Cher Public

Le droit du canard

Oh, we’ve a veritable cassoulet of canards to feast upon this week, cher public, courtesy of our old friend Rupert Christiansen.

In a little essay with the provocative title “Why opera directors must stop patronising people,” Mr. C. attempts to make a number of points, none of which I think he lands with any success. But what I’d like to take on is his niggling about what one might call historical accuracy as it applies to historical fiction.

Let us begin with the statement “Le Nozze di Figaro doesn’t make sense later than Napoleon’s abolition of the droit du seigneur on which the plot is premised.” Now, this sounds all very learned and fancy, but the problem is, it’s poppycock.

To begin with, the so-called “droit du seigneur,” that is, a codified rule that a nobleman has the right to take the virginity of a newly-wedded bride, is largely, if not completely, a myth. There may have been certain customs in very early European feudal societies in which a king or chieftain would deflower a bride as part of a fertility ritual, and certainly, then as now, powerful and wealthy men often regarded sexual favors as a perk of office. But there is very little evidence of any of this practice being codified as law.

To continue, even if we assume a codified “droit du seigneur” existing in Almaviva’s domain, his renunciation of this “right” does not mean that he was actively practicing it beforehand. Politicians are constantly making proclamations renouncing this or celebrating that, and it all amounts to so much posturing. So it is perfectly plausible that within the story of Figaro, Almaviva is simply currying favor with his subjects or else preening as an enlightened despot. What easier and less controversial way to strike such an enlightened attitude than to ban a “law” that has not been enforced for centuries, if ever?

Surely the point of introducing the motif of the droit du seigneur is ironic; that is, at the very moment Almaviva is boasting about his advancement of the rights of women, he is chasing his valet’s bride.

But the broader issue here is that Le nozze di Figaro is a fiction, not a historical treatise. The creator of a work of art is allowed certain license in arranging and adapting the hard facts of history in order to craft a more entertaining and meaningful work. For example, Da Ponte  (following Beaumarchais) evokes the ahistorical droit du seigneur as a jumping-off point for a play that is brimming with improbabilities and downright impossibilities: the unlikely perfect timing of the comings and goings in the Contessa’s boudoir driving the farce plot, or example, or the literally incredible set of mistaken identities in the final scene, as if the Contessa and Susanna would, even in moonlight, could utterly bamboozle their husbands by no more complicated ruse than the simple exchange of cloaks.

In other words, Le nozze di Figaro, like any other great work of art, creates its own reality. It does not take place in our world but rather in a world of the artist’s invention. It is deliberately artificial. So why should the single historical detail (and not a true one at that) of the droit du seigneur necessarily be treated with such reverence?

True, the libretto of Le nozze di Figaro alludes to the “droit du seigneur,” though it never uses the term specifically:

Susanna: “Ei la destina per ottener da me certe mezz’ore… che il diritto feudale…”
Figaro: “Come? Ne’ feudi suoi non l’ha il Conte abolito?”

In the spirit of enjoying Figaro as artifice, why cannot we take the general principle of the powerful man’s sense of entitlement to the sexual favors of his women subordinates (of which the droit du seigneur is a specific manifestation) and then apply it in a different context? Is it so implausible that, for example, a modern employer who has recently signed off on an “enlightened” policy forbidding sexual harassment in his workplace should then turn around and start making passes at one of his employees? Or, for that matter, is it so hard to stretch the imagination to say “in this created reality set before us, a powerful man is saying one thing and doing the opposite, as hypocrites do?”

On a similarly “historical” note, Christiansen insists “Don Giovanni should be someone who visibly has the rank and appearance of a gentlemen – that is what makes his behaviour so damnable and incredible to the other characters.”

Well, to start with, Don Giovanni’s behavior is “incredible” to only one character in the piece, i.e., Don Ottavio, and even in his case the incredulity is short-lived.

From the moment Donna Anna recognizes Don Giovanni as her assailant and her father’s murderer (i.e., only minutes after her first meeting with him following the crimes) she is utterly convinced of his guilt. She never stops to say, “But the problem with all this is that no gentleman would ever do such a thing, so there must be some other explanation.”  Yes, Ottavio hesitates a bit (“O ciel! Possibile che sotto il sacro manto d’amicizia…”) and then, after Anna’s outburst in “Or sai chi l’onore,” reflects a moment more (“Come mai creder deggio di sì nero delitto capace un Cavaliero!”) though this last aside can just as easily be taken as an expression of astonishment as disbelief. The next time we see Ottavio, he’s armed and masked, ready to confront Don Giovanni in his own home.

Donna Elvira never gives her “husband” the benefit of the doubt on account of his noble status, and Masetto mistrusts him at once specifically because of his rank. Before the simple country maid Zerlina has spent more than two minutes alone with Don Giovanni, she observes, “Ah! non vorrei… [a]lfine ingannata restar.  Io so che raro colle donne voi altri cavalieri siete onesti e sinceri.” There is nothing “incredible” about this gentleman’s lechery here: Zerlina has him pegged.

So no one is surprised (or remains surprised, anyway) that a gentleman, or anyway this particular gentleman, should be prone to screwing around and murdering old men. What gives Don Giovanni some measure of temporary impunity, though, is his noble birth, or rather the power that this noble birth confers upon him. So, just as with Figaro before, what drives the story is a powerful man’s sense of entitlement, of regarding the indulging of his pleasures even at the expense of others as a given, something to be accepted unquestioningly.

In the 18th century, power generally derived from rank, but the story of Don Giovanni is just as true when the power derives from some other source. It might be great wealth, for example, or it might be political status or remarkable personal beauty. In the production of Don Giovanni Christiansen seems to be complaining about, Calixto Bieito‘s for English National Opera, that power derives from fame and (as Bieito puts it) “charisma.”

Don Giovanni in this production is not, as Christiansen calls him, “another lecherous yob,” but rather a personality everyone in Zerlina’s wedding party recognizes the moment he walks in. (For example, the amateur videographer who’s shooting the wedding reception immediately turns his camera and starts filming the famous newcomer.) So, maybe he’s an soap opera actor, maybe he’s a football player, maybe he’s a pop singer or star DJ: the point is that he’s not just a “yob” but someone out of the ordinary who gets what he wants because of who he happens to be. The elegant manners and fine clothing Christiansen seems to think define Don Giovanni’s “nobility” are in fact only signifiers of his power in the particular context of 18th century Europe. Other societies have other, perhaps more subtle signifiers, but they all mean the same thing: power, and, by extension, arrogance and the cruelty that accompanies it.

So what it seems to me is that Christiansen is overlooking the broader themes of these operas and niggling instead about relatively trivial specifics of period detail. The value of nontraditional productions, I think, is that in deliberately violating our expectations of such period detail, they encourage (or force) us to consider the more universal themes of the works.

There’s a lot more to question in Christiansen’s piece, specifically what he calls directors’ “agendas,” but maybe this is enough for one week’s worth of canard.