To appreciate Mozart’s greatest opera, “Don Giovanni,” one has to leave all modern sensibilities and sexual politics aside and immerse oneself into the world of 17th-century Spain, when the legend of the charming and startlingly successful womanizer Don Juan took hold.
This legend was crystallized into a 1630 play by Tirso de Molina called “The Trickster of Seville and the Stone Guest,” which itself was set in the fourteenth century.
The basics are these: A man known as Don Juan (“Don” is a term of respect for someone of high station in society — somewhere between “Sir” and “Mister”) devotes his life to the seduction of women. He is also a trickster, engaging in disguises to achieve his ends and in gambling, gluttony, and, occasionally, violence. In a swordfight, he kills the father of one of his victims, whose funerary statue later comes to life and seeks revenge (hence the Stone Guest).
This tale has fascinated novelists, playwrights, composers, and filmmakers for centuries — from Moliere and Jane Austen to Kierkegaard, George Bernard Shaw, Ingmar Bergman, and Andrew Lloyd Webber. Mozart and his librettist take this story and turn it into one of the most subtle and compelling musical depictions of human character — not just of the Don himself, but of his victims, his manservant, his lover (yes, someone still cares for him), the peasants who live on his estate — and of questions of right and wrong, bravery and cowardice, and, especially, of class. He points up the privileges of the upper classes and the vulnerabilities of the working class. And yet members of the upper class have their restraints and blind spots, while those in the lower classes can indulge in communal pleasures not permitted to their supposed superiors.
While Mozart might seem to be glorifying the exploits of the Don, he also comments powerfully on the ramifications of Giovanni’s actions — the spoiled lives, the death and destruction he leaves in his wake, and the ultimate fate that awaits him.
But the true magic of the opera is that he does this through music. The libretto (text) is clever, brilliantly written, and varied. But the layers of meaning that Mozart obtains through musical means alone are simply astonishing. The jealousy of the manservant, the nobility of the father, the effectiveness of the Don’s seductive techniques (and his obsession), the fine balance of power between the seducer and the seduced — all of this comes through Mozart’s mastery of harmony, rhythm and instrumental color. There is humor, tragedy, lovemaking, dance and disguise. The layers of meaning and expressive nuances of this work have made it — despite its subject matter, or maybe because of it — into one of the masterpieces of Western artistic achievement.
'A GERMAN REQUIEM'
Musical works entitled “Requiem” are written in commemoration of the dead. The text is usually taken from the Christian Mass for the Dead in Latin, whose opening words are “Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine" — “Peace eternal grant them, O Lord.” So when we refer to Verdi’s "Requiem" or Bruckner’s "Requiem" or the "Requiem of John Rutter," we are referring to a musical setting of those series of texts, used, since the Middle Ages, in a Christian funeral Mass.
Brahms, however, did not write a conventional requiem. His title was carefully chosen: “A German Requiem.” In fact, the subtitle, hardly ever used, is: “According to Words from the Holy Scriptures.” In other words, not the traditional text, but words chosen by Brahms himself from the Luther Bible, primarily focused on comforting the bereaved. Though raised as a Lutheran and a spiritual man, Brahms seems to have been more of a humanist than a believer. When asked if he might add more texts of Christian dogma to the Requiem, he replied: “As far as the text is concerned, I confess that I would gladly omit even the word German and instead use the word Human.”
Brahms began conceiving the work after the mental collapse of his patron and mentor, Robert Schumann, but only completed it after his own mother died, in 1868. It is Brahms’s most large-scale work, in seven movements, for soprano and baritone soloists, chorus, and orchestra, spanning some 75 minutes. With its wide spiritual appeal and deeply moving music, it is a triumph of loving-kindness and of the human imagination.
A look at concerts at the Koussevitzky Music Shed this week ...
8 p.m., Friday, July 15: "The Empire Strikes Back"
Keith Lockhart and the Boston Pops present the classic film with a live orchestral accompaniment. Gates open at 5:30 p.m. Ticket includes admission to 6 p.m. Prelude Concert.
8 p.m., Saturday, July 16: Andris Nelsons conducts Mozart's "Don Giovanni"
Featuring Ryan McKinny as Don Giovanni, Nicole Cabell as Donna Elvira and Michelle Bradley as Donna Anna. Gates open at 5:30 p.m. Ticket includes admission to 6 p.m. Prelude Concert.
2:30 p.m., Sunday, July 17: Andris Nelsons conducts Fazil Say and Brahms
Turkish composer Fazil Say's "Phoenix," a piano four-hand concerto co-commissioned by the BSO receives its American premier in this concert. The concerto will be played by Dutch duo-pianists Lucas and Arthur Jussen.
Johannes Brahms' "A German Requiem," features the voice talents of the Boston Symphony's Tanglewood Festival Chorus and soloists, Chinese soprano Ying Fang and Chinese bass-baritone Shenyang, in their Tanglewood debut. Gates open at noon.
More information and tickets: 888-266-1200, bso.org