A few months ago I found myself stranded in Piccadilly. There was a parade of women—of a decidedly Sapphic cast, I thought—carrying placards with slogans that admonished men for their proclivity to rape, violence, and pillage. Most prominent was a sign that read “No Means No,” its message being, supposedly, that when a woman refuses a man’s advances, she may not be flirting. I approached one of the sign bearers. “Darling,” I said, “you are so behind the times. To the really progressive person nowadays, ‘Yes’ means ‘No.’”
I recalled that episode at Palermo’s Teatro Massimo while there in May for the premiere of their new production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni. An excellent cast, with my Russian émigré friend Mikhail Ryssov, an exquisite bass, as the Commendatore, a ravishing Donna Anna, and one of the world’s leading baritones, Carlos Álvarez, in the title role of “young and licentious nobleman.” Don Giovanni, which had its first performance in Prague in 1787 with Mozart at the podium, today ranks tenth on the list of the world’s most frequently performed operas. “Small wonder,” as the flower maidens obstructing Piccadilly would doubtless chorus. “Rape, violence, pillage!”
Indeed, an original title of the work was Il Dissoluto Punito, “The Rake Punished”—and, if Don Giovanni is the rake, it is the Commendatore who metes out the punishment. Now, the opera is about three hours long; and, though my poor friend Ryssov had top billing, right after Don Giovanni and Donna Anna, he confessed to me that he had almost fallen asleep waiting for the rake to work his way through all the felonies in the plot so he could finally rise from the tomb, some ten minutes before the final curtain, and drag the malfeasant off to eternal perdition. In other words, as a moral lesson, the opera is modeled on the 1-to-1 ratio favored by makers of horsemeat-and-quail sausage who chuck in a horse for every quail.
In nearly all extant prefaces to his plays addressed to the king of France, Louis XIV, Molière, who lived more than a century before Mozart, complained that his hypocritical contemporaries see only vice in his plays, whereas in each of them virtue triumphs. To this day the same three-card sophism is practically the raison d’être of Britain’s tabloid press, which feigns to moralize while pandering and affects to scald while titillating. And, to this day, I hear people moaning that the sainted author of Tartuffe, ou l’Imposteur (Tartuffe, or The Hypocrite) was denied proper burial by the Church. “L’imposteur, c’est moi!” Molière should have exclaimed on his deathbed, as Flaubert did of his own invention, Madame Bovary.
The Archbishop of Paris famously threatened with excommunication anyone who watched, performed in, or read Tartuffe. Some 350 years after the fact, I think it should be permissible to say a word in defense of the Catholic Church and against the theater—and, in particular, against those playgoers, actors, and readers who pretend to enjoy it because it upholds virtue, whereas what it does in reality is promote vice.
I realize that any such defense, paradoxically, will sound as mocking as the “Yes Means No” slogan that I proposed to the harpies of Piccadilly, but after three and a half hours of the Don’s rape, violence, and pillage, I am dead serious. The disequilibrium is simply too much “in your face” to be accepted without protest. Virtue does not get equal time in the debate. It’s enough to turn any morally decent man into a feminist, if not actually a lesbian one.
The music is not to blame, of course. In particular, the awesome finale—in the course of which the Commendatore is meant to avenge his own death at the hands of the Don and, as it were by proxy, all those hapless women he has seduced—presages Mozart’s Requiem, so one could argue that the final ten minutes are worth more, not less, than the two and a half hours spent watching the seducer at play. And yet, dramatically speaking, the playing field is uneven, rather like Don Giovanni’s notorious logbook of conquests (“In Ispagna, mille e tre!”), in which none of the women who have told him to buzz off are recorded.
This is such a typically modern defect. Virtue—on the pretext that, unlike vice, it is boring and hence unsuited to dramatic, poetic, or any other such highfalutin treatment—has the artist’s hand over its mouth, like Donna Anna in the attempted rape scene that, mercifully, we only get to hear about.
There is another pretext of this, and it is political. It is no accident that the identification of “liberty” with “fun,” encapsulated in the term libertine, appears on nearly every page of the libretto. “Viva la libertà!” says the Don to the chorus of peasant girls, one of whom he aims to ravish on her wedding day. “I just want to have fun” (“divertirmi”), he tells his pimp, Leporello.
Must the artist always play the pimp? That was the mournful thought with which I left the Teatro Massimo that evening.