Originally posted at Boston Lyric Opera blog (5/7/15)

 

One of the most compelling characters of Mozart’s Don Giovanni is the figure of the Commendatore, Donna Anna’s murdered father, who returns from the dead to avenge himself and his daughter. In the 18th century, Mozart’s portrayal of the Commendatore carried two important semiotic frameworks. First, as the father figure, the Commendatore symbolized patriarchal power as expressed though political and sacred authority. Second, returning to life as a “Stone Man,” the Commendatore also embodied a dominant myth of the era, that of the living statue that straddled the world of the living and the world of the dead.

Unlike Don Giovanni, who represents sexualized masculinity, the Father is a symbol of authority attained through the confluence of political, religious, and state power. Describing the Commendatore, scholar Irving Singer argues that at the end of Don Giovanni, although the libertine dies, he dies at the hands of an elder male. Thus, at the close of the opera,

 

[T]he institution of male dominance continues unabated. For Don Giovanni dies not at the hands of women—as in the Orpheus myth—but through a metaphysical agency that represents another kind of masculine domination. The Statue destroys Don Giovanni as a way of denying that supremacy can be attained through mere sexuality. The Commendatore, Ottavio and even Masetto dominate by means of a social authority that Don Giovanni constantly rejects. For them it is political strength that provides the foundation of their dominance over women: they are warriors, they run the state, they assert their prerogatives as fathers and husbands.(28–29)

Like in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, in Mozart’s Don Giovanni the Father comes back from the dead to exact his rightful revenge. As in Hamlet, the Commendatore is a symbol of secular state power and of divine law. Writing about Hamlet’s father, the French philosopher Jacques Derrida notes that the Father stands for God; he is described as an omnipotent being who “holds man in his gaze and in his hand,” arousing what Christian scholars refer to as “Mysterium tremendum et fascinaus,” the mystery before which man trembles and is fascinated. The Ghost—the Father—is an “apparition of a spectre” who “makes the law, who delivers the injunction” and from whom “everything begins.” “The anticipation is at once impatient, anxious, and fascinated: this, the thing (‘this thing’) will end up coming” (Specters 7, 4). In Don Giovanni, the Father also stands in for God, and he represents, as scholar Nicholas Till points out, “the importance of belief in God’s avenging powers for the very security of society itself” (223).

In both Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Mozart’s Don Giovanni, the shadow of a powerful, otherworldly, supernatural father figure looms over the drama, as it looms over the patriarchal order that they inspire. In both stories, the final word of the Father is the standpoint upon which all ethical considerations subsequently depend. The Fathers’ paternal authority is the source of truth; they are, as philosopher Slavoj Žižek put it, “the obscene, uncanny, shadowy double of the Law of the Father”—“the father who knows” (158–59). In both stories, the Fathers embody the unalienable law of the symbolic order, “the Law of the Father . . . the fundamental law of our social system” (Braidotti 82). In Hamlet, the Ghost represents the nation as Fatherland, and the patriarchy as the foundation of society, nation, and ethics: “State, Emperor, Nation, Fatherland, and so on” (Derrida, Specters 142). In Mozart’s Don Giovanni, the figure of the Commendatore represents the restoration of the social order threatened by Don Giovanni’s unbridled and transgressive sexuality (unable to resist his charisma, Don Giovanni’s women undermine the established view of femininity as fundamentally lacking sexual agency and desire). In both stories, the symbolic Law of the Father who is the source of moral truth prevails over all other worldly values and considerations.

The second aspect of the Commendatore that was significant for Mozart’s contemporaries was the fact that the Father returns to life as a living statue. In the 18th century, the Greek myth of Pygmalion, a sculptor who falls in love with a sculpture of a woman he has created, which comes alive, appeared in many artistic representations. Ovid’s myth of the living artwork inspired many artists and writers of the era, such as the German art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann, the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and the German poets Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock and Friedrich von Schiller. During Mozart’s lifetime alone, no fewer than 50 Pygmalion operas, ballets, melodramas, and pantomimes appeared on the European performing arts scene. Most famous was Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony, with its finale, “The Creatures of Prometheus,” about Prometheus and a group of his clay statues.

The scholar Jonathan Miller argues that the myth of the living statue has religious origins and that it held powerful sway over the 18th-century imagination:

 

When Leporello addresses the statue of the Commendatore in the cemetery and the marble figure responds, Mozart and da Ponte were bringing into play a contemporary public perception of the ambivalent nature of sculpture. The statue, although stone, has the form and volume of a living man and appears to inhabit the same space as the spectator. This notion of a sculpture so deceptively realistic that it appeared to come alive was already established in the classical myth of Pygmalion and underlies the many medieval accounts of miracles in which statues of the Virgin and saints speaks or gesture to the devout observer; by the eighteenth century the idea has become a commonplace of critical discourse concerning sculpture. (62)

In the 18th century, one of the most poignant aspects of the living sculpture was its ambivalent status: neither living nor dead, the walking statue evoked an aura of ambiguity, thus placing spectators in a liminal space between the two worlds. The popularity of tomb sculptures also contributed to the feeling that they represented a transition into the otherworldly dimension. By making the Commendatore return to life under the guise of the living sculpture, Da Ponte was thus incorporating an important theatrical convention that at the same time carried philosophical and religious subtexts.

The Enlightenment era was also fascinated with the automaton, L’homme machine, which “embodied the mechanistic theory of human nature” (Rumph 45). The Stone Man was thus also a symbol of man’s desire to build a living object: “As aesthetic symbol, the animated statue allowed artists to explore the membrane between reality and representation, nature and artifice” (ibid.). The figure of the Commendatore in Mozart’s Don Giovanni was thus rich in meaning, symbolizing at once the authority of the patriarchal father figure, the spiritual transition into the other world, and the Enlightenment’s fascination with science and engineering.

Bibliography:

  • Braidotti, Rosi. Nomadic Subjects: Embodiment and Sexual Difference in Contemporary Feminist Theory. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.
  • Derrida, Jacques. The Gift of Death. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.
  • ———. Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International. Trans. Peggy Kamuf. New York: Routledge, 1994.
  • Miller, Jonathan. Don Giovanni: Myths of Seduction and Betrayal. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990.
  • Rumph, Stephen. Mozart and Enlightenment Semiotics. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012.
  • Singer, Irving. Mozart and Beethoven: The Concept of Love in Their Operas. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2010.
  • Till, Nicholas. Mozart and the Enlightenment: Truth, Virtue and Beauty in Mozart’s Operas. New York: Norton, 1992.
  • Žižek, Slavoj. The Sublime Object of Ideology. London: Verso, 1989.