"You can chew it. It's not fluff." That's one of the ways baritone Michael Todd Simpson describes Mozart's "Don Giovanni." The 34-year-old North Carolina native will play the libertine in the upcoming Pittsburgh Opera production.
"Don Giovanni" was special from the time of its premiere in Prague in 1787. Although superficially an opera buffa (Italian-style comic opera), "Don Giovanni" balanced comic and tragic elements in equal proportions, leaving experts to argue for more than two centuries over which dominates. Mozart and his librettist, Lorenzo Da Ponte, called it a drama giocoso (playful drama). They also gave it the subtitle, "Il dissoluto punito (the dissolute punished)" and the opera ends with its antihero going down to Hell in flames. That is classic tragedy, but it is immediately followed by a comic epilogue in which the remaining characters pronounce the moral: "This is how a bad person comes to an end." Even the opera's creators were ambivalent, however. A year later, when the opera was produced in Vienna, they cut the epilogue.
"Don Giovanni" is generally considered the greatest opera ever written (Kierkegaard called it the world's greatest work of art). Its stature is due in part because it is many things to many people: a universal story about the world's greatest lover (or a sexual predator, depending on your point of view) overlaid with Christian morality. "There are so many layers and levels," Mr. Simpson says. "Don Giovanni is beautiful on the outside, not the other way around. He'd be a wonderful president," the singer adds. "He knows what to say in any situation. He'd win every debate!"
This opera is a great drama told in great music, with the combination adding up to something more than either would be on its own. Mozart gives each character a distinct and individual musical language. Among the three women whom the Don encounters on the last day of his life, Donna Anna's haughty high lines have an arrogance and determination that set her apart from the others and allow her to dominate the ensembles. Donna Elvira, driven to near madness by her love for Don Giovanni and his rejection of her after a brief fling, sings in jagged lines and irregular rhythms that betray her instability.
Yet as the opera progresses, their curves reverse. Anna becomes more unstable, culminating in a roulade at the end of the aria "Non mi dir" that defines her mental state in music, while Elvira turns to lyrical melodies that remind us that she is the only one in the opera who loves Giovanni. Zerlina, the simple peasant girl, sings sweet folk-like melodies throughout.
Through all this, the title character has the least to sing. His arias are short -- an exuberant drinking song and sensual serenade -- but he dominates all those around him. His servant Leporello, on the other hand, is the Don's flip side, with more to sing than anyone else in the show. The Don's familiar duet with Zerlina, "La ci darem la mano," is a detailed musical seduction. The Don sings his smooth-and-sexy line to the woman. She protests -- perhaps too much, because she repeats his tune. He presses on more urgently, she resisting in shorter lines. At last, he says, "andiam" (let's go) and when they sing it in harmony we know she's been seduced. All this in three minutes of absolute musical and dramatic genius.
"Don Giovanni is a chameleon," says Mr. Simpson. "He turns himself into whatever he needs to be."
Senior editor Robert Croan is the former classical music critic of the Post Gazette.