The hidden story of Don Giovanni, Mozart’s Jewish opera
Giovanni is dragged down to hell, and the rest of the cast appears to find that divine justice has done for their tormentor. Nobles, bourgeois, and peasants sing, “That’s the end of those who do ill!” and Da Ponte makes us understand that they are the same credulous fools whom Giovanni duped before.
We laugh at the assemblage of Giovanni’s victims: the domineering and bitter Donna Anna and her feckless fiancé Ottavio; the pathetically devoted Donna Elvira; the social-climbing peasant girl Zerlina and her doltish intended Masetto; and the cowardly, conniving servant Leporello. There is no question, though, that Mozart has written a tragedy—not Don Giovanni’s, but ours. Mozart’s best music is reserved for the human cost of Giovanni’s depredations. At the crux of the opera, Donna Anna suddenly recognizes Giovanni as the masked intruder who attempted to rape her (and possibly succeeded) and then killed her beloved father. A long dramatic recitative prepares Anna’s vengeance aria, “Or sai chi l’onore,” with Mozart’s tonal transformation mirroring Anna’s progression from recognition to fear and then to resolve. The dean of American music theorists, Carl Schachter, has published the authoritative analysis of this almost miraculous passage.
The supernatural resolution of the matter is a masterstroke of Brechtian alienation, a flamboyantly buffo set of sight gags, so at odds with the seriousness of the situation that it sets in relief the absurdity of the premise. If a supernatural intervention that silly is the only thing that will get rid of Don Juan, the not-so-subtle message is that Christendom is incapable of ridding itself of evil through its own efforts.
How did Tirso get away with this lampoon of Catholic soteriology? The apparent answer is that the Spanish Church was distracted by the Protestant menace. John Calvin proposed to solve the paradox of salvation by arguing that only a predestined elect would be saved. Don Juan is no Calvinist; he believes that his will is free to choose salvation, whenever he feels like it. The Inquisition checked the “free will” box and gave Tirso a pass. We may have no choice but to believe in free will, as Isaac Bashevis Singer joked, but Calvin’s concept of election lies closer to the Jewish point of view. Its logical consequence was to remove the elect from a world governed by sociopaths to a New Israel, namely America.
Tirso drew on folk tales in which a living person invites a dead man to dinner and perishes when the invitation is returned. But Juan is not an archetype of legend: He is a metaphysical construct unique to his time, and to the tragedy of the Spanish Jews. Don Juan has only one great antecedent in literature, in fact an ancestress, the procuress Celestina, the anti-heroine of Fernando de Rojas’ 1499 tragicomedy. Printed just seven years after the expulsion of the Jews from Spain by a converso attorney who represented his father-in-law before the Inquisition Court, De Rojas’ tragicomedy is a howl at heaven, a malediction on Christian Spain.
Whore and harpy, Celestina is perhaps the most frightful character ever to walk the Western stage. She is oblivious to danger and brilliantly manipulative. Next to her, Marlowe’s Barnabas and Shakespeare’s Iago, or even Goethe’s Mephistopheles, are mischievous schoolboys. Hired to help a young man seduce the socially superior girl he desires, Celestina sets events in motion that cause the death of the entire cast. As a genre, tragicomedy has its roots in antiquity—Plautus was the first to use the term—but in the modern world, the juxtaposition of bathetic and horrific elements begins with De Rojas’ gallows humor under the shadow of the Inquisition.
Celestina (the “Tragicomedy of Calixto and Melibea”) became the first blockbuster best-seller in Western literary history. By 1620 it had been performed in English; a full English translation was printed in 1631. Shakespeare and Marlowe drew on it. There are scenes in the drama whose grotesque humor no English dramatist has surpassed. It went through 30 Spanish editions during the 16th century alone, as well as translations into the major European languages, not to mention a 1505 Hebrew version of which only a few lines survive.
De Rojas’ procuress is a hellion who calls on the devil for help. Tirso’s Don Juan is more insidious. Don Juan is neither heretic nor hypocrite: He is a devout believer who has figured out that the system entitles him to be thoroughly evil for the interim. His existence points up the hypocrisy around him; because the Christian world cannot deal with this monster, it must accommodate him. Both Celestina and Don Juan haunted the literary imagination with the same subliminal message: Your world is badly made, and it will come to a horrible end.
Tirso de Molino wrote for a world where sociopaths wore the garb of nobility and clergy. The dueling masterminds of the Thirty Years War, Cardinal Richelieu and the Spanish Prime Minister Olivares, each believed that his country was divinely selected for God’s service and therefore could commit unspeakable acts on behalf of its national ambitions. But a new kind of sociopath was about to step on the world stage, and Mozart warns us of his approach. At the end of the opera’s first act, Don Giovanni welcomes a group of maskers to his palace (they are Anna, Elvira, and Ottavio in disguise). Da Ponte has Giovanni declare, “It’s open to everyone. Long live liberty!” Mozart does something unexpected: The whole cast breaks character and in martial fanfare sings “Viva la libertà!” Lurking behind the mask of liberty in the enlightened world was a capacity for evil perhaps greater than anything the traditional world had brought forward. This was in 1786, three years before the French Revolution. How did Mozart know?
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