An introduction to Opera

1003! And just in Spain. Epic!

Don Giovanni is one of a small handful of operas that on any given day I am prepared to pronounce my favourite opera. Note that I am not suggesting that it is the greatest opera ever written. Not even that it is Mozart’s greatest opera (most people would, I think, accord that honour to Le Nozze di Figaro.) But it is a work I never cease to love and marvel at.

In Act One of the piece, the Don’s winger, Leporello, is trying to explain to one of the Don’s former lovers, Elvira (at his boss’s behest of course) that she really shouldn’t bother to have anything further to do with him the Don. He does this in the time-honored ‘It’s-not-you-it’s-him’ manner. In an aria that has become known as the Catalogue Aria,he sings to her about all the women the Don has tupped in the course of his distinguished career. The punch line is “Ma, in Ispana , son gia mille e tre!” – “And 1003 in Spain alone!” Now, I know a variety of sportsmen have claimed to have had a prodigious number of lovers – dammit, in my younger day I was not unfamiliar with the concept of a decadent weekend. But 1003? that’s pretty notable.

But it is not Don Giovanni’s conquests that make this such a wonderful opera. The music is simply stunning. Here is an example. The Don is singing at the window of a woman he hopes to seduce. Unlike Juliet in the Dire Straits’ Romeo and Juliet, she doesn’t tell him “You shouldn’t come around here, singing up at people like that” – though it would have been a good idea.

But, glorious thought the music is, it grows only finer in the wonderful libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte. I suppose if you are an opera composer looking for a worldly-wise wordsmith who can get to grips with love, lust, chicanery, comedy, tragedy, life and death, you would be hard put to do better than Da Ponte. Born a Jew, converted to Roman Catholicism, took holy orders, seduced another man’s wife (with whom he had children), managed a whore house with her, ultimately fleeing to America where he became a grocer in Brooklyn before taking a post as the first professor of Italian literature at Columbia University. Yes, there was a man who knew life!

I could rattle on for pages on how each scene of the opera holds its own unique treasures but as space does not permit, let me jump to the ending. And what an ending! The Don is given the opportunity to admit the error of his ways and receive God’s – and our – absolution. But he’ll have none of it, preferring to remain true to himself and be damned – literally.

There are a number of reasons I am writing about this now in addition to my always being ready to wax lyrical about Mozart’s operas. First, the English National Opera is showing a new production beginning October 17th. This is a first rate opera company that performs in a wonderful space – the Coliseum, just off Leicester Square. The singers are of the highest quality – and IT IS SUNG IN ENGLISH! I can only urge to you go get tickets right now (they are very reasonably priced) and treat yourself to a spacial night out. You’ll not regret it, this is a wonderful story with music to make you laugh,sigh and cry.

It also happens that a good friend of mine, Gale Martin has written a splendid and very well received novel, Don Juan in Hershey, PA, about an opera company looking to put on Don Giovanni and it’s a great fun read, so I thought I should let you know about it.

The poster advertising the ENO’s production (see above) has caused a good deal of chatter in the social media, with people getting all puritanical about its content. I mean, yes the tag line is not exactly subtle as double entendres go. But, come on, it’s not like they showed an open condom packet or anything, is…oh, wait….

This article was written by Stephen Llewellyn, and taken from his “Operamans Blog

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