Don Giovanni as Antisocial Personality

by Edie Bard Blum
18 January, 2001

According to The Merck Manual of Medical Information: Home Edition:
pp 445-446; 1997:

People with an antisocial personality (previously called psychopathic or sociopathic personality), most of whom are male, show callous disregard for the rights and feelings of others. They exploit others for material gain or personal gratification. . . .Characteristically, such people act out their conflicts impulsively and irresponsibly. They tolerate frustration poorly, and sometimes they are hostile or violent. Despite the problems or harm they cause others by their antisocial behaviors, they typically don't feel remorse or guilt. Rather, they glibly rationalize their behavior or blame it on others. Dishonesty and deceit permeate their relationships. Frustration and punishment rarely cause them to modify their behavior.

Is Mozart's Don Giovanni merely a glorious monument to glandular excess or is there another level of pathology inherent in the opera, particularly in the Don Giovanni which opened the Fall Season at The Met? It seems to me there is, and that Welsh bass-baritone Bryn Terfel has imbued his Don Giovanni with an intensity and displays a potpourri of psychopathologies that I've not seen before in this role.

I seem to recall reading that Terfel said his interpretation of Don Giovanni is intended to emphasize the "darker" nature of this infamous philanderer.  I'll say!  I found his Don very convoluted and at times fairly crackling with rage.

Woman-hunting anti-hero of what is generally accepted as Mozart's operatic masterpiece, Don Giovanni has been played through the ages variously as amoral, suave, wayward, elegant, dissolute, a lech, a cad, a libertine, a charmer, a grand signeur, a law unto himself, a Falstaffian Don, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.

None of the adjectives usually employed to define Don Giovanni suffice me for Terfel's portrayal, nor do they define his interpretation. His Don Giovanni isn't just scandalous, he's dangerous. His watchful stillness is threatening. After two-hundred-thirteen years of performances we assume we understand his sexual compulsions; but his sexual aggression, while odious, is possibly among his lesser disorders. Terfel's Don needs to dominate, to be Master in fact and deed. He uses and abuses, with no master but his own driven nature, and woe to anyone who crosses him.

For instance, after Leporello upbraided his master for leading the life of a rogue, it was chilling to watch Terfel rage, then forgive him:  he bestows near Leporello's lips a prolonged kiss wrapped in a wicked smile.

Comparing Terfel's portrait with the Don Giovannis I've seen previously--about ten (not exhaustive by a devotee's standards but possibly adequate for this looksee) -- the darkest characterization before Terfel's was, for me, Ruggiero Raimondi's in Losey's 1979 film Don Giovanni.

Raimondi's is a mature Don who is more than just obsessed with the conquest of women: he's almost creepy with his voyeur's eye in a face that gives little away. Raimondi's Don is a stalker. He seems to smolder at a higher temperature than other Don Giovannis. Appropriately, he perishes in the symbolic smelting pot he visits with his stylish friends early in the film.

The long-suffering Leporello aside, Raimondi's Don is served by a precocious adolescent who seems ripe for mischief or masochism. With it all, Raimondi'sDon Giovanni is manly, attractive, and might, when seen in his warmer, charm-driven moments, be taken merely for an aging womanizer.

Terfel's Don, I think, expands even these broad boundaries. He not only embodies a man determined to have his way with as many women as possible--he's Don Juan, after all--but he also comes across as a villain who glories in sowing confusion. Perhaps he's less kinky than Raimondi's Don, but he's colder and more toxic in his excesses. His contempt for morés is absolute. Although he cherishes his power to manipulate the people whose lives he touches, his ability to cause them pain and suffering isn't an issue he boasts of: it is simply who he is: Don Giovanni, Sociopath. He tenders this calling card every moment he is onstage.

To the afflictions he visits upon others, he offers a sardonic lip or malicious laugh. And a helluva lot of magnetism. In the opening scene, where pursuer Don Giovanni becomes the pursued, the almost-ravished Donna Anna grapples with him to prevent his escape, yet she is almost caught in the web of his magnetism and her involuntary attraction to it. Terfel infuses their struggle with gusto and he is once again fondling her when her father, the Commendatore, arrives to challenge the intruder who is still wearing the death's head mask.

Terfel at first gallantly returns the old man's dropped weapon--we sense his amusement that this noble father is willing to take on a man twice as fit and half his age--but when his mask is ripped away, Don Giovanni's wrath is ignited and he runs the old man through. As the Commendatore slips from his arms, Terfel bestows a thin smile of satisfaction and appears to caress his opponent, studying his swift demise as if it were a science experiment.

Terfel's Don isn't just earthy, he's primal. His 'La ci darem,' is fervid but light years from discrete:  while embracing her from behind, he brings Zerlina's hands low to where his loins are pressed against her back. Contact on one of Zerlina's high notes.

He's not even embarrassed to be confronted by the seduced and abandoned Donna Elvira who keeps popping in, up, and out to thwart his plans: he's annoyed mainly because she's succeeding!  Yet he includes her in his attentions to Zerlina, wooing them on the same bench, treating them in turn with lots of sly touchy-feelies--and a very sensuously employed apple. Red Delicious, I think.

That Elvira publicly condemns him to Donna Anna and Don Octavio doesn't phase him; he brands her a mad woman because sympathy for her will slow his path to Zerlina!  Tender seduction is an idea whose time has now passed; he's going for the gold by conquest.

Just as the libretto gods dictate, he alternately threatens, goads and bribes the inexplicably faithful Leporello to cover for him, lie for him, help him pursue ever more women, even forcing upon him a grotesque--and supremely funny--masquerade where servant poses as master so that master can safely advance on a chambermaid who might otherwise be put off by pursuit from a nobleman.  Yet, still in script, he several times violently attacks Leporello with drawn weapon. His threats were only jests he later says. I could almost believe that some Don Giovannis I've seen were truly jesting, but I could not believe it of Terfel's Don:  his eyes grew enormous in his rage; his threats came across as deadly serious.

He conveys no joy in the "Champagne" aria, no attempt at Charm 101 here; his fists clenched in determination through most of the aria, he's very intense as he hatches plans for further escapades. After he literally abducts Zerlina from the ballroom and she cries out for help and Masetto rescues her, she is returned onstage not only with torn clothes, which is usual, but with her wrists bound!  Uh oh!  Leporello is of course blamed by his master for the deed but Don Giovanni's guests are far wiser now than when they arrived.  "Criminal!, traditore!" they shout.

Bryn Terfel bears this with steely contempt, his back to his accusers, then whips around executing a flourish, bows low. . .and smiles coldly in a kind of triumph of will. He menaces Masetto nose-to-nose and ends the act by ripping down the festive draperies.

Enter Donna Elvira, again, this time when Don Giovanni is at supper. He mocks both her pleadings and the crucifix she places on his neck in her last effort to save his soul; he hurls it away. Salvation is not on his menu.

Leporello has seen it all, but when Terfel's Don seems quite prepared to violate Elivra on his banquet table to the strains of the lovely Minuet, Leporello is shocked. I know I was. On the other hand, maybe Terfel's Don Giovanni merely wants her to know that he has the power . . . if he chooses. . . The ugly--and very public--deed undone, however, he shoves her to the floor. So much for Elvira.

Further into the final scene, when the statue of the Commendatore arrives, Terfel doesn't just take the statue's freezing, stony hand as he is commanded: he grabs it lustily and with loud defiance. Even though the Commendatore has come to beard him in his den, Don Giovanni will take charge.  So righteous is his condemnation of repentance--and so great his indignation that repentance is being demanded of him---that I was almost surprised when he was vanquished.

Don Giovanni dragged down to the fires of Hell, finally full of awareness of his own demise, is a tough act to follow, and I am always jolted by the coy wrap-up of The Epilogue. It is full of lightness, bright music, and let's-get-on-with-our-lives-now-that-Don Giovanni-has-paid-for-his-sins.  You'll pardon me if I feel it's anticlimactic. But Mozart contracted to compose a comic opera for the Prague of 1787, and to fulfill his contract he had to sugar-coat the moral and the fiery ending of Don Giovanni.

The belch of smoke from the nether regions before the Epilogue's sextet scatters to reframe their lives, is Don Giovanni's ultimate raspberry, his final finger of contempt for a world from which he has been so spectacularly extracted.

Except for the unrelenting green/brown of costumes on brown/green scenery and background, I thought the Met's Don Giovanni an exceptional production with outstanding performances from all hands except those who were merely very good.

One question remains: Why the masked assault on Donna Anna in her chamber?  Don Giovanni is hardly shy; he woos Zerlina avidly in daylight, in full view of her bridegroom and celebrating villagers, promising to marry her instantly. The hapless Elvira tells us that he had stayed with her for three days--a sign of True Love by his standards -- and of course he promised her marriage; he always does.

So why the sneak attack on Anna, alone, alas, in her rooms?  It's a far cry from all those lacy flourishes and that gracious hand-kissing, from courting baronesses, seducing chambermaids and happily servicing gray-haired ladies because they are so grateful for his attentions. Perhaps like so many antisocial personalities whose aggressive social and sexual behavior is well-documented in scientific literature (inevitably it escalates with time), the thrill of the chase was diminishing, the sexual frisson becoming harder to generate. Maybe Don Giovanni was finding the game needed more hazard to spice his hot and compulsive pursuit of gratification.

If anyone wants to quibble with Terfel's darker interpretation, they're free to do so, but I see a magnificence in the way he puts this Don Giovanni across. Leaning to an extreme interpretation of a classic tale often brings life to a beloved old war horse; it's a time-honored tradition, though that doesn't always guarantee its success. For me there's real flesh on these bones and an emotionally dark richness to Bryn Terfel's Don Giovanni that didn't exist for me before in this grand role.

-- Edie

Literary content:
Copyright:  © 2001 Edie Bard Blum

  TOP of PAGE  
Opera Jamboree:
Welcome Page | Site Map
Website Design by:
Want your own website? Talk to me!