The hidden story of Don Giovanni, Mozart’s Jewish opera
We forget such things today, but in Tirso’s lifetime they were burned into living memory. Nearly a quarter of a million Jews lived in Spain in 1492, a tenth of the country’s population; given the choice of exile or baptism in that year, more than half chose to leave, but tens of thousands died en route. Jews dominated Spain’s literary elite, and those who stayed produced a disproportionate number of Spain’s writers in the Golden Age of the early 17th century, Tirso included. But the “new Christians” never fit in. To this day, families in Toledo distinguish between “new” and “old” Christians.
Tirso drives the paradox still deeper. The original Don Juan of the Spanish Golden Age is a believing Catholic, who has no doubt that repentance and forgiveness through the Church can save his soul: For that reason he can devote his youth to evil and repent sometime later. “You’re giving me plenty of time to pay up!” (“que largo me lo fíais”), he mocks whomever urges him to repent and save his soul. (A variant of The Trickster of Seville was published under the title Que largo me fíais, making clear that the play hinges on Juan’s twisted but orthodox theology).
Juan’s servant Catalinón (Leporello in Mozart) warns him that even a long life is short, and sin will be punished. “If you give me so much time to pay up,” Juan replies brightly, “let the tricks continue!” Besides, he adds, his father is the king’s favorite. Christianity, as Tirso observes, can produce a monster who does nothing but evil precisely because he believes in heaven, hell, and the sacraments of the Church. Tirso might have had Kohelet 8:11 in mind: “Because the sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily, therefore the heart of the sons of men is fully set in them to do evil.” But Christian reliance on the Attribute of Mercy at the expense of the Attribute of Justice, as the theologian Michael Wyschogrod put it, frees Juan to formulate a sociopath’s theory of salvation.
That, incidentally, explains why modern-dress versions of Mozart’s opera fail so miserably. In today’s epoch of the hook-up, a serial seducer is not a monster, but only an annoyance. No one gets dragged down to hell anymore. Juan’s natural habitat is the twilight of faith, the point at which the Catholic world fought with the presentiment of its decline but held on all the more intently to its faith.
Tirso’s critique of Christianity follows the rabbinic reading. As the Rav Joseph Dov Solovietchik put it, “Subjective faith, lacking commands and laws, faith of the sort that Saul of Tarsus spoke about—even if it dresses itself up as the love of God and man—cannot stand fast if it contains no explicit commands to do good deeds, to fulfill specific commandments not always approved by rationality and culture.” In Don Juan, the Christian world saw its own susceptibility to chaos. That is why the European audience could not take its eyes off him for 200 years.
No writer portrayed this chaos and its theological sources more vividly than Tirso. The usual account of Don Juan and his 1,719 literary imitations reduces Tirso’s brilliant and complex play to a simple-minded morality lesson. Christian critics do not seem to grasp how great and enduring was the pain of the Spanish Jews; even worse, they evince a deaf ear for Jewish irony. “The Trickster” is a Jewish joke, and the critics don’t get it. The theologian David Bentley Hart, for example, wrote recently that “Juan was the greatest immoralist of European literature precisely because he served as the negative image of the moral convictions and capacities of his time and place, the exemplary contradiction of an entire and coherent vision of the good, whose story magically combined a certain nostalgia for fading cultural certitudes with a certain cynicism toward them.”
In fact, “The Trickster” is a Jewish practical joke of cosmic malevolence, a burlesque de profundis, a bitter laugh from the depths. I found a translation of Tirso in the public library 45 years ago, after learning of Da Ponte’s source from the liner notes in a recording of Mozart’s opera. Don Giovanni knocked me sideways as a 14-year-old. My secular home didn’t have a chumash. But Mozart’s opera stirred something in me, an awareness, perhaps, of the woeful inadequacy of the enlightened reading of the human condition. I saw every performance I could, pounded out the piano score, and scoured the literary sources for the libretto. Not until recently did it occur to me that between the notes, I was hearing the muffled anguish of the Spanish Jews.
The theme appealed to Mozart, whose musical genius uniquely enabled him to balance tragedy with raucous good humor. Just before the statue arrives at Giovanni’s palace, one of his rejected conquests, Donna Elvira, bursts in to beg him to change his evil ways. Giovanni mocks her, toasting women and good wine; Elvira pathetically tells him to stop; and Leporello mutters to himself comically that his master has a heart of stone. Except they are all doing this at the same time, in a trio in which each of three vocal lines contains a perfect characterization of the three contrasting emotions. There is nothing quite like this in all of opera.
Elvira departs, and we hear her scream off-stage. There is a knock at the door. Leporello answers it and warns his master in Lou Costello style, “Don’t go that way! There’s a man of stone! He’s going, ‘Ta, Ta, Ta’!” Giovanni ignores him. The statue (whom Giovanni had mockingly invited to supper in the previous scene) tells Giovanni that he must accept a return invitation. “Sorry, sorry, he has a previous engagement,” Leporello interrupts. We are deep into Mozart’s most tragic D minor, but even then the jokes keep coming.
Critical View: Shai Azoulay—headlining a show with sculptor Reuven Israel at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art—sets a white donkey adrift in a desert sea