Transcript of “Tales from the Stave”

Tales from the Stave

Broadcast on BBC Radio 4, 18 October 2011 at 13:30 GMT

Tales from the stave: Don Giovanni.


Interviewer: Frances Fyfield with Jane Glover and Simon Keenlyside. With Elisabeth Giuliani and Michel Noiree from the Biblioteque National de France.

Transcribed by Jane Garratt.

SK: Every single Giovanni who does his job half well, all the young women in the audience will love him.

FF: They’d certainly struggle not to love him if he happens to be world renowned baritone Simon Keenlyside.

SK: Having seen and done Giovanni all over the world and watched any number of my colleagues, as just a conduit, the effect that it has on women in the audience is profound. And the man has been nothing but cruel and brutal, with charm.

FF: Oh yes, oodles of privileged charm running alongside a remorseless and destructive appetite for sex. Virgins a speciality. Don Giovanni is Mozart’s darkest opera. Written with his famous libretto collaborator Da Ponte, it tells the story of an arrogant, aristocratic, serial seducer, eventually dragged down to Hell by the stone statue of the Commendatore, the man who he murders in scene one. It was commissioned for a first performance in Prague in October of 1787, after the success there, earlier that year, of the Marriage of Figaro.

But we’re not in Prague, or Mozart’s home in Vienna. We’re in Paris as guests of Elisabeth Giuliani, Head of Music Manuscripts at the Biblioteque National de France. Her office has been thoughtfully prepared for the occasion, with two reading stands on a table, one already propping up a facsimile of the opera, which Simon Kenelyside begins to devour immediately.

SK: It’s already interesting. The first two words. In the scores you don’t have the exclamation mark after the first two words, “Donna folle!”, “Donna folle! Indarno gridi!”. That’s not in the scores, though. Isn’t that marvellous, the first two words. [Laughs]. I’m happy to look at the facsimile, because it gives me the change to turn the pages.

EG: You can’t turn the pages of…

SK: Yeah, I can’t wait to see the original, but, all the same. Jane, what does that say?

FF: At Simon’s shoulder is the conductor and Mozart scholar, Jane Glover. Also happy to scan the hefty pages of the modern copy of the opera. But amidst the buzz of questions and concentration, she and I are drawn to an anonymous grey trolley, wheeled into the office by a library assistant. In it rather, than a thick leather manuscript, is an impressively solid box, which looks like a large reliquary.

JG: Well this is an extraordinary wooden box, with metal around the outside, with “Don Giovanni” emblazoned in red on the metal shield, as it were, on the front. It’s like a strong box actually, and so it jolly well should be, given the treasure that it contains.

EG: Yes.

JG: Inside the box there’s an inscription, “Manuscript arranged and bound by J. Leyton, St James’s Westminster”, and the date.

FF: The London made box is important in the manuscript’s story, but for the moment it can’t lure Simon away from the less fragile facsimile, where he’s joined now by the Biblioteque scholar Michel Noiree.

SK: [Humming a tune], It changes the..·

MN: Yeah.

SK: Instead of saying…

MN: Instead of modulating the cadence there…

SK: It changes the emotional stress as well. “Wait – for a bit” to “wait for a bit” he obviously felt strongly about it to actually change it.

FF: And then, at the appearance from the box of the first slim volume, gently placed on the table by Elisabeth Giuliani, the bustle stops.

EG: There are eight fasicles,

FF: Eight, sort of, not quite envelopes, books, beautifully bound in leather. Wonderful soft leather. And this one that we are looking at first, so we’re opening the overture. And here we go.

[Music, the overture to Don Giovanni].

JG: We know that Mozart wrote the overture absolutely at the last minute, on the night before the opening performance, and that Constanza, his wife, had to keep feeding him coffee. And anything to get him through the night, so that he would get this overture down. And apparently there were armies of copyists lined up waiting to make the orchestral parts from this score. I love these smudges. The smudges that tell us just how quickly he was doing all this. Yet it’s still sort of legible isn’t it, you know? Look at these scales in the winds. And then the Crescendo to the “subito piani”.

[Simon sings the rising scale from the start of the overture over a background of the orchestra playing it.]

JG: That great feature of the overture, the sort of hysterical dynamics. Really tense, turbulent dynamics which he is setting up. Which of course he’s already written it because he’s written the final scene. But here it is at the beginning of the overture. Can you turn over? Ohhhh yes.

[Jane starts singing the next page of the score over the orchestral background]

SK: There’s a coffee cup stain on there. It’s not, but it might be!

EG: Pencil.

MN: Inkpot perhaps, leaking.

SK: Yes.

JG: These brilliant orchestral players in Prague were barely going to have time to rehearse this. They’re pretty much sight reading on the opening night. Which is a terrifying thought! I mean this is not easy music to play.

FF: Why was it that it was so much at the last minute?

JG: Well because he hadn’t written it yet. He was a little bit of a late night merchant. He was known for sort of pulling all nighters, you know when he was up against it.

FF: But for all that it’s still extraordinarily neat and precise.

JG: Yes, and we found this before with so much of his music, that once he gets into this – it’s clear that it’s in his head, he simply has to transcribe it. It’s like pressing the print button on your computer. Can we turn the page? No smudges, no corrections. It’s incredibly fluent.

EG: This one is a Prague paper. Bad quality paper.

JG:Bad quality paper?

SK: Yes. And yet, compared to anything in the twentieth century it’s marvellous paper

FF: Rather robust

SK: rather like thin cardboard.

FF: Elisabeth Giuliani wears white gloves to turn these pages with immense care. The thickness of the sheets varies and they’re a clue to the writing history. Because the last minute work, like the overture, was written on the thinner kind of paper available in Prague. While the opening scene, with the first appearance of Don Giovanni himself was composed earlier in the year, using the thicker paper from Mozart’s home, in Vienna.

JG: Here they come, Donna Anna followed by, or rather pursuing,

FF: you

SK: It is.

FF: Don Giovanni lasts over two and a half hours, so we don’t have time for everything. So we skipped swiftly through the extraordinary opening. Which is a crime scene as much as an opera. Donna Anna claims rape, her father defends her, Giovanni kills him almost carelessly. Donna Anna is left grieving with her, would be, husband Don Ottavio, and then another of Giovanni’s ex conquests, Donna Elvira turns up.

JG: Donna Elvira has come upon Don Giovanni, and he says to Leporello you deal with this! you deal with this and pushes off. And Leporello decides, the only thing I can possibly do is tell you the truth, my dear. You know, don’t get excited about this man. I’ve kept a list of all the women that he’s seduced, and here it is.

FF: And here it is!

JG: And he numbers, literally country by country the lovers he’s had. I think it’s over two or three thousand, isn’t it if you do the sums! This almost looks as if it’s a neat copy by Mozart it doesn’t look like something he’s writing at speed.

SK: And yet, why, look at this dark and light ink in one or two bars. What does that mean? Has he added it later?

JG: It means he’s just dipped his pen in the pot surely.

MN: And it shows the order in which he wrote it. The vocal part and the bass, and then the middle instruments. In this case he wrote in the violins last.

[ the music is now Leporello’s aria]

JG: It’s all very delicate, isn’t it? “Leggete con me” and then we get these wind parts here which start, sort of, sniggering.[sings pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pa] as the orchestra starts to join in the merriment as he starts making “In Italia seicento e quaranta,”and so on, numbering the women he’s had.

[Music, “Ma in Ispagna, son già mille e tre!..”]

FF: In Spain, a thousand and three! Makes you glad he never crossed the channel. But the composer’s fluency is broken at the end of Leporello’s aria. Evidence, says Michel Noiree, of a rethink.

MN: It’s the last line “voi sapete quel che fa!” And then he goes on “quel que fa!” And then Mozart crosses this out and he gives us a whole chunk of repeated music and text before he eventually cones to this “fa-a-a-a-a!” [heard in the music as well]. He had the idea there and then he delayed it. It’s too good not to be repeated.

[we hear the music repeat]

FF: Is it right that for this production Mozart had somebody in mind that he wanted to play Don Giovanni? So to some extent he’s writing the role for the person he knows who’s going to play it.

JG: He had met Luigi Bassi who was the original Don Giovanni, who was terribly young. He was still only about twenty-one, which is astonishing. But he had actually played The Count in the previous year when Figaro was done in Prague. Beethoven referred to Bassi as “The fiery Italian”, I love that. So he was obviously a wonderful singer with tremendous stage presence and great energy.

FF: And on we go. Meeting Zerlina next, the peasant girl and last of the major female characters, along with Masetto her thumping fiance.

JG: This is the great seduction of Zerlina, which has sort of been inevitable from the moment she and her fiance, any minute now bridegroom, Masetto, appeared on stage and the wedding is interrupted by Giovanni. It’s quite clear that he intends to seduce Zerlina, and here he is doing so.

SK: The beginning of this duet starts very tenderly. Then it’s almost as if he’s bored, she throws something at him, he rebuffs it. Then, at a certain point, it’s almost as if he says “OK. All right, here we go” and then he turns up the pressure. And that pressure goes up and up and up and up and up. You can be my wife, you can live in this house and then we get this sublime duet.

[Music “Là ci darem la mano]

JG: Là ci darem la mano.

SK: Yeah

JG: Is one of the great seductions

SK: It is

JG: Of all time.

SK: It is, it is of course but he never actually succeeds in the piece

EG: Ah Oui!

FF: It would get me.

JG:You know it does get me actually. His seduction has worked

SK: Yeah, I suppose so. I just meant that it’s interesting that he could have allowed him to seduce a woman in some way in the piece, but he never did.

JG: Yeah

SK: It’s always coitus interruptus.

JG: In comes Elvira and says “get going”.

[Music continues]

FF: You can’t help wondering what Cassanova made of this kind of failure rate. He was, after all, one of Da Ponte’s inspirations for the Don Giovanni character. And he was, reputedly, present in the audience for the first performance in Prague. But our Don, Simon Keenlyside, is beaming in on Mozart’s craftsmanship, right down to the finest detail.

SK: If I look at the recitatives, for example, which is all I’m looking at now, I bump into one here, when Masetto comes to him. In the scores we have, in the Bärenreiter, he says “Well done! [sings] “Bravo, per servirlivi” and in the original score you’ve got the more insinuating, for me, emotional one. [sings] “Bravo, per servirlivi” Two B-flats. I think it’s an enormous difference to me, as a performer, it’s very different. So those are the tiny details I’m looking for. It’s not just to find something that’s different for its own sake, it’s because as a performer everything is nuance. Light and shade, chiaroscuro, and those clues, for me, are what help me. Tearing me away from this is going to be hard! [laughs]

FF: With Michel Noiree as guide, the next nuance concerns Donna Anna, as she urges Don Ottavio to avenge her honour by killing Don Giovanni.

MN: He re-wrote the first three statements of Donna Anna.

JG: It’s upside down. Originally he wrote [sings]“ Or sai chi l’onore,
rapire a me volse,” and then he changed it round, she went [sings]“ Or sai chi l’onore, bah di dah dah da da da” He makes it stronger!

SK: Mmm.

[Music Donna Anna singing Or sai chi l’onore]

JG: That’s very interesting. I wonder when he changed it, whether he changed it after he’d met Teresa Saporiti and knew that was the way round it was going to work best for her.

SK: I bet that’s true

JG: I bet that had something to do with it. This may well be a – you know we think he’d written this aria before he arrived in Prague but when he heard her sing it he probably changed it.

SK: Jane, isn’t it true that he was a very very practical man and very often the art would be to him a matter of fact, if somebody couldn’t do it he just changed it to suit them.

JG: Absolutely, he had that wonderful phrase about “he liked an aria to fit a singer like a well cut suit of clothes”.

[Music changes to the finale of act 1]

FF: An on we swept into the finale of Act 1. In which Mozart has set himself the incredibly complex task of having two bands on stage as well as the main orchestra in the pit. Giovanni’s chasing Zerlina and all the rest are chasing him.

JG: With all these groups of instruments he’d run out of stage, so he had to draw some more in, look at that! This is just one of the most chaotic scenes in the whole opera isn’t it Simon?

SK: Yes

JG I mean it’s a, certainly as a conductor, it’s one of the hardest things to keep together, because everybody’s dancing. Everybody’s moving

SK: Yeah

JG: Don Giovanni’s dragging Zerlina off and ah there’s just so much going on.

SK: When it works, I suppose with a good conductor, it’s like being a cog in a watch, it’s thrilling to be part of it.

FF: The heat in the room and the natural break in the opera seemed a good time to pause and find out from Elisabeth Giuliani how this priceless manuscript, in its elegant London made box, found its way to Paris and here. Mozart’s wife. Constanza had sold it to a German publisher Johan Andre. Who in the 1850’s decided to sell it and this is the cue for three great European Libraries to wince.

EG: They offered it first to the Imperial Library of Vienna, then Royal Library of Prust Berlin, and after British Museum. But all three declined, so Pauline Viado bought it.

FF: Although Pauline Viado was something of a singing superstar in the 1850’s the British press gleefully reported that she had to sell all her jewellery to pay the 5000 Franc price tag. But she bought it because she loved it. And at the time she used to perform in Don Giovanni productions. It was she who commissioned the leather bindings of the loose manuscript and the making of the box to hold them.

EG: She took this box everywhere she went. So in Baden-Baden and in Paris, and she invited musicians to see it.

“I can not describe the feeling which came over me when I looked through this musical spiatinia. This holy of holies. It was as if I had shaken hands with Mozart himself and talked with him”.

FF: Tchaikowsky having a “Tales from the Stave” moment back in 1886. Then it was back to the score and Don Giovanni’s second act serenade written during rehearsals on Prague paper.

JG: This is what he wrote for Luigi Bassi, because Luigi complained that he hadn’t got anything lyrical to sing.

SK: Oh bless you Luigi!

JG: Yeah, so here is the serenade which is about the most lyrical thing you could possibly sing.

EG: Have you noticed this Simon?

SK: Oh look! lord, Allegro, of course.

JG: Allegretto at the top Allegro on the baseline.

SK: Yes. I find if it’s too fast it gets to be a bit of a clog dance.

[Music Deh viene alla finestra]

SK: Aha, Piu del we’ve got piu che in the, in our,

EG: Exactly

SK: Hmmm

MN: So it should be Piu del melle not miele. Which was the 18th Century form.

SK: It’s nicer to sing “miele” because you can be more…

JG: It’s more seductive

SK: But it isn’t what’s written. I see, how lovely!

MN: dolce del melle

SK: Good! I shall return to that then!

FF: Melle or miele, it means honey. But for Simon Keenlyside this is so much more than a mere sugary seduction.

SK: I think it’s the only place in the whole of the opera where it’s as if Giovanni’s forehead is made of glass. And by the second verse you feel this emptiness and longing. That isn’t anywhere else in the piece, it’s absolutely still, nobody’s there and suddenly what started as a seduction is empty and lonely.

[Music second verse of Deh viene alla finestra]

SK: I think my generation doing the Don, you strap yourself in with that double seatbelt of a Ferrari and you drive head on at the wall. It’s not like Enzio Pinza in the thirties where it was diamantine and all that champagne and seduction. To my mind, the more I’ve done it, the more I’ve felt the battle with God.

JG: Yeah

SK: The power of the church.

JG: Well he never names God but it’s interesting that

SK: “I’m not afraid of anything” he says.

JG: Absolutely and when he does bring in the figure of divine retribution, i.e. the Commendatore he does add trombones. Which is something that is absolutely associated with Church music and not with theatrical music. It’s a, yeah, and here we have them off stage for the Commendatore in the graveyard scene. And then they are coming with the Commendatore into the final scene. And that I do think is a reference to Church music, where they belong.

[Music Commendatore’s graveyard scene]

SK: That’s the greatest thrill then. You can almost feel the hackles on your own neck. No turning back, no repentance, my sacrament is this woman in my life, blood and guts. And that’s when he goes foot to the floor even harder.

[Music Commendatore’s entry, final scene]

FF: And so to the last bound volume and with those two falling chords. The most dramatic operatic scene Mozart ever wrote.

JG: The Commendatore has indeed accepted the invitation to supper and turned up at Don Giovanni’s house. And is now saying “come with me, come with me, come with me”. The Don is resisting and Leporello is saying “This isn’t good, this isn’t good. I want to be anywhere but here”, because this supernatural figure, plus his trombones, have appeared. [Hums] Da Da Da Da Da Da Da Da [rising and falling scale] He’s got to write it very, very, very, very, small in here because he hasn’t left himself much room. Isn’t that adorable!

SK: How many notes to the bar has he got there? Twenty? Twenty-five?

JG: Sixteen

SK: Sixteen, there we are. Those chromatic violin things make me physically feel ill. They are so powerful [Hums] Da Da Da Da Da Da Da Da, [rising and falling scale] As a performer, I find as the hysteria builds you must keep, to counter it, as calm as possible. Sing as Legato and be as calm as possible. And I think that is what the man is trying to do, to keep the fear down. Even if he is afraid he’s not going to show it.

JG: mmmm

MN: There’s a cut here: “I shall never be accused of being a coward”.

SK: A coward. Of all the lines to have cut out! when you’ve spent the whole night saying I am not afraid of anything. He’s written – he’s crossed it out. And yet we have it in all our scores.

MN: It may be to please the censor, because it shows him in a positive light and Church authorities may have frowned upon this kind of thing.

SK: Interesting.

FF: Simon, this is the very last page of music for your Don Giovanni. And even I can see two clear notes as he is dragged off down to Hell. [Music Don Giovanni being dragged down to hell] But his second note is lower than the first. But singers that I’ve heard on recordings tend to go up there. Usually with a blood curdling scream.

SK: I find it absolutely justifiable. It’s a scream of refusal.

MN: But this falling fourth is also the first two chords of the opera. So It can be understood as being linked thematically with other passages in Don Giovanni where you have the falling fourth.

SK: Yes, the darker voices that sing Giovanni could probably do that falling fourth and do it very well. The higher, lyric voices, such as me would not get enough sound to make it emphatic and would be forced to take the upper option. That’s what I feel. “No! NO!” It’s a scream of “I will NEVER give up! And I will NEVER repent!”.

[Music, the last scream of the Don]
SK: He’s taking on the Church, and God!, I can’t imagine the shock that must have created.

JG: What have we got here? A crossed out bar saying Don Ottavio, Donna Anna, Donna Elvira shouting “Ahhh” in the final scene. Oh how fascinating! They are on stage before they come in for the epilogue, but then he decided against it. Just before his final “Ahh” they yell “Ahh” .Have you ever seen that Simon?

SK: No, I’d kick ’em off I think!

JG: Oh you don’t want them in your final moment!

SK: No!

JG: But that is amazing!

SK: It is amazing.


MN: And this is linked to the removal of the final scene in Vienna.

SK: JG: I see! Bring everybody on stage

MN: And there you have to bring everybody on stage. And so Mozart
had this idea of having them all on stage, just to sing one note a monosyllable and that was it. And then somebody crossed it out. Maybe him, maybe somebody else.

JG: Maybe him. I bet he decided he didn’t like it after all that.

[Music from the epilogue quintet]

FF: After this terrible descent into Hell, it all seems to get tidied up rather neatly.

JG: Do you think it’s neat?

FF: I don’t think it’s neat. I think it’s deeply ambiguous.

JG: Very important things are stated in the final epilogue. Zerlina and Massetto are going to be fine, they’re just going to scamper off together. Leporello is probably going to be OK, and he goes off to the pub to find another master. But Don Ottavio tries one last time and Donna Anna says “just give me a year. I need to sort myself out” and we all know that that’s never going to happen. And poor Elvira says she’s got to go to a monastery. She can’t deal with real life any more. I think it’s crucial that we understand this about the people whose lives, by the way, have also been ruined in the life of a crazy man.

SK: As a young man I didn’t see where you could go after the death of Giovanni in Hell. Now I see that without it it would be so much less of a piece because it’s at that very point where the narrator, as it was, like a Shakespearean convention, comes to the forefront of the stage, as it were, invisibly, and says to the audience “Ladies and gentlemen, did you like this man Ottavio? He’s a good man isn’t he, he’s a good, a decent man, he loves this woman. He’s a nobleman, he’s got lots of money. Did you like him?” [stiffled laughter] “You don’t give a damn about him do you? And here’s Giovanni, an absolute horror, but you liked him didn’t you? And what does that say about you?” And that’s what that last ensemble is, otherwise we’ve just got a melodrama.

JG: Oh look, a second thought. [sings the last fugue theme] So he started off with a different Fugue subject and then changed it. And then this scampering ending.

SK: Mmm

JG: Now is this different paper?

MN: This is a different hand.

JG: It is

MN: The last page got lost and somebody else wrote it in an rather unprofessional way.

EG: Nobody knows who did that.

JG: I wonder who has got this last page?

SK: I’ll have a look for it!

JG: But good for Pauline Vialdo, really, that she rescued this. She looked after it, she treasured it. And that she brought it to you here in Paris, where it’s being wonderfully looked after.

FF: Simon Keenlyside, Michel Noiree, Jane Glover, thank you very much, all of you, for taking the time.

JG: What a privilege!

[Closing music from the end of the opera]

FF: Simon, Is seeing this original score going to have any influence on the way that you sing Don Giovanni in the future?

SK: The tiny details that I have already seen I will try putting into practice. I’ve lived with this man all my adult life. Committed his works to memory and love it more than I can possibly tell you. And will never get to the bottom of it, because there is no bottom of it. Because why? Because what Mozart is, what all Art is, is this shattered mirror pointed at our common humanity. And each one of those facets, slightly broken, slightly twisted, will show you only one portion of your human condition. And I don’t know anybody who does that better than Da Ponte and Mozart. That’s why I’ll never get to the bottom of it. But seeing it, there Elisabeth, and if you will let me with gloves, just touch it. Gives me deep ,deep pleasure. It’s an honour.

FF: And Elisabeth Giuliani, did just that. And Simon opened the final volume again, and placed his gloved hands, gently on the manuscript.

SK: To think that, er this will sound ludicrous, that just because a man’s hand sweated on this page, that it would make any difference. But it does.

[Final music, the end of “Deh viene alla finestra”]

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Jane May 24, 2012 at 7:14 pm

Hi DK,

Thanks for pointing this out. I didn’t know the word and had to make a guess at the spelling when I was transcribing the discussion! It’s great that you spotted this and could help.


DK May 24, 2012 at 8:10 am

Hi, thank you for posting this–I’ve only just had time to read through and it is a great reminder of an enjoyable episode. There is a spelling error though, it is “Bärenreiter” (referring to the publishing house) and not “Bernwriter”.

Jane May 7, 2012 at 9:13 pm

Thank you for putting this on the website. I had listened to it two or three times before this evening, but I enjoyed it just as much again this time. Simon’s affection for Mozart’s music is absolutely wonderful. I particularly love his final words about the manuscript – his sense of awe and reverence are almost palpable.

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