CLASSCOL

Even allowing for his usual boyish exuberance, Peter Sellars overstated the case for Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” only slightly, in his preamble to his famous video versions aired last winter. “A completely shattering experience,” he called the opera, “an evening in Hell.” “Don Giovanni” is all that, at least. If Mozart’s incredible artwork can strike modern ears that way (as it is bound to, when the Music Center Opera gives it the first of a five-performance run on October 7) think of what its effect might have been on its first audiences, in Prague 204 years ago. Even allowing for Prague as the most sophisticated artistic capital in Europe at the time, nobody had ever tried to put into an opera the devices that Mozart hurled into “Don Giovanni.” Opera at the time was usually beautiful, sometimes sublime, but it was still an entertainment of fairly conventional construction, a succession of musically independent separate numbers. The action went forward in the recitatives, then the characters held back and examined their feelings in the arias and duets. Even “The Marriage of Figaro,” Mozart’s masterpiece of 1786, the year before “Don Giovanni” starts out in time-honored fashion: a vocal number, some recitative accompanied only by the keyboard player, another vocal number, etc. “Don Giovanni” was like none of the above. Just take the first ten-or-so minutes; they burst through every convention of the time. Before we’ve even settled in our seats, Mozart (and, don’t forget, his librettist Lorenzo da Ponte) have stopped our breath. The overture, usually some joyous orchestral exercise (as in “Figaro”) that doesn’t necessarily relate to the music itself, starts off this time with the horrendous, jagged dissonances that will return, three hours later, to escort its miscreant hero to the Underworld. The overture doesn’t even come to a full stop; we are swept along into Leporello’s first aria, as the servant grumbles at his lot in life. Already that short pieces plunges us into the atmosphere of social awareness and struggle that will become a supporting thread as the opera unfolds. That short aria, too, doesn’t round off to a full ending. It breaks off. In bursts the Don himself, and clinging to him is Donna Anna, his latest attempted conquest. Is Anna trying to capture him? to shake loose of him? to get him to complete the rape? The music doesn’t stop its headlong pace long enough to tell us. The Commandant arrives; he and the Don fight and the old man is murdered, while Leporello, hidden on the sidelines, chatters away like a demented bassoon. Five minutes of overture, five more minutes of continuous, violent action: no opera in the world zooms so violently, so suddenly into orbit. Three hours later, it still hasn’t faltered. No less overtly than Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” or Strauss’ “Salome,” “Don Giovanni” draws its motive power from human sexuality. “We don’t have the words to talk about it,” Sellars has said, “but Mozart’s music goes right into the dark crevices of the human soul.” How soon that shows up in the opera! Soon after the murder we confront one of Giovanni’s latest rejects, Elvira, stalking the countryside like a starved panther, the archetypal woman driven mad by love (as with Dido of “The Trojans” here only last week). She comes onstage, her madness in full flower. She tries an aria, but Mozart keeps breaking off the vocal line into short, jagged phrases. That short spray of broken-off, confused declamation does, indeed, get into the crevices of Elvira’s soul and lay bare her passion. Mozart’s music has broken out of the notion that pretty tunes merely decorate a dramatic situation; words, music and emotion become the parts of a single-minded, intense drama. Mozart’s ability to match music to character is phenomenal. At one end of the social scale there is the jilted, high-born Elvira. At the other end there is the gullible peasant girl Zerlina. Moments after the first Elvira scene, Giovanni is all over the innocent maiden, trying to lure her back to his palace. Their duet, “La ci darem la mano,” is probably the opera’s best-known piece; it is a grand tune, but also a fabulous demonstration of music’s power over the mind. The device is simple enough: Giovanni lays down his proposition in a long musical phrase. Zerlina’s answering phrase is equally long. But as the message takes hold, the phrases get shorter, the two characters move closer together (on the stage and in their music), until they’re finally singing in close harmony. What more do you need to translate the act of seduction into music? No opera of any era works on so many levels of perception. Sellars’ controversial conception, with its background of gang warfare in a contemporary urban slum, had lifted the proportion between what was innovative in the opera in its own time and its social milieu, and transferred those proportions exactly to our own time. Again, it was the depth of Mozart’s own work that enabled the Sellars perception to achieve its purpose. Take, as proof, one final example. In the party scene that ends the first act, Mozart has pulled another amazing trick, to describe purely in musical terms the levels of society assembled in that grand salon in Giovanni’s palace. The aristocrats dance a minuet; the middle-classes do a contra-dance in contrasting rhythm; the peasants do some sort of clog-dance in yet another rhythm. Mozart’s incredible genius allows us, for a moment or two, to hear all three dances simultaneously, as if it were, indeed, possible for people on different social levels to coexist. But that dream is quickly shattered. Giovanni has gotten Zerlina off to a side room, and proceeds to dismantle her virtue. One scream from the girl, and the onstage dancing idyll is shattered. The social message is blindingly clear. The classes of society can coexist, only if the right of the upper class to rape the lower class remains intact. Imagine, putting all this into an opera! It only happened once, which is why “Don Giovanni” remains in a class by itself. Beyond doubt, Jonathan Miller, who directed the Music Center Opera’s production and Bob Israel, who designed it, have a vastly different “Don Giovanni” for our delectation here next week. But the power of the work remains. line Space ”Don Giovanni” isn’t the only work of musical theater on the horizon, however. On October 4 and 5, at UCLA’s Royce Hall, Paul Dresher’s “Pioneer” will have its local premiere. If you know Dresher’s previous pieces, “Slow Fire” and “Power Failure,” with their brilliant fusion of pop, rock and extraordinary electronic invention, their devastating range of stage metaphor for the myth and reality in contemporary life, you need no urging to make tracks for this latest venture. Old Dresher hands, among them the amazing singer/dancer Rinde Eckert, are again involved. Be there.

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