New productions of ‘Don Giovanni’ and ‘The Ghosts of Versailles’ offer striking connections, historical and dramatic

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The Juilliard Opera staging of 'Don Giovanni' (Nan Melville)
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The New York opera season now drawing to a close has been odd.

The Metropolitan Opera’s flashy new productions were, by and large, duds, while less ballyhooed revivals—of Handel’s Rodelinda, Mussorgsky’s Khovanshchina, and Verdi’s Macbeth—were shows for the ages. Homeless after quitting the David H. Koch Theater, its endowment a scant 9 percent of what it was in 2008, its chorus and orchestra’s minimum annual pay slashed by more than 80 percent, New York City Opera somehow managed to serve up phenomenally good Mozart (Così fan tutte), balance its budget, and announce an enticing 2012–13 season.

Still, even as the seasons of the city’s marquee companies enter their final weeks, there is compelling opera left to be seen, especially at two of New York’s great music schools. Juilliard Opera will present Mozart’s Don Giovanni on April 25, 27, and 29 at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater, while the Manhattan School of Music (M.S.M.) Opera Theater will mount John Corigliano’s The Ghosts of Versailles at the John C. Borden Auditorium on the same dates.

Juilliard and M.S.M. have a history of putting on splendid shows, and both of this week’s offerings promise surprises. Most companies (including the Met) present Don Giovanni in a version that conflates the score of the 1787 Prague world premiere with some, but not all, of the numbers that Mozart wrote for the Vienna run of the opera in 1788. Juilliard, instead, will present a Vienna edition of the opera, including some rarely heard music—and omitting the final, moralizing sextet (“This is the end to which evil-doers come”), which was not printed in the Vienna libretto and was rarely performed until the twentieth century. M.S.M. will present the local premiere of a new performing edition of Ghosts of Versailles, with orchestra reduction by John David Earnest, created at Corigliano’s request to make his “grand opera buffa” accessible to smaller companies. Rapturously received at its 1991 Metropolitan Opera world premiere, Ghosts has not been heard at the Met since 1995.

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In spite of the two centuries that separate them, Ghosts and Don Giovanni have much in common, and the chance to hear them in close succession is a boon. Both have noteworthy New York connections: Corigliano is a lifelong New Yorker who was trained at M.S.M. and Columbia; and Lorenzo Da Ponte, Mozart’s Venetian-born librettist, died a New Yorker and a naturalized American citizen in 1838. He was Columbia College’s first professor of Italian literature, and he oversaw the U.S. premiere of Don Giovanni, which took place in New York in 1826.

Less chauvinistic considerations join the two works, as well. Both are by design hard to pin down: Corigliano and his librettist William M. Hoffman styled Ghosts a “grand opera buffa,” yoking together two disparate genres: grand opéra, in its classic French model an opulent spectacle based on historical events that often ended in disaster; and opera buffa or comic opera, which traditionally depicted common folk’s domestic concerns and ended with conflicts healed and community re-knit. Da Ponte called Don Giovanni a dramma giocoso or “jocular drama,” a theatrical form that originated in Venice and commingled noble characters with servants and rustics and weighty matters with droll intrigues.

Oscillating in tone and genre, both Ghosts and Don Giovanni are also, and not coincidentally, operas about revolution. Ghosts takes place both beyond time, in “the world of eternity” as the libretto puts it, and in the momentous autumn of 1793. Its leading players are the shades of playwright Pierre Beaumarchais (pictured above, whose subversive comedy The Marriage of Figaro became the first Da Ponte-Mozart opera) and the unhappy queen Marie Antoinette. Ghosts was “suggested by” another Beaumarchais play, The Guilty Mother, which depicts the Figaro characters twenty years later, and they too figure heavily in Corigliano’s opera.

Don Giovanni came into being on the eve of the French Revolution and was itself a revolution in many respects. Director Stephen Wadsworth, who staged the Met’s superb Rodelinda, has set Juilliard’s Don Giovanni in the time of its composition, the turbulent late eighteenth century. Wadsworth noted in an email that Don Giovanni had its premiere only six weeks after the United States Constitution was adopted. Contradictory, varying wildly in style and tone, Don Giovanni has enthralled artists and thinkers since its premiere, and it continues to spawn interpretations as protean as its title character.

Søren Kierkegaard heard in Mozart’s music the “energy of sensuous desire.” Goethe and E.T.A. Hoffmann saw Don Giovanni as striving for some kind of Romantic absolute. Last year, in a much-discussed article, David P. Goldman called Don Giovanni Mozart’s “Jewish opera,” in which “the Christian world saw its own susceptibility to chaos.” Joseph Losey used a snippet from Marxist Antonio Gramsci’s writings (“The old is dying and the new cannot be born...”) as the epigraph of his 1979 film of the opera, in which Don Giovanni is consigned to the flames in his own glassworks.

Losey also depicted Donna Anna as besotted with Don Giovanni, a conceit put forth by many present-day directors and born of the fetid, misogynistic notion that women enjoy sexual violence. Philosopher Catherine Clément duly noted the opera’s enduring appeal among “phallocrats” and retorted, “Maybe Donna Anna was never the object of attempted rape; no doubt Don Giovanni went to her room to talk politics, because it seems he also represents the revolution.”

Other operatic teams had treated the Don Juan legend before Mozart and Da Ponte, but their Don Giovanni tore into music history in the manner of that first D-minor chord in the overture, which erupts from silence and hits listeners like a knee to the gut. Verdi’s Rigoletto and Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress are two among many operas that can be understood in part as glosses on Don Giovanni.

During the Act I finale, Don Giovanni invites three masked strangers to partake of his hospitality, singing "Viva la libertà!" Mozart, perhaps with a glint of irony, indicated that this bit be performed maestoso, “in a majestic manner,” and also wrote martial fanfares into the score. Liberty as a supposedly innate human right had been a doctrine of the American Revolution, as it would be in France. But whose liberty, and at what cost? Don Giovanni and The Ghosts of Versailles both probe these issues. While Don Giovanni’s festivities include guests of all social classes, only the aristocrats (and the servant Leporello, speaking on his master’s behalf) take up the cry of "Viva la libertà!"

In English, Da Ponte’s full title for the opera was The Dissolute Man Punished, or Don Giovanni. He described Don Giovanni in the cast of characters as “an extremely licentious young nobleman.” In the mayhem of rape and murder that constitutes the opera’s opening scene, it can almost pass unnoticed that Leporello calls his master a “libertine.” The word had once designated a religious freethinker; in Mozart’s day, it was associated with another licentious nobleman: Donatien Alphonse François, the Marquis de Sade. Roland Barthes noted Sade’s “sensual pleasure in classification” and “enumerative obsession,” qualities that also apply to Don Giovanni and his lists of conquests, dances, and foodstuffs. Nearly two centuries after his death, Sade continues to unnerve and divide. Was he “the freest spirit who ever lived,” as Guillaume Apollinaire declared, or a paradigm of fascist depravity, as suggested in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s film Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom? In the final scene of Mozart’s opera, when Don Giovanni repeatedly refuses to repent, he is a brother to the lecher in Sade’s Dialogue Between a Priest and a Dying Man (1782), who rues only not having transgressed enough. Stephen Wadsworth sees Don Giovanni as both an “embodiment of defiant individualism” and a “selfish aristocrat who is stopped in his tracks by those he’s unthinkingly abused.”

In October 1793, the Revolutionary Tribunal’s charges against Marie Antoinette included sexual perversion: orgies at Versailles and incest with her young son. The trial is one of the climactic scenes in Ghosts, stunningly sung and played on the Met’s DVD of the world-premiere production. John Corigliano, whose music can be lushly melodic, is sometimes attacked by those who advocate a strict break with tonality and the musical past. Ghosts engages lovingly with earlier operas by Mozart and others. Its characters favor eulogy rather than revolution: “O thieving time,/ Give me back my stolen years.”

Its villain, Pierre Honoré Bégearss, is a self-indulgent cynic who recalls both Don Giovanni and the Marquis de Sade:

Monarchy. Revolution. It’s all the same to me. Belief is for fools. I merely lust to rule. I will bend these women to my will. Watch them squirm with delight as I whip them into a frenzy.

Like another operatic libertine, Strauss’s Salomé, Bégearss even kisses a severed head on a pike.

The Ghosts of Versailles flirts with syrupy regression of several kinds when Beaumarchais offers to restore Marie Antoinette to life: “The Revolution fails! History as it should have been!” But the queen’s shade chooses eternity and her fellow ghost’s “luminous and noble” art and love over a return to historical time. At opera’s end, the mob in the world of history cheers and bursts into “La Marseillaise” as the guillotine drops; simultaneously, on the eternal plane, Beaumarchais bejewels the queen and kisses her hand. Like Don Giovanni, a fellow aristocrat, Marie Antoinette meets a gruesome end; like the ever-perplexing Don Giovanni, The Ghosts of Versailles challenges us to ponder the price and limits of liberty.

The Ghosts of Versailles tickets can be purchased here while more information on the Juilliard performance of Don Giovanni can be found here.