Saturday, July 29, 2006

100 Greats in 100 Days # 034: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Don Giovanni (bootleg of Pearlman/Boston Baroque 1986 performances)

Possibly the greatest moment in the greatest opera ever written: in Mozart’s brilliant, scabrous, and subversive masterpiece Don Giovanni, when, after two acts and three hours of irony, satire, playful political commentary, outrageous sexual innuendo, and Marx Brothersian slapstick, the Don’s world is revealed to be shockingly darker, realer, and far more consequential than anyone in the cast or the audience had realized: when the Commendatore, father of Giovanni’s latest conquest, who the Don had killed in an offhand, wisecracking duel in Act I, appears, an animate Golem-esque statue, at the end of Act II, and, basso profundo, calls out to Giovanni, threatening him with the flames of hell unless he repents.

There are three perfect operas—if, like me, you find Romanticism to be gimcrack self-engrossment and thus discount the 19th century: the first real opera, Monteverdi’s Orfeo, when he recognized that, in the effort to recreate the affect of ancient Greek drama, he could draw from all the musics around him; this one; and the only 20th-century opera that comes within hollering distance of Mozart, Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress: a conscious effort to recall the brevity, directness, and synthesis of slapstick comedy and vertiginous surreality of the Mozart. Giovanni might be the greatest of all three.

The “classical” in the world of European aesthetics is a conscious attempt to seek “coolness,” clarity, symmetry, balance, and immediacy. In its broadest interpretation, it’s the willingness to work within the confines of a genre—be it the sonata or the string quartet or representational painting or the 12-bar blues—as opposed to insisting upon an individualistic, idiosyncratic reinvention of the art form in question. A whole generation of composers, in the wake of WWI, essentially abandoned the hyper-romantic individualism of the expressionist style (Strauss’s Elektra and Salome being the canonic examples—dark, contorted, cynical, deeply sexual), horrified that their obsessively autobiographical fetishization of nationalism and individualism might have somehow contributed to the conclave of stupid reasons for that stupid, unnecessary war. Another generation of composers, in the wake of Buchenwald and Nagasaki, abandoned the last remnants of populist nationalism and retreated—regressively and, let’s be honest, with a degree of social cowardice—into the academic enclaves and hyper-“rationality” of serialism, itself an unwittingly fitting soundtrack to the button-down neurosis of the Cold War.

Mozart would not have understood the point of abandoning stylistic conventions: musical satire cannot work unless an audience has expectations which can be invoked, teased, shocked, or subverted. As Allanbrook makes clear in her masterful exegesis, the musical humor in DG depends upon the audience recognizing the references: the way that Leporello evokes and subverts the long tradition of comic operatic basses; the way the Don’s misconduct engages and scandalizes Viennese sexual mores (there’s a reason this opera had to open “out of town” in Prague); the way the music for Dona Elvira, based in formerly au courant styles, is just a few too many years out of date, and played too fast for grace; the way the diegetic music onstage during the first act Finale slyly quotes Mozart’s own operatic catalog. Such references are the best single argument for studying musicology—they are entirely of the time, place, and people of the original context, and recognizing and understanding them can add an entire additional layer of comic reference to the listening experience.

They’re also the best, and an entirely consistent, argument in favor of the historical instruments and performance practice of this recording. Pearlman and the Boston Baroque understood the style of Giovanni from the other end—instead of the tinkering hindsight revisions of Mendelssohn, Stokowski, Karajan, or Bernstein, Pearlman and my homies begin by asking, not “what do I think this should sound like?”, but rather, more modestly, insightfully, and “classically,” “what did Mozart think this should sound like?”

A common critique of historical performance is that it seeks the impossible: to “recreate the music exactly as it sounded.” This is bullshit: what HP seeks to do is simultaneously simpler, more modest, and more ambitious: it seeks to understand the composer’s intent and the composition’s impact. What was the impact of the references and allusive quotations in DG, to music, politics, and public figures of the day? How shocked was the Prague (and later Viennese) audience by the sexuality? How do we have to play to allow this to come out?

Pearlman elicits a performance whose guerilla lightness, flexibility, transparency, and intensity lets the soloists (including the great Sanford Sylvan) float like a butterfly and sting like a bee. And, like Ali in his prime, Sylvan’s Don, at the climactic moment when, confronted by the Don, he must choose between either submitting to conventional bourgeois apology and surviving, or defying even Hell’s power to control him, categorically refuses. Threatened with ejection from the boxing world for refusing to fight in Vietnam (“them Viet Congs never did nothin’ to me”), Ali accepted his exile—and, at the 1996, refusing to submit even to Parkinson’s, he lit the Olympic Torch. He earned it: he was one of the bravest men in the history of American athletics. Unlike Ali, the Don wasn’t brave, but he had the defiant pride of Lucifer, and, like Lucifer, he was cast into hell rather than submit. It’s no surprise that the Viennese censors hated this opera—and no surprise that I love it: I don't do well with authority either.

A radio broadcast, around 1986, of a concert version of DG. We were blasting it through our funky little rented graduate-student house, and at the climactic moment, I sang the Commendatore’s basso profundo command: “Don Gio-VAAAA-ni!Dharmonia thought it was the broadcast: my finest (and only) operatic moment, a thumb in the eye to all the people in my childhood who told me I couldn't sing.

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