Photo by The Pirates of Penzance, 2017. Photo by Cory Weaver.

A Jolly Drama

The history of opera has been marked by a number of landmark works which almost immediately changed the operatic landscape. After Wagner, everyone wanted to write “music dramas” with the emphasis on drama instead of vocal display. After the premiere of Leoncavaallo’s Pagliacci (1892), everyone wanted to write verismo (realistic) operas, with their passionate musical description of life among the lower economic classes. After Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein unveiled Oklahoma! in 1943, the musical comedy was transformed into the Broadway musical.

On the other hand, there have been works that are so far ahead of their time that thought they may have enjoyed some success, they produced no immediate heirs. In 1875, the world was not ready for Bizet’s Carmen, a tragedy about a gypsy factory worker. In 1935, American audiences were not ready for the truly indigenous American opera that the Gershwins had created in Porgy and Bess, which had to be pared down into a musical before it could be accepted; nearly two decades were to pass before the first golden age of American opera.

Mozart and Da Ponte’s second collaboration, Don Giovanni (1787) falls into this second category. In their time operas were generally divided into opera seria (serious operas) and opera buffa (comic operas). Yet Don Giovanni has elements of both, leading them to label it a drama giocoso (jolly drama), a term which had been used before but was still somewhat unusual. What is most remarkable about this work, however, is not simply the mixing of these various elements but rather the invention of a whole new musical vocabulary near the opera’s conclusion, a form of dramatic dialogue that transcends both traditional melody and recitative. It is no wonder that many listeners (and directors) have chosen to treat this work as a romantic tragedy, for it was not until the advent of Verdi, a half-century later, that music of such intensity was to be heard again on the operatic stage. And after more than two centuries, this work still has the power to both move and unsettle audiences throughout the world. Perhaps Gustav Flaubert’s sentiments might be only a slight exaggeration: “The three finest things God ever made are the sea, Hamlet, and Don Giovanni.”

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