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He Killed Her Father

He killed her father, right there in the street outside her house, at night. She was inside at the moment that it happened. No-one knew for sure who the murderer was because he was wearing a mask, and besides it was pitch dark.

When she found out, the grief erupted from her body in wild cries. It was too much to bear, and she fainted. Later, she vowed she would take revenge on whoever had committed the terrible act.

Now, some days or weeks later, she knows who did it, who it was that took a knife and cut him down without a second thought. With the help of two friends, she is going to a public event where she is sure she will be able to confront the murderer, unmask him before all the world for the ruthless man that he is.

And then, just before they enter the building and embark on the final mile of their struggle for justice, they pause, suddenly hesitant, filled with doubt and a little afraid, and ask the heavens to protect them and to avenge them:

If you haven't guessed already, I've just described the events in Mozart's opera Don Giovanni that lead Donna Anna to the masked ball at Don Giovanni's house, where with the help of her husband Don Ottavio and one of the Don's jilted conquests, Donna Elvira, she hopes to catch Don Giovanni in the act of seducing another woman. In the context of the scene, it's a remarkable moment, when Mozart pauses the action and shows these three characters in a moment of vulnerability. Opera is full of these times when the action of the drama is frozen, but often it's to provide space for a demonstration of coloratura skill, or other kinds of musical elaboration. Here, the time for action is suspended in a way that provides a nuanced shading of the characters' personality.

And the music that accompanies the words of the prayers shows in about 160 seconds the depth of expression that Mozart can squeeze out of simple musical ideas. (N.B. The following discussion of music is written by an amateur pianist who can read music, and a lifelong listener to Mozart's operas. I beg the forgiveness of any musicologists for any imprecision...)

Protegga il giusto cielo
Il zelo del mio cor
May just heaven protect
My determined heart
The structure is just basic tonic-dominant-return to the tonic harmony in the key of Bflat. The melody starts on the note of middle F with Donna Anna and Don Ottavio. After that, the melody moves between the main notes of a Bflat chord (B flat, D, F), with chromatic touches and simple five-note ascents and descents. In several key ways, Mozart makes this simple structure intriguing and compelling: the accompaniment is all wind instruments, no strings, a device that he often used when he wanted to pull on the heart strings; and the way he interweaves Donna Elvira's prayer between the vocal lines of Anna and Ottavio, who sing throughout separated by thirds. This again mirrors the dynamic of their relationships: Anna and Ottavio, the married couple, sing together; Ottavio's vocal line supports Anna's, just as in the action he acts as her support; Elvira's vocal line weaves in and out of the spaces between the other lines in a slightly jagged pattern, in keeping with her generally more agitated personality.

With Mozart, I think the effects comes from his idea of composition consisting of units of musical phrases, and how he constantly makes subtle alterations every other bar or every few bars to his "simple" ideas, so that the ear hears something regular and recognizable but also constantly changing. All these things are happening concurrently, in the music, the accompaniment, the suspension of time in the action, and the specific moment in the action of the play. They happen in ways that it takes time to unpack, though when you hear this music in context, all that usually happens is you surrender to the beauty of the music, the beauty of the moment, with tears running down your face. And then you scratch your head afterwards and wonder: how did something apparently so simple contain such deep wells of emotion?

For a more modern staging of this trio, I like this version, from the Aix-en-Provence festival in 2010. The pace is quite quick, but the singing is superb:

But my favourite recording is this one, recorded by a young Joan Sutherland in the 1950s.


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