Thursday, August 19, 2010

Don Giovanni as fiction; a story by E.T.A. Hoffmann

On March 31, 1813, an anonymous story appeared from a writer on the verge of discovering a voice, hidden among his other talents, that would directly influence fiction about classical music for better than a hundred years.

"Don Juan: A Fabulous Incident which Befell a Travelling Enthusiast," is a short story shaped as a letter written in dream-language by an unidentified composer who has summoned the spirit of Donna Anna during a performance of Don Giovanni.

In 1813 E. T. A. Hoffmann was among the first to write beyond plot description about this opera; he attempted to grapple with its indeterminism. Hoffmann was not explaining the meaning of the opera, but instead letting fiction explore and develop one corner of a possible interpretation. He used variables from within the libretto to inspire a new fiction.

In Hoffmann’s story Donna Anna was raped by Don Giovanni before the opening scene.

“The fire of a superhuman sensuality, a fire from hell, surged through her being and she was powerless to resist. Only he . . . could arouse in her the erotic madness with which she embraced him.” This is the reason she will not let him escape in the opening scene. Hoffmann views her interaction with Don Ottavio as surface gesture concealing a broken reality underneath.

In a lovely and poetical book from 1975 called “E. T.. A. Hoffmann and Music,” R. Murray Schafer states gently that “numerous commentators have pointed out that Mozart’s opera does not possess the qualities Hoffmann read into it.” But Mozart’s opera does not exclude corollaries built off from its own inherent indeterminism. Fiction, an independent medium, creates its own potentials.

Like the opera that sounds throughout and inspires the attitude of the fiction, the story is organized in two parts. First, the narrator hears a live performance of Don Giovanni. We are given detailed musical c[l]ues as to his continuing progress in listening.

He is aware of a presence in his private Loge; it is Donna Anna, dressed exactly as she appeared onstage. Inexplicably, he even felt her presence behind him as she was singing onstage during the masked terzetto scene. During intermission he engages her in conversation, then hears the remainder of the opera caught in her web.

The second “Act” of the fiction proceeds without formal marker. It reveals the reaction of other, less sensitive, less informed members of the audience. Then the narrator reveals himself as writing the letter to Theodore in the empty darkened theater.

“A warm, electrifying breath glides over me.”

The story closes around a fantastic collection of alignments: as the clock strikes two, the narrator completes his letter. This is the time, "due della notte," mentioned by the Don in scene twelve as he enters the graveyard to await Leporello. And we discover in the final words that it is in an exact synchronicity with the time the actress who sang Donna Anna dies. "Due della notte" becomes the portal back out of the opera’s strange perfect unison.

Fellow blogger Douglas Robertson translated this story in 2008.

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