Sunday, September 5, 2010

The Mystery of Don Ottavio

DON GIOVANNI: Don Ottavio “Dalla sua pace”
This aria is  the touchstone of the tenor repertoire, vocally and dramatically.  Any tenor can get through it easily, but to sing it perfectly, the voice must be able to “speak” in the  passaggio, the “cracks” of the voice.
Even the smartest tenors have found no more  in this aria than to pause and reflect movingly on the tender love Ottavio feels for  Anna. Successful as that can be when sung by a fine artist, this interpretation seriously underestimates the genius that is Mozart/Da Ponte. Indeed the character of Don Ottavio is one of the great mysteries of the opera repertoire. Is he a hero or a milquetoast, a pampered aristocrat or a sensitive lover?

The answer is all of the above, and much more. Though to call him a hero is quite an overstatement, as he is forced by circumstances and bullying by Donna Anna to put into reluctant action the skills he learned in officer training. The handsome, lovable dork must have been the butt of ridicule from his fellow recruits.

Ottavio is a real personality, an amazingly original creation, whose facets are revealed in every line. He is also essentially a COMIC character. While his arias are not to be played for laughs, they too have a touch of wistful humor, especially “Il mio tesoro”, in which Ottavio urges his allies to go into Anna’s house to comfort her rather than going in himself. Then he won’t let them go in, adding just one more thing! I suspect they give up and enter on their own, or simply leave. Ottavio repeated swears vengeance in his second aria, but then does nothing. Perhaps he is heeding basso Richard Cross’ wise words: “Opera is hard. You must swear eternal revenge, while keeping your jaw relaxed!”

The bulk of his part, especially in the recits, is plainly comical. Ottavio is rather useless though well meaning in emergencies and endearingly clueless about the dark side of life, especially in his own Spanish aristocracy. Mozart and Da Ponte are portraying the effete side of nobility as they did the cruel side in the characters of Giovanni and Count Almaviva. But all three are portrayed with such human variety, that they rise beyond their social stereotypes.

Ottavio will seem to many to be the most, even the only, outrageous interpretation in this book. In directing (and playing) him, overwrought Ottavio sniffed the smelling salts before giving them to the passed-out Anna in the first scene. I of course believe it’s all in the score, but even if the reader resists this slant, I hope it will inspire a unique and non-boring portrayal of this unique nobleman.

Even when Ottavio gets it right, it seems all wrong. He correctly exclaims before “Il mio tesoro” that Giovanni is the killer and rapist, but the preceding scene has made it clear to all the other characters that Leporello is the guy. Only the audience knows that Ottavio is correct. He looks like a fool to the other characters at the very point that he finally figures it out.

Anna is clearly not attracted to Ottavio, especially after having tasted the white heat of Giovanni’s passion. The match may have been arranged by Anna’s father. And yet, in the final duet in the act II finale, after having gone through a terrible day together, and after Ottavio has accepted Anna’s pleas for a delay with such grace, the music of their little duet finally seems to suggest the possibility of marriage, mutual love, but not necessarily sex. Whether Anna was raped or ripened by Don Giovanni, it doesn't bode well for Ottavio's virginal state.

Ottavio could be compared to the cartoon mountie Dudley Doright or even to Flanders in THE SIMPSONS cartoons.  Well bred, handsome, sincerely in love, but innocent to the ways of the world, he is lovably funny. Brendan Fraser, who played Dudley Doright in the movies, might be an ideal Ottavio if he could sing it.

Ottavio could be older or noticeably younger than Anna. He is painfully anxious to lose his virginity, a prime motivation for his constant urgings to Anna. In their first scene and duet, he is clearly entranced by her, holding her unconscious and lightly clad, soft and fragrant in her nightgown. Take me as husband and father, he nobly but hornily exhorts her, rather inappropriately, after her loss.  In all of his scenes following, he must be aching, and (before “non mi dir”) not so gallantly, for more than her hand. The sensual violence of Giovanni has awakened many things in that hot Seville night. Bob Dylan stated it well in his great song: “Something is happening, but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?”
In the finale of the opera, Ottavio has achieved a nobility by experience far beyond that learned by his breeding and training.

This aria is much more than an expression of love. Ottavio is wisely reconsidering his commitment to Anna. Even in the best of times, she must be “high maintainance”, and now he is being asked to face death, and to rebel against one of his own class. Combine that with Anna’s usual treatment of him, probably a mixture of tolerance and impatience at his doting, Ottavio wonders if he’s up to it, and even if she’s worth it! Then too, he is aware that she has been undergoing a catharsis.Yet in the end, his love and devotion shine through.

[suggested subtext/actions in brackets]

Don Ottavio:
 Dalla sua pace la mia dipende. [sudden, quiet realization, emphasis on my]
Quel che a lei piace vita mi rende, [“piace” coloratura = “aha!”]
Quel che le incresce [growing anger]
morte mi
. [ He rashly pulls sword out halfway]
Morte!!?? [suddenly stops himself – wait a minute… death!!??]
Morte mi dà. [Replaces sword slowly. Do I really want to die for her?]
S'ella sospira, sospiro anch'io. [He paces, trying to work it out]
È mia  [She’s mine! he proudly exclaims.]
quell'ira, [Hmmmm, but so are her foul moods…]
quel pianto è mio. [I have to watch every word I say!]
E non ho bene, [he sits in confusion]
s’ella non ha.[She’s impossible to please! ]Publish Post
E non ho bene, s'ella non l'ha. [(sighing) and yet I still  love that girl…]
E non ho bene, [He rises - but dammit, she’s such a handful!]
s'ella non
l'ha….. [Whatever shall I do?…]
Dalla sua pace la mia dipende. [sung piano - Who am I kidding?]
Quel che a lei piace vita mi rende! [Helpless chuckle - call me crazy, but I’m stuck on her]
Quel che le incresce morte mi dà!. [If anyone dares hurt her, I’ll kill him!]
Mor-te! Morte mi dà. [(piano) – and he could kill ME…]
Dalla sua pace la mia dipende. [paces, sums up, counting on his fingers the pros and cons, on four words in italics]
Quel che a lei piace vita mi rende,
Quel che le incresce morte mi dà,. [overwhelmed, throws hands up, it’s too much!]
Morte! [Wait! Am I ready to die?]
Morte mi dà. [Well, I’ve got to be!]
Morte mi dà. [So be it! -  he slowly draws his sword]
Quel che le incresce  [Bring it on! – slowly raises his sword valiantly]
morte mi ,. [salutes, pledges with sword across his chest]
[Postlude – Oops! Ottavio sees a spot on his sword. Exhales on sword and rubs it off with hankie while exiting quietly]

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