‘My Don Juan burns; and yet he is not struck by fire from Heaven’: Gothic individualism in Don Giovanni, Faust, and The Phantom of the Opera (Part 1)

Posted by Dorota Babilas on November 09, 2011 in Dr Dorota Babilas, Guest Blog tagged with , , ,

Søren Kierkegaard, and many others after him, believed that the rationale of Mozart’s Don Giovanni (1787) was not the thirst for carnal pleasure, but for transcendence and immortality – and this spiritual pursuit, in the philosopher’s opinion, eventually reflected beyond the diegetic world of the opera onto the composer himself, making him ‘truly classic and immortal’ (Either/Or, 53).

There have been many productions of Don Giovanni which seem to play up this idea; which remove the character of Don Juan from the shallow waters of sexual dramma giocoso and turn him into the first, and perhaps the grandest, of modern individualists, often with a distinctly Gothic flavour. For the sake of brevity, I will mention only two of them. One is the film version directed by Joseph Losey in 1979 with Ruggero Raimondi (Don Giovanni), José van Dam (Leporello), Edda Moser (Donna Anna), and Kiri Te Kanawa (Donna Elvira). The story was relocated from Seville to the dark, damp palazzos and rain-drenched piazzas of Venice. Raimondi’s intense rendition of Don Giovanni makes him appear almost vampiric. There is no joie de vivre in this Don Juan; he never smiles, not even during the parties he hosts. His supernaturally acute senses allow him to smell an approaching female from great distance. He never charms the women, but mesmerises them – when the naive country bride Zerlina (Teresa Berganza) almost falls prey to him, he goes straight for her décolletage. Later on, Leporello finds another anonymous, motionless (dead?) victim in his master’s bed. The notorious catalogue of conquests loses its typically farcical value, it seems strangely frightening and indiscriminate – reminding of a fact, that death (plague? venereal disease?) also acts in a random way. Even after the duel with the Commendatore (John Macurdy) Leporello asks: ‘Who died, you or the old man?’ just as he and Don Giovanni are escaping from the site of the crime.

The libertine's victim - Don Giovanni, 1979, dir. J. Losey

Another remarkable production of Mozart’s opera was staged by one of the most insightful and original Polish operatic directors, Mariusz Treliński (Warsaw 2002, Wrocław 2011). His Don Giovanni (Mariusz Kwiecień sang in the Warsaw premiere) comes out as a character more akin to Faust – the parallel observed already by Kierkegaard (Either/Or, 61) – his treatment of ordinary, mortal women is even more indifferent than that of Raimondi’s wigged vampire. Don Giovanni’s most beautiful serenade, ‘Deh vieni alla finestra,’ is sang to a mysterious, pale girl in a white pannier dress. She is the only promise of fulfilment of his life-long desire – arguably a force of idealised femininity similar to Victor Hugo’s Ananke, Goethe’s Ewig-weibliche, Beethoven’s Immortal Beloved. In a way, she is also Death herself, incorruptible and unamused; she ushers in a vengeful Commendatore with his swarm of zombie-like corpses who drag the sinner to his doom.

Don Giovanni (Mariusz Kwiecień) and the Girl - Warsaw 2002

It is very difficult to tell whether Gaston Leroux ever heard of Kierkegaard’s work. Probably not – Either/Or was published in Copenhagen in 1843, but appeared in French translation as late as in the 1930s. Still, as an abonné of the Opéra, Leroux  was certainly well acquainted with Mozart’s oeuvre (Don Giovanni premiered at the Palais Garnier shortly after the edifice’s inauguration in 1875) and used it, alongside Gounod’s Faust, as a major theme in his novel. Indeed, Erik the Phantom’s life opus is a reworking of Mozart’s masterpiece which he calls, interestingly, Don Juan Triumphant. This is a secret which he is very reluctant to share with his protégée Christine:

‘Would you like to play for me something out of your Don Juan Triumphant?’ I asked, thinking to please him, overcoming the feeling of repulsion that the chamber of death provoked in me. ‘You must never ask me that,’ he answered, in a gloomy voice. ‘This Don Juan had not been written to the words of Lorenzo Da Ponte, inspired by the wine, the petty romances and the peccadilloes, finally chastised by God. I will play you Mozart, if you like, which will make you shed your pretty tears and think honest thoughts. But my own Don Juan, Christine, burns; and yet he is not struck by fire from Heaven’. Thereupon we returned to the drawing-room. I noticed that there was no mirror in the whole apartment. I was going to remark upon this, but Erik had already sat down to the piano. He said, ‘You see, Christine, there is music so terrible that it consumes all those who approach it. Fortunately, you have not come to that music yet, for you would lose all your fresh colouring and nobody would know you when you returned to Paris. Let us sing something from the Opera, Christine Daaé’. He spoke these last words as though he were flinging an insult at me (Leroux, 250-251, my translation).

It takes considerable hubris on the part of Erik to speak deridingly of the greatest masterpiece of ‘the king of music’ whose golden bust decorated the very centre of the façade of Charles Garnier’s new Paris Opera. One might see this either as an act of sheer deranged megalomania, or as a challenge from one musical genius to another. What would it take for Mozart’s arch-villain to actually ‘triumph’? Would it be enough to avoid paying the wages for his sins, perhaps to repent and reform (like the real-life Don Miguel de Mañara)? Or maybe it would entail satisfying the Faust-like ‘Will to Knowledge’; finding the answer to ‘Life, the Universe and Everything’? As far as operatic inspirations are concerned, Don Juan Triumphant may be Erik’s (and Leroux’s) answer not only to Mozart’s Don Giovanni, but also to Hector Berlioz’s Damnation of Faust (1846), one of many operas beside the celebrated Faust (1859) by Charles Gounod which reworked Goethe’s tragedy.

It is possible to read Erik’s operatically hyperbolic outburst provoked by Christine tearing off his mask (as they were rehearsing a duet from Othello) merely as an outpouring of hitherto repressed sexual feelings for the girl:

‘When a woman has seen me, as you have, she belongs to me. She loves me forever. You know, I am a kind of Don Juan!’ And, pulling himself up to his full height, with his hand on his hip, wagging the hideous thing that was his head on his shoulders, he roared, ‘Look at me! I am Don Juan triumphant !‘ (Leroux, 254)

The assault brings to mind Renaissance renditions of the Death and the Maiden scene, combining the moralising Christian Danse Macabre tradition with the disturbing sensuality of the Greco-Roman myth of the Rape of Persephone. Indeed, a detailed programme of a (fictitious) gala evening at the Palais Garnier included by Leroux in The Phantom (36) reveals numerous musical works devoted to funereal subjects, e.g. Gounod’s ‘La marche funèbre d’une Marionette’ (1872), Saint-Saëns’s ‘Danse macabre’ (1875), and Massenet’s ‘inedited’ ‘Hungarian march’ which may refer to the famous ‘Marche hongroise’ from the first part of The Damnation of Faust (Berlioz had died in 1869, and since all works at the gala were supposed to be conducted by their composers, he was left out).

Edvard Munch, Death and a Maiden, 1894

In the character of Erik we may find a similar conglomerate of the creative and destructive forces which characterise both Don Juan and Faust. A mixture of the angelic and the demonic, the Apolline and the Plutonic signified most vividly by the two animal figures on his mantelpiece: the scorpion and the grasshopper. The grasshopper (or, more precisely, locust) is one of the many symbols of Apollo, associated with his role (as Apollo Parnopius) as a sender/healer of plague (Avery, 125). On the other hand, in ancient Greece, the Claws of the Scorpion (i.e. the constellation of Libra) were associated with the god Hades and the chariot he used to kidnap Persephone (Motz and Nathanson, 246).

The Phantom of the Opera, 1925, dir. R. Julian

Christine, who throughout Leroux’s novel is associated with the goddess Persephone, feels overcome when she has a chance to study Erik’s work with more attentiveness, while the overreacting composer had locked himself in his funeral-themed bedroom. ‘I could easily imagine this music to have been written in blood’(258), she admits, commenting on Don Juan:

Reading the notes I experienced all the excruciating details of torture; it led me to an abyss inhabited by an ugly man; and it showed me Erik hiding for hours in this funereal hell from the terrified glances of men. I assisted – wretched, gasping, pitiful, and defeated – in the hatching of those gigantic chords in which the suffering was deified, and then the sounds rose from the abyss in a mighty and menacing flight, like an eagle soaring towards the sun. It was a triumphant symphony, capable of engulfing the entire world. I understood that the work was finally finished and that Ugliness, lifted on the wings of Love, dared to look into the face of Beauty (258-259).

An interesting take on the theme of Don Juan (and his potential triumph) can be found in a relatively little-known opera Flammen (Flames) composed by Erwin Schulhoff and first performed in 1932 in Brno. It is a surrealist and somewhat convoluted retelling of the story of Don Juan with Freudian overtones and elements of the legend of the Wandering Jew thrown in. After a life of debauchery, Don Juan – a role for tenor voice (like Leroux’s Erik) – is confronted by La Morte, a female Death, his one true love. Still, the ultimate answer is denied to him; the Commendatore condemns him not to hell, but to eternal life, making him truly undead and forever unfulfilled.

Christine’s kiss of acceptance and forgiveness liberates Erik from his mortal suffering and allows him to literally ‘die of love’ (476) after he had released her to the world outside. Her purity and compassion allows him a final absolution, leaving his adversaries confused and somewhat indignant, denied the last satisfaction of Mozart’s famous final ensemble (‘Questo é il fin’). In giving Erik a touch of perfection he longed for and peaceful death Christine acts as a priestess, a Vestal Virgin. Perhaps, this is what Leroux had found at the very centre of the Opera’s façade, beside the gilded bust of Wolfgang Amadeus. In the neighbouring niche on his right hand stands Ludwig van Beethoven, the title of whose only opera (Fidelio) finds an eerie echo in Erik’s spelling of his ‘professional title’ – F. de l’O. – on threatening letters to the Opera’s managers (74, 132). On the other side of Mozart there is a bust of Gaspare Spontini, an Italian composer now remembered mostly for La vestale (1807). Even is the Phantom of the Opera did not ‘really exist’ (9), as the famous opening sentence of the novel asserts, there seems to have been a place left out for him in the weird and wonderful world of the Palais Garnier, its labyrinthine passages and its performances.

Beethoven, Mozart and Spontini on the facade of Palais Garnier


Avery, Catherine B., The New Century Classical Handbook. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1962.

Kierkegaard, Søren,  Albo, albo (Polish edition of Either/Or). Warsaw: PWN, 1982.

Leroux, Gaston,  Le Fantôme de l’Opéra. Paris : Le Livre de Poche, 1959.

Motz, Lloyd and Carol Nathanson, The Constellations. New York and London: Doubleday, 1988.

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