Donna Anna Wore a Short Skirt

“The fire of a superhuman sensuality, a glow from Hell, had cast its reflection over her senses and she was powerless to resist. Only he, only Don Juan, could awaken in her the erotic madness which she lavished upon him.”
-E.T.A. Hoffmann, “Don Giovanni” (1812), trans. Chistopher Lazare (A.A. Wyn, 1946)
[“Das Feuer einer übermenschlichen Sinnlichkeit, Glut aus der Hölle, durchströmte ihr Innerstes und machte jeden Widerstand vergeblich. Nur er, nur Don Juan konnte den wollüstigen Wahnsinn in ihr entzünden, mit dem sie ihn umfing, der mit der übermächtigen, zerstörenden Wut höllischer Geister im Innern sündigte.”]

“Towards all her fellow-creatures [Donna Anna] presents a coldly correct personality… it would be beneficial to her personal growing-up if she had been pleasantly raped by Don Juan.”
-William Mann, The Operas of Mozart (1977), page 468.

This post is apropos the upcoming new production of Don Giovanni at the Met. There’s one thing I will be watching for very carefully.

Donna Anna, the noblest of the three women in Don Giovanni, tends to have a bad reputation. She is “self-absorbed and aloof” (Edward Dent), “has etiquette where her feelings should be” or is “cardboard” (these citations are from Kristi Brown-Montesano’s excellent Understanding the Women of Mozart’s Operas). Moreover, whatever happened offstage with Giovanni, no one seems to think it was actually rape. The more you look at the text, the more convoluted this reading looks, and its grounding in the assumption that no woman alive could resist Don Giovanni (ignoring the fact that Zerlina ultimately seems to as well) is pretty offensive.

The action of the opera really begins when Donna Anna cries for rescue from a strange man in her bedroom. Her screams attract the attention of her father. He and Don Giovanni (for that is who it is) fight a duel and Don Giovanni kills the old man, thus setting off the opera’s plot. Here it is. (This staging isn’t the best but I chose it because it has English subtitles.)

The entire disturbance is touched off by Anna herself, with her line “Unless you kill me, you have no hope of escaping me.” (“Non sperar, se non m’ucidi, ch’io ti lasci fuggir mai.”) This has been often reinterpreted as, “I want you so bad.” But her following lines, crying out for servants to help catch Giovanni (which, as she must have anticipated, also catch the attention of her father), seem rather to make a secret tryst rather implausible.

The second scene contains this dialogue:
LEPORELLO: Bravo, two pretty deeds!
Force the daughter and kill the father!
DON GIOVANNI: He wanted to fight.
LEPORELLO: But Donna Anna, did she want to?
DON GIOVANNI: Silence, don’t bother me, away unless
you want something too!

Later, Donna Anna recounts the events of the night to her fiancé, Don Ottavio. Her journey through various minor keys in the recitative gives it a tense cast; Don Ottavio tends to respond in a reassuring (or, according to some, gullible) major. She then goes into her aria “Or sai chi l’onore,” wishing for vengeance on her father’s killer and, most importantly, resolving the tension of the recitative in a heated pledge of revenge for the wrongs done onto her.

E.T.A. Hoffmann was one of the earliest and most influential of the “Anna wanted/needed it” school. In his “tale” based on the opera, quoted above (full text in a different translation available here), Anna has both a passion for Giovanni and the potential to become his redeemer. Far from a a villain, the nineteenth century’s Giovanni was a tragic hero, independent, virile, charismatic, etc. Donna Anna receives a Katerina Ismailova-like awakening courtesy of his invasion. (This is generally not seen onstage. Thank goodness for small favors.) In Hoffmann’s telling, Anna then feels massive guilt after her father’s death, which sparks her lust for vengeance:

Even the raging love that consumed her soul with hellish flames, flaring up at the moment of highest gratification, was aglow, now, with annihilating hatred… she feels that only the destruction of Don Juan can bring peace to her mortally troubled soul.

Hoffmann claims to interpret the opera “purely in terms of the music and ignoring the text.”

The idea that Anna just must have felt some passion for Don Giovanni persists in both criticism and staging, though usually in subtler form than William Mann’s astonishing pronouncement that she should be “pleasantly raped.” Funnily enough, some of these analyses also claim to rest on an interpretation of the music rather than the text, but reach very different conclusions from Hoffmann. Alfred Einstein and, most convolutedly, R.B. Moberly (Three Mozart Operas, 1967) read Donna Anna’s narration to Ottavio as deceptive and dishonest (the music supposedly betrays her), and interpret her ambivalence towards Don Ottavio not as grief or trauma but as a telltale sign of her secret passion for Don Giovanni. This analysis was thoroughly demolished by Julian Rushton in his Cambridge Opera Guide to Don Giovanni: “The real indecency here [that Anna cares for Giovanni rather than Ottavio] is to suggest, in line with the worst present-day mores, that she could not care so deeply about her father, nor be horrified by the attempt upon herself.”

Stage productions today often show a Donna Anna secretly in love with Don Giovanni. But they do this with an air of Freudian mystification as to the impulses of Woman. Anna turns up as an enigma who has no idea what she wants. To me this confusion seems quite directly contrary to her portrayal in any part of the opera text. This is a lady who knows exactly who she is and what she wants to do. Making her indecisive and infatuated reinforces a value system where the Don is a hero and woman is weak. I think there’s also a lot of pseudo-empowered “she is uncontrollably attracted to dangerous men and that makes her sexy,” which is all grounded in a big pile of patriarchy, as well as the mind-blowing assumptions cited by Rushton. Besides, isn’t her righteous anger pretty badass already?

To echo Rushton, the real indecency here is how contemporary society just doesn’t take the word of a woman who says she’s been raped seriously. Donna Anna enjoyed it and is just feeling guilty because she revealed herself as a slut. This kind of rape denial shit is an enormous problem for women today everywhere, and this particular interpretation seems to be in line with the worst present-day mores.

For example, consider Anna’s actions here in Martin Kusej’s Salzburg production. I’m aware I’m considering this out of the context of the production, but it is the first scene.

This seems to be fairly typical these days with the exception of some by-the-books traditional productions. Francesca Zambello’s production when I saw it in London had Anna kissing the Don (though it’s done differently on the DVD, interestingly enough), and Jean-Louis Martinoty’s Viennese train wreck last December (pictured at the top of this post) gave her an S&M thing. I find it very disappointing that some productions that seem to have a lot of thought put into them (I am not including Martinoty here) still default to such a reflexively patriarchal portrayal.

Or take Calixto Bieito:

I can’t tell if Renée is entertaining second thoughts here or if this is just poorly staged:

Can’t we consider the Occam’s Razor of emotional decoding, the simplest solution, which is that Don Giovanni attempted or succeeded in raping Donna Anna and she was very angry about this? Apparently it’s not that easy.

Recommended non-patriarchal Don Giovanni reading:
Kristi Brown-Montesano, Understanding the Women of Mozart’s Operas. University of California Press, 2007.
Daniel Heartz, Mozart’s Operas. University of California Press, 1990.
Julian Rushton, Don Giovanni. Cambridge Opera Handbooks, Cambridge University Press, 1981.
Lydia Goehr and Daniel Herwitz, eds. The Don Giovanni Moment. Columbia University Press, 2008.

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  1. Brava! Thanks for the reading list.

    It is indeed a cliche to say that nice girls cannot resist bad boys.

    I am also tired of seeing Don Ottavio being portrayed as a boring and clueless guy. I, for one, do not feel a sweet and loyal gentleman dull. Donna Anna's refusal to marry Don Ottavio as scheduled might be a sign that she is having a rape victim's withdrawal–feeling filthy and unable to take anyone in just yet.

  2. Thanks, Anon, and that's a great point. I think the Ottavio bashing is totally connected with this, it's a consequence of Don Giovanni hero-worship. Giovanni is the charismatic rebel, Ottavio the nice guy who just wants to help. But what's so bad about that?

  3. I'm glad someone brought up Ottavio before me! It's exasperating how he attracts labels like weak, emasculated, impotent etc. He isn't mincing his words in Il mio tesoro, even if they are just words. I like to hear that aria carried through with some force (if not *quite* like this

    I thought there were a couple of really good essays in The Don Giovanni Moment but Giovanni auf Naxos was such an intriguing connection to make and I don't think Soucek did it justice. Brown-Montesano sounds like an interesting read.

    PS Thanks for the publicity! You left some pretty big shoes to fill in Wien so worthy successor isn't quite how I'd describe my scribblings. But I'm listening more attentively than before and it's kind of fun to write, so I'm going to try to maintain it.

  4. Great post! This is SO interesting, and having worked with this role a lot in opera school and performed with it in Konwitschny's production in Komische Oper I still have no idea! 🙂 I read somewhere that historians mean that, for some reason, it was absolutely OBVIOUS to the audience in Mozart's days that Anna is lying through her teeth to Ottavio about what happened, so it might not be a modern day idea that she wasn't really raped… Personally I like the fact that noone really knows what happens between Giovanni and Anna. I love that ALL the characters in Don Giovanni have endless possibilities how to be portrayed. If Anna is NOT lying to Ottavio I would love to get a proper explanation to why the ending of Or sai chi l'Onore is so damn awkward. All Mozart's revenge arias end in a triumphant way, but here it's a complete anti-climax in the orchestra after she finishes singing. Again, this Anna/Giovanni/Ottavio paradox is so interesting, and one of the reasons I love the piece.

  5. Erika: I didn't find ANYONE who said it would be obvious to an 18th-century audience. I would take any historian who says it was with a big grain of salt. I did see the Konwitschny production a few years ago (with you in it, brava!) and it struck me as an unusually convincing and thorough take on the E.T.A. Hoffmann idea that Don Giovanni is the only living person in a world of drones. (I didn't mention it above because I couldn't remember exactly how this moment was staged.) It's an interesting point about the end of Or sai chi l'onore!

    Zwölftöner: Nice Guys Finish Last, or so they say. I like Dalla sua pace a little more myself, maybe because it's a little easier to sing and usually comes off better.

  6. Nice cri de coeur. A truly radical production at this point would have the entire production seen through Donna Anna's eyes. She's very much propelling most of the action in the opera and has the greatest music, while Don Giovanni doesn't even have something as fabulous to sing as his servant's Catalogue Aria.

    And thanks for using Carol Vaness for your musical example. The young soprano was a fierce, beautiful and accurate Donna Anna in her time, and she definitely took no prisoners in the role.

  7. It is entirely consistent with Mozart's genius to cast a TENOR as a pathetic ninny.

    I dunno but to my ears at least DA doesn't "sound" like a slut. Her music seems a little bit to "pure" for that.

    Interesting write up Zerbi. Since you have all this free time would be very interested in a similar piece on Elvira. Looking forward to the show tomorrow night.

  8. Incidentally, that Don G was the one huge disappointment in an otherwise spectacular Met season (2000-2001). Even Furlanetto isn't that great (he was much better in every other instance I heard his Leporello – including in winter 2003 with Mattei as the Don). For his best go to the Salzburg from 1987. You of all people will be less than enthused by the Karajan staging but Furlanetto is at his hysterical and mellifluous best as Leporello and I loved Julia Varady as Elvira.

  9. @ Zerbinetta

    Thank you thank you thank you for doing your part to put this convention on the scrap heap.

    @Erika Roos

    This is absurdly belated, but on the 'anticlimax' of "Or sai chi l'onore":

    I'd argue that, first of all, there's a purely MUSICAL reason. If "Or sai" began and ended with a bang, it would sound stilted. (As does "Ah fuggi il traditor", intentionally so, because at that point Elvira is still more a caricature of opera seria than a real person. This changes, of course, in "Non ti fidar" and afterward.)

    Instead, Mozart makes the last chord of the recitative the first chord of the aria – and then the first few measures of the aria sound tense, but controlled, until the big flourish when Anna sings "Vendetta te chiedo". The result is that Anna's emotions in "Or sai" seem to grow directly out of her emotions in the preceding recitative – more so than they would in an aria with a more traditional beginning.

    But after beginning without fanfare, it would sound awkward for the aria to END with fanfare, and so instead it fades away.

    How to interpret it dramatically? Anna works herself into a grand, cold, righteous fury in "Or sai". As she tells Ottavio to avenge her, her fury subsumes the lingering horror of Don Giovanni's attempted rape and her father's death. But once she's said what she's had to say, and her anger is momentarily exhausted, then she feels the shock and the sorrow again, and recedes into melancholy.