• The Donna Anna Debate: A Thorough Analysis

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    For a while now, I’ve been meaning to write down my thoughts on Don Giovanni and its place in the standard repertoire in light of the #MeToo movement. But before I look at the opera as a whole, there’s one detail in it that deserves separate attention. That detail is the immortal question of Donna Anna: what happened between her and Don Giovanni at the beginning of Act I and how does she truly feel about him?


    Ink has been spilled on this subject for more than two centuries. Was Anna the innocent victim of sexual assault she claims to have been, or did she succumb to Giovanni’s charms? Does she truly despise Giovanni and love her fiancé Don Ottavio, or does she secretly love Giovanni? Writers, musicologists, stage directors and sopranos have made convincing cases for both sides of the argument.


    Therefore, I’ve decided to gather every argument and counter-argument I’ve ever read both for Anna’s guilt and her innocence. By comparing and contrasting those arguments with each other, we just might be able to decide once and for all which side we favor in the eternal debate.


    Guilty Anna Case #1: How did Don Giovanni get into Donna Anna’s suite?

    I’ve seem this argument made with the statement that Mozart and Da Ponte’s audience “would have known” that Anna willingly let the Don in. Why was her door not locked or guarded, or if we assume he climbed in through a window, why were its shutters unlocked? Where were Anna’s servants? How could the Don have entered the Commendatore’s house late at night in the first place, let alone the sheltered daughter’s suite, unless someone invited him?

    Innocent Anna Case #1: There are various ways he could have gotten in.

    He could have picked a lock, or somehow obtained the key. Anna’s own door would have probably been unlocked to give her servants easy access. The servants presumably were asleep and the Don has enough finesse not to wake them. Or, if any were awake and glimpsed him, in the dark they probably mistook him for Don Ottavio, like Anna herself claims she did at first. Ottavio does apparently live with them, probably as the Commendatore’s ward to secure their families’ alliance. Even if we assume that only Anna could have let Giovanni in, the aforementioned line of recitative can explain it: she mistook him at first for her fiancé.


    Guilty Anna Case #2: Anna’s claim that at first she mistook Don Giovanni for Don Ottavio is arguably doubtful.

    How, argue “Guilty Anna” advocates, could she ever have assumed that prim and proper Don Ottavio would visit her bedroom late at night? They insist she must be lying; she must have known she was welcoming in a stranger.

    Innocent Anna Case #2: The above is full of subjective interpretation.

    First of all, we shouldn’t assume the encounter happened in the bedroom. Anna describes the scene as having occurred in her “apartment” and in her “rooms.” Her suite would have included more than just a bedroom; the encounter might have taken place in a boudoir, where Don Ottavio could have easily paid a chaste call on her before going to bed. Secondly, who says Ottavio is a prude? Why should we assume that his correct and gentlemanly behavior means he would never have private nighttime trysts with his lover? Even if he would never aim for premarital sex, he might still come for kisses and words of love that would be “unseemly” in front of others. That’s not inherently out of character.


    Guilty Anna Case #3: If she screamed as much as she claims she did, then why don’t we hear it, and why wasn’t the household aroused right away?

    Her encounter with the Don is taking place offstage during Leporello’s opening aria, but we don’t hear any screams. Nor does the Commendatore come to her aid until she’s already chased the Don out into the garden. If her later description of her own screams were really accurate, wouldn’t he have been roused much more quickly? As for the household servants, they seem to sleep through it all and don’t arrive until the Don has already killed the Commendatore and escaped. If Anna had really been screaming, wouldn’t they have come sooner?

    Innocent Anna Case #3: 18th century librettos don’t aim for perfect realism.

    Realism on the stage wouldn’t come into vogue until the 19th century. Shakespeare never aimed for perfect realism either and his actors didn’t need to sing their parts. The Don tells Anna “You shout in vain!” during their struggle, and Leporello exclaims “Oh heavens, what shouting!” so we can assume that she is supposed to be making plenty of noise. Whether or not the household is roused with realistic speed was probably no concern of Da Ponte’s or Mozart’s.


    Guilty Anna Case #3: She isn’t running from Giovanni or chasing him away at their entrance – she’s clinging to him while he tries to escape from her. The first words she sings are that she’ll never let him flee.

    This is suspicious, without a doubt. It would have been easy for Da Ponte and Mozart to make Anna’s innocence clear by having her enter pursued by Giovanni, blatantly resisting his advances. But instead she enters clinging to his arm, declaring that she’ll never let him flee from her.

    Innocent Anna Case #3: Her purpose in doing so is clear – she wants to learn his identity and she wants him caught by her father and the servants, so he can be brought to justice.

    She repeatedly calls for help. Why would she do that if all she really wanted was to keep him with her?


    Guilty Anna Case #4: She calls Giovanni “the traitor” – not, say, “the rapist” or “the attacker,” but “the traitor.”

    Does this imply that the real source of her anger is his betraying her by trying to run off after taking her virginity?

    Innocent Anna Case #4: The male characters call him a “traitor” at different points throughout the opera too.

    Don Ottavio and Masetto both join the ladies in exclaiming “Traditore!” in the Act I finale, and in declaring that Giovanni “has betrayed me” in Act II. Yet I don’t see many critics reading homoerotic subtext into those lines. I’m no expert on 18th century Italian, but Da Ponte seems to use “traditore” and “perfido” to signify any betrayal of trust or decency, not just sexual infidelity.


    Guilty Anna Case #5: Her cries for the servants are written to be sung pianissimo: does this imply that her heart isn’t in them?

    Mozart could easily have written them to sound more like real screams. Why did he write them to be sung so softly? He might have meant to suggest that she’s just playing a good girl by calling half-heartedly for help.

    Innocent Anna Case #5: If she doesn’t really want the Don to be caught, then why does she call for help at all?

    This (and the “If she had really screamed, the household would have been roused sooner” theory) brings to mind that ugly old Biblical law that if a rape victim fails to cry out, she’ll be executed for fornication because a lack of screaming presumably means it wasn’t “really” rape. There are several reasons why Mozart might have written those notes pianissimo. Anna might be out of breath from chasing and struggling with the Don. The Don might be covering her mouth. “She doesn’t really want him to be caught” is far from the only explanation.


    Innocent Anna Case #6: She doesn’t know the Don’s identity in the first scene.

    Some modern production like to imply that Anna knows full well that Giovanni is her father’s killer, that their encounter was a part of a fully consensual love affair, and that her sudden, horrified “recognition” of him as the killer is just an act to hide her guilt from Ottavio. But this only works when the audience doesn’t speak Italian; it blatantly contradicts the text. As the Don tries to escape from her clutches in the first scene, he declares that she’ll never know who he is. This should make it clear that their encounter wasn’t a pre-arranged tryst and that the sudden, horrified recognition scene is genuine.

    Guilty Anna Case #6: This says nothing about her innocence: only that she wasn’t guilty in one specific way.

    True, it wasn’t a knowing tryst with Giovanni, but she still might have willingly succumbed to the “stranger’s” charms.


    Innocent Anna Case #7: Leporello thinks the Don forced himself on her.

    “Bravo!” he says in Act I. “Two fine undertakings! Force the daughter and butcher the father!” No one knows Don Giovanni better than Leporello does. If the Don’s aim was to seduce Anna into consensual sex, Leporello would know it, so if Leporello thinks he went into the house to rape her, why should we doubt him?

    Guilty Anna Case #7: Leporello might be wrong.

    This is the same character who asks “Who’s dead, you or the old man?” after Giovanni’s duel with the Commendatore. He’s less smart than he thinks he is. We shouldn’t assume Anna’s innocence just because he does.


    Innocent Anna Case #8: The Don avoids talking about his encounter with Anna and gets angry when Leporello taunts him about it.

    When Leporello sarcastically praises his double sin of raping the daughter and killing the father, Giovanni only says that the Commendatore “asked for it,” without mentioning Anna. Then, when Leporello asks if Anna “asked for it” too, the Don shuts him down with an angry threat. Why on earth would he react that way if Anna had willingly succumbed to his charms?

    Guilty Anna Case #8: “He failed” isn’t the only possible explanation.

    He might just be shaken by the act of killing the Commendatore and annoyed to hear his servant criticize him.


    Innocent Anna Case #9: Don Ottavio never doubts Anna’s innocence.

    No other character ever doubts Anna’s innocence. Donna Elvira, Zerlina and Masetto, admittedly, are probably too wrapped up in their own struggles with Giovanni to care either way, but Don Ottavio, to whom Anna’s innocence or guilt does matter, never doubts her story. He thinks she might be mistaken about who her assaulter was, but he never suspects her of lying.

    Guilty Anna Case #9: Don Ottavio is a bit naïve.

    This is the same man who doubts Anna’s judgment because he can’t believe a nobleman would be “capable” of attempted rape and murder. Just because he can’t see her guilt doesn’t mean we the audience can’t see it.


    Guilty Anna Case #10: Her narrative of the night her father died focuses more on her encounter with the Don than on her father’s death.

    Mightn’t this imply that her pain and anger really revolve not around her father’s death, but around her feelings for the Don?

    Innocent Anna Case #10: She didn’t see her father’s death, but we did.

    She knows no more about her father’s death than Ottavio does, and less than we do, since we saw it happen but she didn’t. Neither Ottavio nor we witnessed her sexual assault, though. It’s only natural for her to highlight the information that neither Ottavio nor we, the audience, know yet.


    Innocent Anna Case #11: Her recitative describing her near-rape is full of genuine tension and terror in the music.

    Mozart gives Anna a dramatic accompanied recitative to describe her assault, in which the music trembles, lurches, crescendos, screams and murmurs in terror. It vividly evokes every emotion Anna must have felt on that horrifying night.

    Guilty Anna Case #11: She might be a good actress, or else the music’s tension might represent her guilty conscience.

    Musical interpretation is subjective. Just look at how divided Mozart scholars are about the Queen of the Night’s Act I aria: whether it’s a real and moving expression of grief for her lost daughter, making her a sympathetic antagonist, or whether it’s pure melodramatic artifice to manipulate Tamino. Just because Anna’s recitative can be interpreted as a genuine memory of horror doesn’t preclude it from being read differently.


    Guilty Anna Case #12: Her musically drawn-out description of herself “turning, twisting and bending” in the Don’s arms feels distinctly erotic.

    It’s hard to deny the erotic vibe from those three words, especially with the way the music lingers over each of them.

    Innocent Anna Case #12: It might not have been intended as erotic.

    Mozart and Da Ponte might have genuinely just meant to depict Anna’s agonizing drawn-out struggle in those words.


    Guilty Anna Case #13: Her account includes one obvious untruth.

    “Il padre v’accorre, vuol conoscerlo.” She makes it sound as if her father simply tried to learn the Don’s identity, only for the Don to kill him in cold blood. But we know it didn’t happen that way. The Commendatore instantly demanded a duel, not even bothering to learn the Don’s identity, and the Don refused at first, finally killing him only in self-defense. Even though Anna ran off, she would have heard the beginning and heard her father demanding “Battiti meco!”

    Innocent Anna Case #13: One slightly faulty memory shouldn’t cast doubt on everything she says.

    Again, Anna ran off. She was terrified and frantic to get help. Why should we expect her to remember every world her father and the Don exchanged? Besides, it makes sense that a grieving daughter should paint her father’s actions in the noblest possible light and his killer’s actions in the worst. It doesn’t necessarily mean that nothing she says can be trusted.


    Guilty Anna Case #14: The Don would never give up a conquest so easily.

    Are we really supposed to believe that just because Anna broke away from his clutches, the Don would instantly give up and leave, as her account implies? But even if he did fail to have his way with her that night, then why doesn’t he keep pursuing her throughout the rest of the opera? Several critics have made this argument to question the truth of Anna’s narrative.

    Innocent Anna Case #14: The Don isn’t a fool.

    If we assume Anna really was vigorously resisting and screaming for help, the Don would probably have realized it wasn’t worth risking his life to keep trying. To say that he never gives up a conquest isn’t true. He gives up pursuing Zerlina after the Act I finale; he apparently gives up pursuing Donna Elvira’s maid after Masetto and the mob interrupt him. He knows when to stop for his own safety. Besides, he doesn’t necessarily lose interest in her. In the one scene where they interact before she identifies him as her assaulter, he assures her that “If I can serve you, I await you in my house.” Who can ignore that line’s innuendo, especially since its seductive tone leads directly to her recognizing him?


    Guilty Anna Case #15: How can Anna resist a man to whom hundreds of other women have surrendered?

    This is a good question. Why should she be uniquely immune to his charms?

    Innocent Anna Case #15: Who says the Don’s other conquests were all consensual?

    Leporello never says the conquests were all consensual. Who knows how many were achieved by rape?


    Innocent Anna Case #16: The Don tries to rape Zerlina in the Act I finale.

    This should put any claims of “He’s a seducer, not a rapist!” to rest. While dancing with Zerlina, he dances her offstage against her will, and moments later we hear her crying desperately for help. From this moment on, she switches from her previous blend of fear and attraction toward the Don to despising him and wanting him dead. There’s not much ambiguity about what happened offstage. If he could do it to Zerlina, he could do it to Anna.

    Guilty Anna Case #16: It might not have been a real rape attempt.

    We don’t know for sure what it was, since it takes place offstage. He might have just vigorously renewed his seduction efforts. He might have just tried to force a kiss on Zerlina, or kissed her in an inappropriate spot on her body. This might not fully justify her murderous loathing for him afterwards, but it’s still possible that it wasn’t a full-fledged rape attempt.


    Guilty Anna Case #17: Anna rejects Don Ottavio throughout the opera.

    This is possibly the strongest argument for her guilt. After finding her father’s body, when she revives from her faint, her response to Ottavio’s first attempt to console her is to furiously repulse him: “Fuggi, crudele, fuggi!” Yes, straight afterwards she apologizes and implies that in her wild grief she didn’t recognize him, but is that true? His further attempts to console her in the same duet are ignored. Later, as they enter Act II, Ottavio’s musically warm and bright urging for Anna to dry her tears is met with an abrupt, gloomily dismissive key change as she sings that only death will end her grief. After this, their next and last two interactions both consist of Anna insisting that they delay their marriage until she’s sufficiently mourned her father. Combined with the other evidence, this recurring theme does feel suspicious. Why does she shove aside the man she supposedly loves, while fixating, however negatively, on her assaulter?

    Innocent Anna Case #17: She doesn’t reject Ottavio, she rejects his attempts to console her.

    The whole opera takes place over the course of one day – the first day after Anna’s dual trauma of sexual assault and her father’s brutal death. It’s completely and utterly natural that she should be inconsolable. And that she wouldn’t dream of getting married tomorrow when her father was killed yesterday. This has nothing to do with her feelings for Ottavio… who, by the way, seems to expect her to move on more quickly than is humanly possible. Well though he means, his attempts to console her consist of almost everything today’s professional grief counselors instruct people not to say: “Don’t cry,” “Don’t think about it,” “ “He wouldn’t want you to grieve,” “It was heaven’s will,” etc. Why should we assume that when these naively insensitive platitudes fail to comfort Anna, it reflects badly on her, or that if she really loved Ottavio, he could heal her grief and trauma in one day?


    Guilty Anna Case #18: The music of “Non mi dir” is arguably cold, with both text and score turning utterly self-absorbed by the end.

    If “Non mi dir” were supposed to express genuine love and tenderness toward Ottavio, some critics argue, then where is the musical warmth and sweetness of Countess Almaviva’s “Porgi amor” and “Dove sono” in Figaro, or other Mozartian love arias for soprano? Where is the passion heard in Donna Elvira’s conflicted “Mi tradi” or the free and easy tenderness of Zerlina’s “Vedrai, carino”? Why, in an aria supposedly meant to reassure Ottavio, does Anna sing “Perhaps someday the heavens will take pity on me” in the end, not “on us”? Why does Mozart turn that phrase into a cabaletta with a diva-like showcase of glittering coloratura? How are we supposed to believe she loves Ottavio when her aria’s final bars are all about “me, me, me” with a side of “Listen to my vocal gymnastics”?

    Innocent Anna Case #18: Musical interpretation is subjective.

    Again, think of the different scholarly views of the Queen of the Night’s Act I aria: the “genuine grief” argument and the “manipulative artifice” argument have both been made with equal persuasiveness. The idea that “Non me dir” is a cold-sounding aria is completely subjective; just because Anna’s tenderness sounds different from other Mozart heroines’ (who all express love in ways different from each other too) doesn’t mean it’s not real tenderness. Other musicologists have noted the music’s bright, limpid character, so different from any of Anna’s previous music, and taken it as a sign that Anna is healing and drawing closer to Ottavio. René Jacobs, for example, cites the final coloratura showcase as pure optimism in music, a promise of future wedded bliss. As for why she looks forward to heaven taking pity on “me” instead of “us” – well, she’s the one who’s faced trauma and loss. Ottavio’s romantic frustration can’t compare to what she’s been through.


    Guilty Anna Case #19: She ends the opera by putting off her marriage to Ottavio for a year.

    This is the note her role ends on. Rejecting Ottavio again with the claim that her heart needs time to “heal.” Heal from exactly what, we might wonder?

    Innocent Anna Case #19: Her harmonization with Ottavio in the end suggests perfect accord.

    Their final solo phrases consist of the same words and their melodic lines entwine and blend together perfectly, ending with their singing in in unison. Both agree that a true lover will yield to his or her beloved’s wishes: Ottavio will let Anna mourn for a year, and Anna will marry him when her mourning is done. Their joint last word before the final ensemble is “amor,” sung to and about each other.


    Guilty Anna Case #20: Donna Elvira loves Giovanni and Zerlina almost runs off with him too. Doesn’t it make more sense for all three ladies to love him in different ways than for one to be an outlier?

    Since Don Giovanni is the ultimate seducer and betrayer, who inspires extremes of both love and hate in women, doesn’t it make sense that he should inspire a combination of love and hate in all three of the female characters? Doesn’t this arguably make more sense than for Anna to only hate him?

    Innocent Anna Case #20: The contrast between Anna’s hatred for Giovanni and the other two ladies’ ambivalent feelings is arguably important.

    Zerlina is a comic character. It makes sense that she be the most lightheartedly ambivalent about the Don. Elvira is a mezzo carattere – her struggle between rage and passion for Giovanni has both comic and serious elements. Anna is an opera seria heroine. She’s a fully aristocratic figure with no comic aspects, so doesn’t it make sense that her emotions be the purest and most uncomplicated of the three? Besides, each has a different experience with the Don. Elvira, who loves him the most, was only seduced, never assaulted; Zerlina’s experience starts out as a pleasant seduction and only later becomes assault, and her feelings for the Don change accordingly; but Anna, if we believe her, was only assaulted, not seduced, and of course the Don killed her father too. But even if we overlook all these factors, women aren’t a monolith. Just because two out of three women succumb to Giovanni’s charms doesn’t mean the third inevitably will too.


    So based on all this evidence, do I personally believe in Donna Anna’s innocence or her guilt?


    I think it’s impossible to say for sure. Mozart and Da Ponte weren’t modern feminists, as much as we might wish they were, and some of the evidence for Anna’s guilt is compelling: particularly her entrance clinging to Giovanni’s arm as he tries to escape from her and her emotional distance from Ottavio throughout. But the case for her innocence is compelling too, especially since no other characters, not even Giovanni’s own servant, doubt her innocence. So I have no patience for any claims that she “must” be guilty. All too often, the arguments for her guilt and dishonesty sound like the kind of unfair doubts that real-world sexual assault victims face. “Why did no one hear her scream?” “One detail in her account was inaccurate, so how can we trust any of it?” “Maybe she’s just an angry scorned lover,” etc.


    In the end, my conclusion is this: both interpretations are possible and valid, but it’s perfectly reasonable to treat Anna’s innocence as the “default” interpretation of her role. If someone were to travel back in time and learn that Mozart and Da Ponte did view her as guilty, I’d accept it, but the sheer eagerness of so many critics, scholars and stage directors to treat her as guilty should be questioned. Especially in light of today’s evolving views on gender relations, both in fiction and in real life.

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