These days we are not in the habit of editing operas. Go to any performance of Richard Wagner's works and more than likely you will hear every note he wrote in that score. Not like in the 1940’s when the Metropolitan Opera presented edited versions of not just the Master of Bayreuth's works, but also many others. The few Bel Canto operas that were active in the repertory back then went on the stage heavily edited, with missing cabalettas and shorten scene endings (a practice still happening these days, I'm afraid). When was the last time you heard all of the music of the end of a Vincenzo Bellini "scena" with all the notes intact, as written by the composer? These so-called standard cuts are everywhere, but thankfully we are pretty much past the point when an entire aria would be replaced by another, serving the wishes of the singer, as when Wagner wrote an aria for a French bass, replacing the one Bellini wrote in Norma.
An accomplished opera company these days pretty much follows the dictum made famous by autocratic conductor Arturo Toscanini: “as written!” He would demand of his orchestra and singers. And his penchant for adhering to the letter of the score, especially when it came to such composers as Giuseppe Verdi and Giacomo Puccini (both of whom he knew personally, and conducted premieres of their work) led the way to today’s practice to faithfulness to a composer’s work.
Now that the media has transformed sexual harassment into the number one flavor-of-the-month crime, will the lyric stage re-start its old practice of purging librettos, especially those that involve ideas celebrating male potency and female subservience? The opera world is filled with moments like these, some possessing the world’s best known music.
Take, for example, Leporello’s catalogue aria in Act I of W.A. Mozart’s amazing Don Giovanni. A masterpiece-of-a-song where the Don’s servant recounts to a young female victim the many amorous conquests brought about by his master’s lust. Numbering over 2000 and counting, the aria tells of an insatiable sexual appetite by a callous aristocrat. The young listener, Donna Elvira, is shocked by the sheer number of women who, like herself, have fallen, tricked by a sexual predator. The aria reveals that she is just another number in the Don’s catalogue. The sheer joy of Mozart’s music, however, masks a darker, more sinister message. Leporello clearly longs to be like his master, to go through women in a shameless display of male potency, and to catalogue his escapades in a book, just like he is forced to record his master’s debaucheries.
How does an opera director, or for that matter, how does a singer approach such an aria in these times when powerful men are going down for the same crimes about which this character is joyously singing? Is the answer to cut out one of the great arias because it exults reprehensible actions? Certainly not. Mozart’s work is essentially a comedy, albeit a dark one, a "dramma giocoso" as librettist Lorenzo da Ponte called it. Should serious events be dealt with in a comic manner? Of course! Mozart did it all the time, and mostly with a great deal of success. In modern times, film director Stanley Kubrick pondered the possibility of nuclear holocaust, the greatest threat ever to face mankind, with the farcical, hilarious comedy Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.
In Don Giovanni, the Don is clearly portrayed as a villain. He has always been a villain from his first appearance in Spanish literature in Tirso de Molina's play "El burlador de Sevilla." His actions are punished at the end of Mozart's opera when he is dragged down to Hell by the statue of Donna Anna's father, one of his conquests. The epilogue that follows the Don's doom assures us all sinners like him will get their comeuppance. We can look back and say that his servant is just mixed up about things, clearly praising wrong choices when he lauds his master’s conquests.
Obviously, let’s not throw out one of Mozart’s musical jewels. Come on, would anybody in his right mind throw out one of opera's greatest songs? One might as well not perform the opera at all! Instead, let’s be more attentive than ever to the awful, and not funny, story that it tells. Despite its jaunty, happy music, let’s think of it as a homage to hundreds in Germany, Italy, Turkey, and, of course 1,003 victims in Spain. Perhaps we will hear the aria in a new light from now on. Perhaps the way that Mozart’s and da Ponte actually wanted us to hear it.