Monday, July 8, 2019

Mozart's Don Giovanni as the Tragicomic Symbol of Unbridled Capitalism

Commendatore on stage receives applause from audience
“Hurray for women,
hurray for wine!
The substance and glory of humanity!”

My first taste and experience of Mozart’s famous (and equally infamous) opera Don Giovanni was Joseph Losey’s adaptation on the small screen. I was certainly impressed by the music but somewhat shocked, baffled and initially appalled by the behaviour of its famed eponymous protagonist also known as Don Juan. The plot was confusing due to his many conquests of the past, present and future, while all the while, my wife and I were hoping he would eventually come to his senses and see the light. Yet the light he sees at the end ended up being of a very different kind.

For the most part, I was hoping for any shreds of regret or redemption, yet that did not occur. But what bothered me most upon my first viewing was the general lack of feeling and empathy by this sex-crazed and obsessed womanizer. I myself tend to have a certain affinity with such characters (in fact, I have written a novel in which the protagonist is a skirt-chasing poet) and I had re-imagined this Casanova-type character as more sensual and life-affirming and imbued with poetic sensibilities, but none of that was on display here.

Instead Don Giovanni was portrayed as a vain, narcissistic sociopath who collected and bragged about his innumerable female conquests as if they were medals and trophies. As Leporello, his servant, at one point attests, his master had slept with over a thousand damsels, a number that may seem physically dubious (if not impossible), but that may be achieved if Don Giovanni indeed had several sexual exploits on each given day of the year over the span of various years.

It was on my second viewing of the same opera, this time performed live on stage with the UBC Opera ensemble that I got to re-evaluate my feelings about the character and the opera as a whole. Where in my first viewing every character seemed devoid of love and care, on this second and more intimate encounter, I noted various moments of true feeling and passion, but again none of it emanated from its protagonist. In a way, I saw him less as despicable, but more as a suffering and wanting individual who simply could not come to grips with his own directionless desires and that is when the metaphor of unbridled capitalism crossed my mind.

In fact, Don Giovanni and the unscrupulous capitalist share the trait of having a voracious appetite, the former for women and the latter for money. In Giovanni’s case, women are fully objectified; they are stripped of feeling and sensibility; he merely notes the superficial skin-deep differences, such as height, hair color, nationality and standing. Oddly enough, not only are his interests exceptionally wide and all-inclusive, he fancies all types of women, the short, the tall, the young, the old, the beautiful and the ugly alike, but he also has an overall disregard for social standing.

He pursues noble women with the same vigor than a country wench and this makes him surprisingly democratic in his choice. But that is also disconcerting. By having no specific types and by setting himself no preferences, he is after Woman in all shapes and disguises. It is a lust that knows no bounds and has no aim whatsoever as he desires every woman and every possible aspect of her. In Kierkegaard’s mind, this quest serves to enhance every woman’s beauty, but in my view, in Don Giovanni’s obsessive, reckless and egomaniacal search, he ends up both denigrating and humiliating femininity.

In fact, he is the glutton that relishes in all types of dishes that he can get his hands on, and yet, he is never satisfied; he never relinquishes his desire nor does he alleviate his itch and since he does not fulfill his need, he is on a constant quest. The combination of his unscrupulous and relentless desire to conquer and by extension shame and dishonor women everywhere is akin to an amok serial killer on the loose who targets and endangers all and every woman everywhere; as a result, anything remotely feminine becomes his immediate prey.

In his appetite for money and possessions, the money-hungry and greedy capitalist is essentially not that different from this cruel womanizer. Those types of capitalists also can never find satisfaction since there is no set point at which their needs are fully met. In this vicious cycle, the more money he has, the more he wants, and it is certainly not a case of the more, the merrier; in Don Giovanni’s situation, his lust for women entangles his soul, and like quicksand this plunges him deeper and deeper into the dark abyss below.

The avid consumer is a pale reflection of either one of them, but she also is consumed by her desire of buying and consuming stuff, only to replace a given item with another object along the way. As none of these people know what they exactly want and have no limits in their voracious but never fulfilling or satisfying appetites, they are not unlike the hungry ghosts who are destined and cursed to forever roam the earth.

Yet Don Giovanni’s appetite is not limited to women. The final scene of the opera combines three of his carnal passions: food, wine, and women. On their own and in adequate scoops and measures, each and every one of those passions are perfectly palpable and acceptable, but it is in their unlimited consumption that they become damaging to one’s physical, emotional and psychological health and well-being.

What Don Giovanni furthermore lacks is conscience. He recklessly engages in endeavors that endanger people’s relationships, social regard as well as their lives. For instance, he abuses everyone, including his servant Leporello whom he beats and then pays off with money and who is nearly killed; for Don Giovanni’s single-minded amusement, they switch clothes, and the servant is mistakenly taken for the master and barely escapes with life.  

Don Giovanni is continuously and consistently heartless and unrelenting; he kills the Commendatore without remorse, he seduces the country woman on her wedding day literally in front of the jealous eyes of the groom and later promises to marry her, which is a blatant lie. Although he previously jilted Dona Elvira, he continues to play around with her feelings, giving her hope where he has no intention whatsoever to follow it up with deeds. Every person is like a puppet that he twitches, turns and humiliates to his liking and desire, and he has no perception of consequences or the damage and hurt that he inflicts on them. Life is a series of games made to entertain him and destined for his personal pleasure only.

It is with adamant conviction that this narcissist sticks to his ideas of absolute entitlement and he never repents for his misdeeds. There may be something heroic about the fixed stance of never betraying his so-called ideals, by not wavering nor succumbing to others, not even when he is about to be dragged to hell by the Commendatore, but since his ideals are so devoid of feeling and happiness and cause nothing but pain and suffering to others, this posture becomes tragicomic in itself. Like an avid gambler, he puts all his money on one single number and that one always comes up empty, but he does not seem to realize or care about that.

And yet, there is so much potential and so many opportunities that cross his path. He could put his wealth, standing and charm to good use and find a person to love, but all his sexual experiences are so mechanical and devoid of any genuine feeling that he can never find pleasure. He simply uses his exploits for bragging rights; he shows off his many conquests to gain esteem both within himself as well as from others. This is not unlike the super-wealthy who fight for the Forbes’ list of the wealthiest person on the planet by sporting inordinate sums of money in their bank accounts. They use their possessions to impress others, and this is of little benefit for anyone involved, including themselves.

As such, they have no fidelity, but they are all steadfast in their steadfastlessness; tirelessly and listlessly they try to conquer the world for their own pleasure and benefit. Along the way, they take advantage of others and they prize what has little intrinsic value; it could be money, which is merely a symbol of wealth but not wealth itself, possessions which are merely lifeless objects, or even sexual exploits, which are experiences that do not and cannot on their own provide lasting happiness but only temporarily fulfill a void. Such sexual experiences do not consider nor take into account the other person’s feeling or pleasure, and as a result, they leave both parties empty and without joy.

But women do not come off lightly here and in Mozart’s opera they are not merely victims. The husbands are protective, often jealous and even ready to avenge the wrongdoing to their loved ones, but the women appear to relish the attention and praises heaped on them by the charming and sweet-talking Don Giovanni. 

For instance, the country wench has a choice of rejecting him and keep in mind this is on her wedding day with her husband-to-be right next to her, but then she eventually falls for Don Giovanni because of his looks, of his mastery of the art of seduction but perhaps more so because of his promises of wealth and social status his loose tongue heaps upon her. She is naïve in believing and hanging onto his words since she takes them as genuine and respectable emanations out of a mouth of a true and noble gentleman; in this way, Mozart also slyly makes fun of the dishonest upper classes of his times.

All things considered, although Don Giovanni has everything any man would want, money, standing, good looks and women, he is not brimming with life and joy; his face is pale and troubled, and yet, he is always wearing a mask. Deep inside, he is as dead as the Commendatore that comes to fetch him. And in his stubborn blindness and refusal to look truth and himself in the face, Don Giovanni does not recant, his time is up, and he is forever doomed.


Vincent said...

This is a wonderful piece, Arash, because it gives so much to brood over. I found Joseph Losery’s film on YouTube, listened and watched a bit, then ordered it from my DVD rental company. Revisiting your post & my own thoughts, I cancelled the order. The protagonist sounds monstrous and hard to believe. I’m glad the other characters, excluding Don Juan himself, attracted your sympathy on watching it performed live. What is the point of a work of art without sympathy & empathy; except to those young people who seek depictions of horror and violence, regardless?
It makes me wonder why: why Mozart and the company of musicians and audiences have esteemed this work over the centuries, when it appears so unpleasant and unrealistic. Certainly there are womanisers, and unless they are rapists and murderers there is a symbiotic relationship between the seducer and the seduced: much the same indeed as between the capitalist and the consumer, the populist political leader and those who support him.
For this reason I see it as untrue to life, if the character of Don Giovanni is singled out in this way. Indeed I would call it a scapegoating exercise to exonerate not just the seduced but the opera audiences too: virtue corrupted, all the fault of an evil man.
Natalie D’Arbeloff wrote a delightful comic book , “The Joy of Letting Women Down”, I wrote about it here: —which I think was much truer to life; or if you prefer, psychologically more accurate

Arash Farzaneh said...

Hey Vincent,

Glad my post has elicited some brooding over! Well, my assumption is that part of the charm of this vain narcissistic seducer is that he is a buffoon, which is why I designated it all as tragicomic.

In its own way, the opera is darkly funny and the humor can escape one on the first viewing. I felt in a somewhat similar way about Yorgos Lanthimos' absurd film The Lobster, which shocked me for the main part, but I could sense a mischievous humor lying there. Although I don't think I could bear watching that film a second time ... perhaps at a later date I shall endeavor to do so.

But Mozart is a genius. His music is to swoon and die for and he has always struck me as mischievous. Perhaps not as silly and exuberant as in Milos Forman's wonderful film Amadeus, but perhaps somewhat more in the vein and spirit of Falco's Amadeus song and video. Apparently, Casanova himself attended Mozart's opera, and I would not be surprised if he had given some advice and tips along the way of how to depict a womanizer.

In the end, Don Giovanni gets what he deserves and there is often a moral tagged on in the scene after his chilling descent to hell. It is rather astonishing and quite postmodern that Mozart did not allow his character to repent and that he did not give him a saving grace. I did not sympathize with the character, but I appreciated (perhaps even envied) his craft, the way he used words and gestures to take advantage of his surroundings, both men and women.

I have heard that there is an interpretation of the opera, which depicts Don Giovanni as an older man who is trying to stay afloat and keep up his prowess. I do not think that would be in Mozart's conception, but it would even further accentuate both the tragic as well as comic aspects in that case.

Personally, I would recommend the somewhat sunnier (though it still has some cloudy parts) Magic Flute. And I would recommend you see Ingmar Bergman's version of it (if you have not already done so), which is rather brilliant. My only problem with Bergman is the odd decision of having them sing in Swedish; I would have much preferred the original German version, but it's still astounding.

Thank you for the link and that book looks quite interesting! I shall acquire it perhaps at a later date as a sort of manual for my son. I myself have always fantasized and imagined being the Worshipable Man but have consciously opted for the less popular Reliable Man as it rings truer to who I am. Or maybe I am merely deluding myself ; )