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Mozart's Don Giovanni
Giving Character’s Character
One of the most interesting challenges in operatic composition , is composing for all the specific characters. A composer has to distinguish between characters through his music. Jan can’t sound like Fran , and Dan can’t sound like Stan. Each character must have his or her own traits. Mozart’s opera , Don Giovanni , provides us with many different characters to compare and contrast. One scene in particular lends itself to the comparison of Don Giovanni , Leporello , and The Commendator. Scene fifteen of Act two, places all three characters in close interaction with each other , making it easy to compare and find out how Mozart and his Librettist Lorenzo da Ponte brought them all to life.
Lorenzo de Ponte’s libretto provides the main character traits of Don Giovanni , Leporello , and The Commendatore. It gives an easy way of distinguishing between the characters. Don Giovanni is portrayed as being smart , charming , and brave , yet selfish , arrogant , womanizing , and pompous. We see all of these traits in the final dinner scene. These opposing traits set up a love hate relationship of Don Giovanni.
Leporello on the other hand , is wimpy , subservient , nervous , and a bit dumb. He is often the butt of Don Giovanni’s jokes , and is always being bossed around. He can be thought of as the comic relief of the opera. In the dinner scene we get a definite feeling of Leporello being a wimpy idiot.
The Commendatore returns , after being slain by Giovanni , as a ghost. He is portrayed as being a mighty , powerful , and ominous. He tries to make Don Giovanni repent for all the terrible things he did. In the dinner scene he is truly a powerful being from beyond. His power is demonstrated when he sends Don Giovanni down to hell.
The above character descriptions are what Lorenzo da Ponte set up for Mozart to compose his music to. We now can observer how Mozart used musical devices to give each character his own flavor.
One area to compare is the rhythmic traits of each character’s musical lines. Leporello’s nervousness and fear in the dinner scene is exemplified through a very jumpy unsteady rhythmic vocal line. (ex 1) Mozart really makes his nervousness obvious by giving him notes no longer in value then a quarter note from m.425 to m.629. Mozart uses dotted eights to sixteenth notes to make his part especially disjointed. This creates the effect of someone shaking from fear as they are trying to speak. Mozart also uses a continuous triple pattern , which begins at measure 470 , to create a rambling effect. (ex 2) Leporello seems to have lost his sanity from fright of the ghost and is now babbling incoherently.
Don Giovanni and the Commendatore have very different rhythmic vocal parts then Leporello. They are much more bold and brave then Leporello , so Mozart gives them a more solid rhythm. The Commendatore has the most stable part out of all of them. He has many whole and half notes. The stability of the rhythm adds to the confidence and power of his character. (ex 3) The only time his rhythm becomes quicker is when he is yelling at Don Giovanni to repent.
Don Giovanni shares many similar rhythmic traits as the Commedatore , although it has a little more diversity. Don Giovanni shifts from being comfortable to uncomfortable throughout the dinner scene. Mozart appropriatly varies the speed of Don Giovanni’s rhythm. An example of this occurs at measure 522. (ex 4) Previous to this measure, Don Giovanni has a stable rhythm with most words occurring on the strong beats. (ex 5) It abruptly changes to a short offbeat eight note figure.
Rhythm is not the only musical area that Mozart crafts specifically for each character. He also uses certain melodic lines for each character. The Commendatore's melodic lines are the most striking. He often has huge leaps in his part , giving the listener a full dose of the impeding force he is. The space creates a feeling of something bigger and more powerful then a mortal. It is important to note that a lot of these giant leaps are not easy. There are many augmented fourth's , minor sevenths , and other strange intervals that he has to navigate through. An example of the strange interval leaps can be found from measure 552 to 461. (ex 6) This little section takes a break from having a key center and instead floats around between diminished chords. This only adds to the “something not of this earth feeling” the Commendatore gives us. Mozart also uses repeated notes to produce a powerful effect. The orchestral motive moves up by step each measure while the Commendatore stays on the same note. This occurs between measures 465 and 470 and again between measures 475 and 478. (ex 7 ,8)
Don Giovanni once again has similar qualities as the Commendatore. The large jumps are present but they are tonally different. They are often very key oriented , outlining triads or doing some sort of five to one motion. The harmonically stable nature of his vocal part lends itself to his personality. Some of his lines almost sound like fanfares. Fanfares are very bold sounding. Appropriatly his fanfare like lines begin at measure 504 when he starts bragging that he is not afraid of anything , even Gods wrath. (ex 9)
Without the appropriate use of dynamics , none of the above would come of as they should to the audience. Mozart makes good use of dynamics by making Leporello very quiet when he is afraid and hiding. The Commendatore is always forte or fortissimo so that his power is evident. Don Giovanni is once again a blend of the Commendatore. He has a wide range of dynamics because he has a wide range of emotions throughout the dinner scene.
The above examples are just a few things that Mozart and Lorenzo da Ponte did to make sure that the opera was as effective as possible. The next step is to observe how musicians interpret and express what Mozart and da Ponte created. The two productions of Don Giovanni in comparison are “The Glyndebourne Summer Opera Festival” video and the Opera Film Dramma giocoso by Joseph Losey. The two different productions are very good , but they definetly have their own opinions regarding many aspects of the opera.
The first major difference was obviously the method of performance. The Glyndenbourne version was live and the Losey version was video with lip-synching. I felt that neither medium was better then the other. I place the integrity of each version in the hands of the performers. Which had the best singers
The singer who performed Don Giovanni was much better in the live version. Ruggero Raimondi of the video version gave a very good “what's on the page performance.” It was correct and nothing bothered me. On the other hand , Benjamin Luxon of the live version , went beyond what's on the page. I really felt like Don Giovanni was on the stage rather then some singer being Don Giovanni. He changed his voice and is so much more emotional then the video Giovanni. The video Giovanni keeps the same exact voice color for most of the scene. I never heard it change. The live Giovanni was constantly changing like an emotional person would. An example of this occurs when he takes the Commendatore’s icy hand. He lets us know that Giovanni’s confidence is frozen and shattered by that icy grip. The video Giovanni reacts as if he touched a cold soda.
I also had the same feeling towards the singers who portrayed Leporello. Stafford Dean of the Glyndebourne Festival Opera performed Leporello amazingly. I think he was the best out of all the performers at capturing the true spirit of Leporello. He seemed much more scared then José van Dam of the video version. I thought that the video Leporello seemed almost too confident at times. He didn’t give true justice to the fear Leporello actually had. When Don Giovanni is being taken to hell, Leporello is singing “come mi fa terror , mi fa terror” which translates into , “ I shall die of fright.” The video version didn’t convince me of that fear. I also thought the video Leporello’s triplet sounded out of time. I don’t now if this was done on purpose, but I actually thought it helped get the babbling of Leporello across.
Overall I thought the live performance was better , but there were a few things I really liked about the video version. Most of the better qualities dealt with the Commendatore. I thought John Macurdy’s singing was more appropriate. In particular I liked his use of vibrato. He was very hesitant to let it get too wide. Instead he used a more straight voice. I just thought it helped him sound bigger and more ominous. The singer in the live version used a more active vibrato. It was good , but it made him sound like Don Giovanni. I felt the video Commendatore made a better effort to sound like a powerful spirit. I didn’t feel threatened enough by the live version’s Commendatore. I also liked the way the orchestra presented the Commendatore. When the Commendatore appears at measure 433 there are two huge loud diminished chords. (ex 10) In the live version the conductor ,Bernard Haitink , plows through those chords a little too quickly. On the other hand , Lorin Maazel , the video conductor , takes his time there. It almost sounds like he put in a fermata. I thought it sounded a bit more scary out of tempo. This is just my opinion though. Both performances were very good.
The above thoughts are about a very complex piece of music. The fact that it appears to be simple , is a result of the genius of Mozart and his incredibly ability to write music. This opera works so well because Mozart made it so accessible to regular people. He achieved this simplicity through his meticulous detail to each characters personality. He made sure that Don Giovanni sounded like he should sound; bold , cocky ,and charming. Mozart truly wrote an opera that almost performs itself. I feel that if a person can sing the notes , then most of the point has gotten across. If the singer is boring , the listener can still understand the character through his or her melodic line or the rhythmic patterns of the part. Overall , Mozart composed the perfect music for each character.
Word Count: 1789
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