Is it possible to thwart evil, when evil is rich, beautiful and clever? Western writers asked that question in the form of nearly two thousand variants of the “Don Juan” story, of which one – Wolfgang Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni – holds modern audiences spellbound; it premiered in October 1787.

Mozart’s masterpiece is a self-referential sort of problem, a foundational work of Western civilization whose subject is the inadequacy of Western civilization. It may seem a distraction to dwell on details of performance practice that speak to a minority within a minority of music listeners. But our capacity to perform and hear Mozart’s opera as he intended it really is matter of existential importance for the West, and not only the West; if the small matter of containing talent and evil personalities seems remote, read the last month’s news from Beijing.

Don Juan, by the time we encounter him in Mozart’s version, has seduced more than 2,000 women and killed considerable numbers of their male relatives. The other personages in the opera, who represent all the estates of civil society, are powerless to stop him; he can outfight, or outwit, or (in the case of the women) seduce them. Finally the statue of one of his victims stops by for dinner and drags him to hell, which hardly is a solution. The remaining characters, noble, bourgeois and peasant, are as stupid and feckless as they were before.

By a quirk of programming, New York City this year saw three separate productions of the work, a pedestrian production at the Metropolitan Opera as well as student versions at the Julliard School and its smaller but more refined competitor, the Mannes College of Music.

And by one of those one-in-a-million confluences of talent and luck, the Mannes version under the baton of Joseph Colaneri came as close as possible to recreating the opera’s opening night in Prague two and a quarter centuries ago. After seeing scores of versions over half a century, I finally feel that I have heard the opera the way Mozart’s first-night audience did. Sadly, you cannot: the last of three Mannes performances occurred on May 6. Perhaps some philanthropist will sponsor a world tour.

Like an Old Master painting obscured by centuries of lacquer and dirt, Don Giovanni has become less accessible over time. Mozart draws caricatures in whom we should see ourselves. That demands an intimate setting rather than a steroidal modern opera house.

Mozart’s singers, moreover, were young – his first Don Giovanni was the 21-year-old Luigi Bassi, as young as Suchan Kim or Ricardo Rivera, who sang on alternate nights in the Mannes version. Young people take musical as well as dramatic risks, and Mozart requires risk. Don Giovanni, moreover, is an ensemble opera first and foremost: it is the interaction of the characters and their responses to each other that keeps the electricity flowing.

It demands chamber-music skills and subordination to the ensemble of a kind that the professional music world does not foster. Singing superstars are not paid to enhance the contributions of their colleagues, but rather to upstage them.

That, paradoxically, explains why Colaneri’s kindergarten did an incomparably better job than the Metropolitan Opera under the hapless Fabio Luisi earlier this year. Technical capacity no longer is a constraint among the top cut of music conservatories; Mannes’ opera program has become such a sure springboard for professional careers that the small school rejects a dozen opera applicants for each one it accepts.

To qualify for the Mannes orchestra, moreover, young instrumentalists must be able to play anything in the repertoire flawlessly. Colaneri asked the strings for preternatural articulation at speed, and they followed him enthusiastically. Mozart is in some ways the edgiest of composers, with more compressions and expansions of phrase, endless extensions and sudden halts, than any other: he twists time into knots, because he can, and enjoys doing so. I have never heard a reading so consonant with Mozart’s musical personality.

Colaneri conducts regularly at the Metropolitan Opera and other major venues (most recently he led the Met’s Tosca broadcast performance). But he has worked miracles with the Mannes opera program [1] that he built from a bare foundation over the past decade.

These young people are not ego-driven divas or orchestral players punching a clock, but his students, whose enthusiasm made them follow the maestro over musical torrents and abysses, without ever crashing once.

Such crashes happen all the time. At the opening night of the Met’s new production, [2] Fabio Luisi brought the strings into the Allegro section of the overture (measure 31) too fast; the Met players couldn’t keep up with him, and were unable to finish the phrase before the woodwinds answered at measure 38, such that the two choirs crashed into each other (James Levine, the Metropolitan Opera’s music director now sidelined by health problems, executes this perfectly at minute 1:40 in this version). [3] Conductorial mishaps abounded at the Met; the young Mannes players were nearly flawless by contrast.

The Met, to be sure, had bigger singers, but the cast was strong overall, and several of the young singers in the Mannes production should have big careers. I’ve waited half a century to hear the trill and appoggiatura executed correctly in measure 110 of Donna Anna’s aria “Non mi dir,” as Liana Guberman did. Adam Bonanni as Ottavio is a tenore di grazia who recalls Tito Schipa. As Giovanni, Ricardo Rivera combined a sinister magnetism with unerring vocal control.

This is the point at which the non-musical reader will interject, “And I am supposed to care because …?”

There is a reason that the Don Juan story dominated the Western imagination for 200 years, from his first appearance in the 1630 play Trickster of Seville by the Spanish monk Tirso de Molina, to his farewell tour in Lord Byron’s eponymous epic. Tirso, the descendant of Spanish Jews forcibly converted to Christianity, invented Juan as a theological paradox.

He is a brilliant and charming young man of the high nobility who happens to enjoy rape and murder. But he is a conventional Catholic who acknowledges the saving power of the Church and the attainability of salvation through the exercise of free will. “What a long time I have to pay it back!” is Juan’s refrain (“Que largo me lo fiais,” the play’s alternate title): he is young and has years left in which to rape and murder before he repents.

Don Juan is a Jewish joke, I argued in a recent essay for Tablet magazine:

Don Juan exists to prove by construction that a devout Christian can be a sociopath, and by extension, that the Christian world can be ruled by sociopaths. The Enlightenment’s most insidious attack on Catholic faith, then, came not from atheists like Voltaire, but from a Spanish monk with buried Jewish sensibilities.

A century and a half later, another converted Jew – Emmanuele Conegliano, known as Lorenzo da Ponte – reworked Tirso’s play as a libretto for Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and the result was an utterly unique work of art. It is pointless to argue about whether Don Giovanni is the best opera ever written, because it is a genre unto itself – the musical tragi-comedy, or “drama giocoso,” as Da Ponte put it. Mozart’s combination of tragic and comic elements turns the world inside out. From the first bars of the orchestra to the final note, we are unsure whether we should laugh, cry, or feel fear. If you don’t leave the theater confused, you haven’t been listening. [4]

We typically are entreated to regard Western civilization as a marble monument which we should contemplate in reverence. There are any number of marble monuments, to be sure, which one should contemplate in reverence, and some marvelous literature which presents the world in the orderly fashion – the Paradiso section of Dante’s Divine Comedy, for example, which manages to combine the highest sublimity of language with the utmost tediousness of content.

But the definitive works of Western civilization are the self-referential ones, which expose the flaws in the underlying structure, starting with plays of Sophocles written after Athens’ catastrophic defeat in the Peloponnesian War. Mozart does not ask you to sit back and contemplate Beauty: he pokes and pinches and tugs and teases, until he drags you into the midst of the comedy. It is a comedy, in that all of his characters deserve what they get; the tragedy is ours.

The trouble with Don Giovanni is that Mozart’s librettist, the witty Lorenzo da Ponte, bungled important elements of the original Don Juan story, following the example of other 18th century Italian versions. Giovanni murders the father of one of his (prospective) rape victims, Donna Anna.

At the opera’s conclusion the father’s statue demands that Giovanni repent, and Giovanni refuses in a last expression of churlishness. Rather than the orthodox but sociopathic Catholic of Tirso de Molina, da Ponte gives us an Enlightenment villain who refuses to bow to divine will out of sheer spite. Tirso’s Don Juan would have taken the statue’s deal in a heartbeat, since he is a believing Catholic. The theological paradox at the center of the comedy is obscured (if we can save ourselves by free will, then we can postpone our salvation by free will and continue to do unspeakably evil things in the meantime).

In Tirso’s original, what motivates Don Juan is not so much sex but evil. He enjoys killing the men as much as enjoys raping the women, and he gets as much pleasure by cheating prostitutes of their pay as he does by sleeping with them. Da Ponte too often reduces Tirso’s theologically-informed lampoon to the clowning of the Venetian commedia dell’arte, the stylized buffoonery of stock characters.

What Da Ponte confuses, though, Mozart clarifies in a musical score that illumines his characters more vividly than words can. The devil in Mozart lies in the details, though, and the effect of the whole depends on control of countless nuances. He is like a god – not the God, of course, but a god.

There are no minor characters in his work, because any person whom Mozart chooses to characterize is endowed with an entire world of musical detail. Thanks to Mozart we relive the travails of his dramatic personages more intensively. Tirso’s theological joke, in Mozart’s hands, takes shape in our senses and becomes experiential as well as intellectual.

Mozart allows us to relive our past, to get inside the lives of the people who made the West what it was, and, too often, what it should not have been. When the young singers of the Mannes Opera threw themselves into their roles, we were back in the Prague of 1787, hearing Mozart’s world through Mozart’s ears.

There is nothing reassuring about it: Mozart was a ruthless critic of his world, but masterful at bringing out the beauty even in the silliest and nastiest of situations. We shall never make sense of where we are without looking back at where we came from, and we rely on institutions like Mannes to maintain a fragile, living link to the past. Apart from the fact that the music-making was delightful, it is also indispensable.

1. See here.
2. See here.
3. See here. 4. See here.