By Ian Kyer
Don Giovanni is considered one of the greatest operas of all time. The French composer Charles Gounod referred to is as “that unequalled and immortal masterpiece.” Virtually all of the lavish praise bestowed on this masterpiece is for Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, its composer, but Don Giovanni is the work of two creative geniuses, not just one. The librettist Lorenzo da Ponte often does not get his fair share of the credit for this work. Da Ponte was quite a character. He was a fallen cleric, a womanizer and a gambler who regularly wore out his welcome in the cities where he worked (a character not unlike Don Giovanni himself). But there can be no doubt that he knew how to write for the opera. His other work for Mozart included The Marriage of Figaro and Così fan tutte.
Da Ponte’s achievement with Don Giovanni is all the more amazing when you learn in his memoirs that he wrote its libretto at the same time as he wrote librettos for Vincente Martin y Soler’s L’arbore di Diana and Antonio Salieri’s Axur, Re d’Ormus – all three were hits at the time. In fact, they were all so successful that da Ponte would later wonder which was “the most perfect in words and music.” Like life itself they were a mixture of happiness and sadness, tragedy and comedy.
How da Ponte carried off this triple play gives us an insight into his genius. He did not conceive of these stories afresh. In each case he built on the work of others. For Don Giovanni he started with a libretto by Giovanni Bertati that had been set to music not long before by Giuseppe Gazzaniga. Da Ponte, however, did not copy Bertati’s work. He refined, improved, shaped and focused it.
His skill and sense of musical theatre is clearly demonstrated in how he turned Tarare, a French opera with libretto by Beaumarchais and music by Salieri, into one of the most popular operas of the day, Axur, Re d’Ormus. He and Salieri realized that Beaumarchais’ approach would not suit the Austrian Emperor and the operagoers in Vienna – it was just too sparse for their taste. So they set out to adapt the words and the music for Viennese audiences. The original French version of the opera, for example, began badly. The opening was flat and did not capture the interest of the audience. Beaumarchais began his work with a prologue, followed by a dialogue in recitative. There was no drama. Da Ponte dropped the French opera’s dull prologue and began his Italian version for Vienna with a lovers’ duet, which served as an introduction to the returning war hero and his soon-to-be-abducted wife. This touching duet was followed by the wife’s musical declaration of her love culminating in a further duet thereby setting the stage in a far more appealing and dramatic fashion. That was the creative genius of da Ponte and that is what he brought to Don Giovanni.
By the way, da Ponte’s attempt to write all three operas simultaneously was not entirely successful. It was then customary for the composer and the librettist to work together on a new opera almost up to the time when the curtain was raised. It was a collaborative effort, important to the successful opening. The problem was that Don Giovanni was being staged in Prague. Da Ponte went off with Mozart to Prague only to be called back to Vienna days before Don Giovanni was to be debuted. The premiere of Axur, Re d’Ormus had been moved up in Vienna because of a royal visit, and Salieri, as the Imperial Kapellmeister, had first rights to da Ponte’s services as the Court Poet. This was one of the cruel “tricks” that Salieri was said to have played on his rival Mozart. If, however, there was anyone to blame, it was the three-timing librettist. Even da Ponte with his theatrical genius could not be in two places at once.
In June 2008, the COC presented Giuseppe Gazzaniga’s rarely-seen Don Giovanni (on which da Ponte based his libretto), performed by its Ensemble Studio members.
COC Ensemble Studio members Melinda Delorme as Donna Elvira and Jon-Paul Décosse as Pasquariello in Gazzaniga’s Don Giovanni, 2008.
COC Ensemble Studio members Lisa DiMaria as Maturina and Adam Luther as Don Giovanni in Gazzaniga’s Don Giovanni, 2008. Photos by Michael Cooper.
For more information about the COC's upcoming production of Don Giovanni in 2015, visit here.
Ian Kyer is the author of the novel, Damaging Winds about Antonio Salieri (ePub file available here). You can also listen to him as a guest on the National Arts Centre podcasts.
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The honeybees that live on the roof of the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts have a great view, but they’re probably too busy to notice it. Beekeeper Fred Davis reports that about 150 pounds of honey have been collected so far from the Four Seasons Centre hives. One thing he’s noticed is that the honey that has been produced this year is darker and this indicates that it's gathered more from flowering trees and bushes and less from flowers. This same darker honey is being gathered from other downtown Toronto hives as well.
Darker honey is very flavourful and Fred finds that it tends to have more body than the lighter honey he gathers from some of his other hives. Some say that the health benefits of the darker honey made from the nectar of flowering trees is greater than honey that comes from wildflowers.
The honey is being bottled and will be ready for sale at the Four Seasons Centre bars sometime in the new year.
A big thank you to Fred, and the honeybees!
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2014/2015 marks quite a season for Russell Braun! The Toronto-based, internationally acclaimed baritone performed a full summer of concerts and recitals across North America and Europe, then made his role debut as Ford in the COC's production of Falstaff in the fall – and now he takes on Mozart’s legendary womanizer, Don Giovanni.
What he’s doing with us: Russell has already played Don Giovanni in acclaimed director Dmitri Tcherniakov’s production when it appeared at the Teatro Real Madrid in 2013. This winter at the COC, he’ll return as the drinking and angst-ridden lothario in Tcherniakov’s take on Mozart’s masterpiece.
Where you might have seen him: Russell has been a welcome presence at the COC over the past few seasons. Most recently, he displayed his more comic talents as Ford in the COC’s hit Falstaff, and last spring, sang Nottingham in Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux - both role debuts! Globally, most recently he was Valentin in Faust at Met Opera and Lescaut in Manon at La Scala, a role he reprises next year at the Metropolitan Opera, among many other international appearances.
Interviews and Profiles: A great conversation in Toronto Life with Russell and musical threatre star Louise Pitre from 2011, A Q & A with the Ottawa Citizen Russell talking with Eleanor Wachtel on Wachtel on the Arts, and two of our own video interviews for Roberto Devereux and Don Giovanni!
Listen In: Russell sings “Avant de quitter ces lieux” as Valentin from Faust in 2001:
Photo Credit (top image): Russell Braun. Photo: Gary Mulcahey, 2013
To learn more about our upcoming production of Don Giovanni, click here.
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Sara Fulgoni in the COC production of Bluebeard's Castle. Photo: Michael Cooper © 2001