives of his female victims almost as much he enjoys seducing the women. To the extent that we can speak of Juan’s descendants in today’s fiction, they are not so much lovers but serial killers.
Tirso’s theological mousetrap had more than hypothetical importance for the audience of 1630, a dozen years into the Thirty Years War that would ruin the Spanish Empire and kill not quite half of central Europe’s population. His world was infested with sociopaths in positions of power, including Spain’s King Philip IV, one of whose bastards would eventually stage a coup against the legitimate heir to the Spanish throne. Philip makes an appearance in The Trickster of Seville, lightly disguised as the 14th-century king Alfonso XI, who also peopled the Spanish royal line with bastards.
It may not be a coincidence that Alfonso’s bastard son, Henry of Trastámara, incited Jew-hatred to overthrow his more tolerant half-brother, the legitimate heir Pedro I of Castile. Henry led the massacre of 12,000 Spanish Jews in Toledo on May 7, 1335. The Jews fought alongside Pedro in a prolonged civil war and suffered horribly after Henry won and beheaded his brother with the words: “Where is that son-of-a-whore Jew?”
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