Breadth and Depth
Set at Night in alleys, empty streets and gravesides, happening in a tenebrous nowhere which is its hero’s haunting ground, Don Giovanni certainly lacks the social breadth and fullness of Figaro. But while it can’t be wide, it does go deeper. Giovanni’s seductions are a penetrating inquisition of character and society. He defrauds people of their cherished selves by making them want him, exciting a lust which he won’t stop to satisfy. He is infallibly fatal: the exuberant life-instinct – which to Kierkegaard, he personifies – creates in those he stimulates the consciousness of their own deaths. This makes him at once comic and tragic, and though da Ponte’s words may narrate a snatch-and-grab career of sordid intrigue, Mozart’s music hears beneath them a drama of spiritual perdition.
-Peter Conrad, A Song of Love and Death
Mozart’s two opera’s, Le nozze di Figaro and Don Giovanni, show starkly different visions of human society: that based on the collective, and that based on the individual. Each gives us a battle between a group of conspirators and a lustful aristocrat. The battle of Figaro takes place within the bounds of society, reaching Conrad’s “breadth” and “fullness” by exploring many of its institutions: class structure, sexual equality, marriage, and family; while the battle of Giovanni takes place in the inner-workings of all of its characters, exploring deep human motivations: lust, love, greed, frailty, and power.
Figaro has the breadth of society. It has a cast of realistic characters who deal with the grand institutions of society in real ways: they grow and change throughout the opera, shifting their alliances and plans, maturing, and constantly trying to improve their life. To achieve this goal, the natural flow of the conspirators is toward the collective. And, with the humbling of the count at the end, all of the characters realize the buffa community of equals.
Don Giovanni does not reach into the problems of societal life. It finds application in a deeper realm. It ignores many of the nuances woven together so well in Figaro, and spends more time digging into the haunting reality underlying the buffa community of equals. What it finds is the persistence of the individual to pursue his or her own goal over the goal of the collective. At the end, with the Count’s death because of his refusal to humble himself before the Commendatore, all of the characters end up longing.
In literary terms, the characters of Figaro would be called round. Giovanni’s characters are static in comparison. They are larger than people, and they are solid in their passions. In a way, their passions define them. These gigantic, defined characters can never become as focused of a collective as Figaro’s characters, but they can each come to represent deeper truths about humanity in their individual pursuits.
A central problem to their life imposed by society, a rising to meet that problem in realistic ways, and a conquering of it by a move to the collective can be seen very clearly in Figaro and Susanne. Their problem is that the Count wants to use the feudal right he had denounced to have sex with Suzanne, Figaro’s fiancé. At the beginning of the opera, Figaro is not aware of this. He is happy and content with the good fortune he thinks the Count has bestowed upon him, giving him and his wife-to-be a room in the Count’s castle near the Count. Suzanne, aware of the Count’s intentions, is already dwelling on them. When she tells Figaro about them, his attitude towards his circumstances changes. His goal is now unified with Suzanne’s; they both want to foil the Count’s plan. They rise to this problem in natural and cunning ways: using their connections with other people, getting other conspirators to join them, and luring the Count into exposing situations.
Nothing like this type of interplay or cunning occurs between, or within, any character of Don Giovanni. On the contrary, Figaro and Suzanne’s most clear parallel in Don Giovanni – Masetto and Zerlina – do quite the opposite. They never establish a clear goal between them of stopping Giovanni’s advances, and thus they can never get other characters to join them in pursuit of their goal. Instead, they join the conspirators against Giovanni for their own reasons.
Zerlina and Masetto never establish a clear goal as a couple because each represents an independent idea too deeply to be reconciled with any other. Zerlina represents passion. She is always content in this. In her deeply expressed desire for both the Count and Masetto, she represents the female counterpart to Don Giovanni’s sexuality. Her “Batti, batti, o bel Masetto” aria is a far more pointed sexual statement than could be imagined of any female character in Figaro. She is clearly overblown in her sexuality, but the exaggeration illuminates the actuality. In the same overrepresentation, Masetto represents shows the truths of a defeated human. Pitifully, he is wholly excited and defeated by every whim of Zerlina.
This exaggeration of one emotion is seen equally in the other couple of Don Giovanni, Anna and Ottavio. While both are slightly bumbling in their attempts to bring Don Giovanni to justice, they are steadfast in their deepest desires. Ottavio is more obvious. He wants only to marry Anna, but he is very passive in his desire. He is single-minded enough to bring his proposal up often – even shortly after the death of Anna’s father – but he is never bold enough to make Anna settle on a date for the wedding. Anna’s salient trait is wrapped up in this indecision. She represents the fickleness (or frailty) of the female. While she accuses Don Giovanni of raping her, she does not seem very upset with him in the first scene. She almost seems like she wants him to stay. Then, when he kills her father, she turns against him. But even this seems to be done only out of duty. Indeed, even when justice has been done to Don Giovanni by the spirit of her father, she – like every other character in the opera – is not satisfied. Anna and Ottavio are both pursuing their own goals, but neither reaches them because of their inability to put them behind that of the collective.
In contrast with the other couple from Figaro, Mercellina and Bortolo, Anna and Ottavio are unflinching in their motives. At the beginning of Figaro, Mercellina and Bortolo are wholly caught up trying to marry Mercellina and Figaro. However, when they discover that Figaro is their child, they forget that goal and become swept away with the conspirators in the quest for the community of equals.
In a different way, Cherubino also gets swept away in this quest. While he could be seen as the character who most represents a large idea in Figaro – representing Aros – he still acts on his own behalf, has trouble achieving his desires because of society’s construction, and finds that the best way to overcome this is by joining the collective – the conspirators – in the battle against the Count. Cherubino, or the Aros of Figaro, has both his own desires and the collective in mind as he joins the conspirators. He could be seen as leaning a bit more toward a larger character, like those of Giovanni, but because of the world he inhabits, he becomes part of the collective.
In the same way, Giovanni’s Elvira could be seen as a bit of a buffa character from the world of Figaro. While she does represent the deep idea of a forsaken woman in her twisted obsession with the man she loves and her desire for revenge, she also has a bit of buffa in her, which almost becomes her overriding, “larger,” trait. She thinks that the collective cannot work with Giovanni tramping around, and so she gives her entire existence to stopping him. In this respect she could be seen as always pushing for the buffa community. However, as is seen in her escapade with Leporello disguised as Giovanni, she is mostly acting on her own desires as a forsaken woman – to be redeemed. The pure buffa character is reserved for Don Giovanni.
While the characters of Figaro have clear goals and pursue them in human ways, the characters of Giovanni are more like stone figures etched with decrees of human emotions. The humans come together as humans do, and the stones stay steady in their positions. This contrast of flesh and stone can be seen in all of the characters, but is most obvious in the Aristocrat and the Aristocrat’s main confronter in each opera.
In Figaro, the Count’s main confronter is the Countess; in Giovanni, Giovanni’s is the Commendatore. Both the Count and the Countess in Figaro, and Giovanni and the Commendatore in Giovanni, have a battle of wills at the end of their opera. Each battle of wills is a small battle representing the larger battle for the community the conspirators desire. In both opera’s the conspirators win, but with starkly different effects.
All of the conspirators in Figaro want the count to stop his reestablishment of feudal rights. Figaro and Suzanne want this because it threatens the sanctity of their marriage, the Countess wants this because it threatens the sanctity of her marriage, and the rest of the conspirators seem to have been swept away in the noble goal of the Opera – the realization of the buffa community of equals. However, in the end, only the Countess, through the collective, can make the Count kneel and have the community realized. With that kneeling of the Count, a reconciliation of the classes and sexes as equal is represented, and marriage and family are sanctified. It takes the Countess to realize this because she is the most human character in the opera, and through her the Count is most human. We see how human the Countess is in her introduction to the opera. She is the only character introduced in an aria, and it is beautiful. A society as perfect as the one reached at the end of Figaro cannot be realized if not through beautiful music. The Countess’s humanity then progresses as the opera does. She is very complex in her emotions, finding Cherubino’s advances flattering and enjoying Suzanne’s company all while jealous of the Count’s infidelities. How the Countess is a weakness for the Count is seen in the Count’s jealousy throughout the opera. That jealousy contradicts the true passionate buffa nature of Don Giovanni, and it ends up conquering the Count’s aristocratic nature in lieu of a more personal humanity – that of the buffa community, that of Figaro. When the count has kneeled, the conspirators have won and the music makes the audience believe that this is a victory for society that will last forever. The society of equals is righteous, and it has prevailed. The characters feel this, and so do we.
In Giovanni the characters seem to be working collectively toward the end of the opera because they all want Giovanni brought to justice, but Giovanni has really just evoked in them their deepest passions, by which they are wholly controlled. Zerlina is a lover. Masetto is obsessed. Anna is fickle. Ottavio wants to marry. Elvira is forsaken. And Leporello is jealous. For their own reasons, each character thinks he or she will be redeemed if Giovanni is persecuted, but none of them can do it because of their shortcomings when presented with the prospect. Zerlina is fond of him. Masetto is not powerful enough. Anna is fickle. Ottavio is not brave enough. Elvira finds redemption in loving Giovanni equal to persecuting him. Leporello always returns to feeling like Giovanni’s lesser. And they cannot overcome this because they cannot forget their passions and forge a collective. A force has to come from the outside of this “community” to stop Giovanni, and that force is the Commendatore. He is more stone and spirit than any of the other characters, except Giovanni. When their battle of the wills ends, it does not end with Giovanni conceding, it ends with Giovanni dying. The stone has triumphed and now the conspirators’ community has been realized. But this community is really no community at all because it was based on each individual’s passion for Giovanni. Indeed, he was the most passionate of all, never singing alone, but bringing out the voices of every other character. He was the true epic of this tale, as Leporello’s song of Giovanni’s many lovers proved. In the end, the music leaves the characters and the audience with longing as they all disperse and go their own ways, still obsessed with their own problems. The community cannot be without Giovanni.
These starkly different visions of society that Mozart gives the audience in these two operas are that of the collective and that of the individual. Together they wholly explore society, with Figaro reaching its breadth, and Giovanni reaching its depth. Figaro, with its elements of tangible reality, can grasp the audience with its immediacy and use music to elucidate the community of equals – the greatest achievable breadth of society. Giovanni, with a character so supra-real that society depends on his movements, cannot grab the audience with reality. Instead, it depends on Giovanni’s character, and, through his battle, takes its exploration to a cosmic level – as Conrad pointed out, it does not even exist in a tangible world. In the end, Giovanni must give in to the universe, and through this the very depth of society is seen – that it is a collection of grotesquely obsessed, wandering individuals, all looking for the inspiration of a Giovanni. It is in this that Mozart’s music can achieve Conrad’s “spiritual perdition.” Giovanni can and must move beyond the stage, as Kierkegaard pointed out, in a way that Figaro cannot. Through Mozart’s music, Giovanni comes to represent the muse of all humans and society – that which motivates them and keeps them together – like music itself.