On Don Giovanni

This morning, for some reason, I woke up wondering about a scene in Mozart’s Don GiovanniAct 1, Scene 5, in particular.

Zerlina’s lines include, “I am ruined!” I wondered if Mozart made it explicit that she’d been raped, or if the assault had been interrupted. I do love opera, but it’s hardly kind to women as a rule. (“Saturated in misogyny like most classical stage arts,” is closer to the truth.)

God bless the internet, for I was able to find (while abed, this was the reason I didn’t get up until later) quite a few interesting things.

Anna and Elvira convey attitudes close to those of the women activists who have raised awareness about the issues of rape and sexual harassment on college campuses. Their voices are strong and filled with anger.
“Never again another victim” is their message as Elvira sings Ah! Fuggi il traditor! (“Flee from this betrayer!”) and Anna steels herself for vengeance.

These women, whose wealth offers them a limited degree of autonomy, are ingenuous and inventive in plotting to catch the Don red-handed. The peasant girl Zerlina has fewer options. Zerlina is her bridegroom’s property and has to make her marriage work at any cost; she has no alternative.

“No need to worry about Zerlina,” says Kerman.

Why not? Is she not worth it? Her aria Batti, batti, the most famous invitation to domestic violence in the genre of opera, reveals a woman of the lowest social class employing the only tool available to her, that of her “feminine” sexuality, “feminine” in the traditional sense of completely submissive. (Liane Curtis, in SFGate)

I hadn’t thought of it that way before. Mozart’s not really a feminist, but several of his female characters speak almost despite him. (I don’t know enough about his mother or his fabulous wife Constance to guess if perhaps they had an effect.) And it’s really Donna Elvira who drives most of the story–she’s the active component, she vows revenge and openly threatens Giovanni, rescues Zerlina from him right after the peasant girl’s marriage, makes Ottavio and Donna Anna begin to doubt Giovanni’s urbane exterior, tries to save Giovanni despite his maltreatment of her, and is the first one to witness the spectre of the Commendatore as it arrives for the final supper. Donna Anna is another driver, though not the primary one. She uses the limited autonomy of a wealthy woman with a fiance to force Don Ottavio to swear vengeance, and while Ottavio is not a huge prize–he paternalistically declares he must either “enlighten or avenge” her–at least he doesn’t ever threaten Anna with the breaking of their betrothal, as a lesser man might have done.

Of course, Zerlina’s husband still may still hold the whole Giovanni incident over her head for the rest of their married life, Anna is going to marry Ottavio, and Donna Elvira has to lock herself in a convent for the rest of her days. There were precious few “good” choices for women in those days, but at least Giovanni was dragged (thrillingly, fittingly) to hell. Byron tried to make Don Juan/Giovanni a hero, and several (male) stage directors have, too. But it remains the women who drive the story, and in the end, Giovanni’s always dragged publicly and irrevocably to an eternal punishment. You could make the case that he was only done so because of property crimes–of course, a woman belonged to father or husband, and rape was only prosecuted or avenged successfully on those grounds–but the strength of Mozart’s opera is that it can surpass that.

I am not sure if Zerlina is actually raped, or if she’s “saved just in time”. Given Massetto’s behaviour, it’s probably the latter–as he’s written, I can’t see him going home for supper with Zerlina otherwise. That led me to a whole chain of thought on Donna Anna’s insistence that she fought Giovanni off, and how that was likely critical to the continuance of her betrothal, and how Zerlina, no matter what happened, might have had to convince Massetto over and over again that she was innocent. I’ve seen relationships like that over and over, in fiction and in real life. No doubt Mozart did too, it’s a function of patriarchy.

To finish, here’s a little something from October 2016:

Neither Mozart nor his librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte ever meant Don Giovanni to be a role model; the opera’s original title was “I dissoluto punito, ossia Il Don Giovanni” (“The Immoral Man Punished, or Don Giovanni”). It is true that in the “Catalogue” aria Leperello recites the extent of Don Giovanni’s conquests: 1,003 in Spain, 100 in France, etc. But in the end the message is that even a rich charismatic guy can not get away with predatory behavior, groping, serial rape, and, I’m sure, the occasional pussy-grab. The Don ends up dragged to hell. (Bonnie Gordon, in Slate)

Nowadays, of course, it’s likely to be an army of pussyhatted protestors who will save us from the crotchgrabber in the White House. I’m sure, though, to His Majesty der Turmper, it’s just as much hell as Giovanni’s.