A Night at the Opera
One April evening, Colonel Brandon took his wife to the opera at the King's Theatre, in Haymarket Street. They made an admirable couple: he was a fine-looking man of 54, with thick, dark hair beginning to show a little grey, and a soldier's bearing; she was a confident woman of 36, simply and elegantly dressed, with a lovely face and slim figure.
They had come to the first London production of Mozart's opera, Don Giovanni. Years earlier, they had wooed each other with some of its beloved music, but Marianne had never heard the opera performed. At the same theater ten years before their marriage, Brandon had heard the famous soprano Nancy Storace and the original Figaro perform selections from The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni. Brandon had never forgotten that enchanting concert and had told Marianne all about it.
Marianne's eyes sparkled in anticipation as the orchestra began the overture.
The curtain rose on a scene in Seville. When Don Giovanni tried to seduce a lady, Donna Anna, her father challenged him and was killed. Anna made her fiance, Don Ottavio, swear to avenge her father's death. When Donna Elvira, one of Giovanni's discarded lovers, heard his servant, Leporello, cataloguing his master's 2,064 sexual conquests, she too swore vengeance, though she was still half in love with Giovanni.
Next, Don Giovanni and Leporello came upon a peasant wedding; Giovanni tried to seduce the young bride, Zerlina, and they sang the famous seduction duet that had enlivened the Brandons' courtship. Elvira intervened and Anna, coming on the scene, recognized her father's killer. Leporello invited Zerlina and her jealous bridegroom to a party that his master was giving; three masked guests were also admitted -- of course, they were Elvira, Anna and Ottavio. At the party, Giovanni sang a rousing song praising his guiding principle, liberty, and he flirted again with Zerlina. They slipped out of the ballroom together, but when she screamed off stage, everyone denounced Giovanni, who escaped as the curtain came down.
At the interval, Marianne spied someone she thought she knew. "James, could that be Willoughby? But he's not with Mrs. Willoughby. That woman is much younger."
She pointed out a well-dressed man of about 45 with a dissolute's worn, florid face. Clinging to him was a coquettish-looking woman whose giggles could be heard across a room.
"I have not seen him in twenty years, Marianne, but I recognize him. I have heard that he and his wife lead separate lives, each carrying on discreet affairs, though his are less discreet."
"James, I want to greet him in public while he is with that woman -- you know why. I want to make him acknowledge that you are my husband and we are happily married and have been so these many years. Will you come with me?"
"Of course, my dear. But --, are you sure you want to?"
"I'm sure. I don't often think of him, but all those years ago he hurt me so badly and afterwards came to apologize to my sister for his conduct toward me, by saying he hated you. I've never forgiven him for that. I would never have sought him out, but here he is."
Arm in arm, they crossed the room to where Willoughby was standing with his companion. Marianne dropped him a curtsey and offered him her free hand. "Good evening, Mr. Willoughby. I believe you recall my husband, Colonel Brandon. You and I have not seen each other for many years. I believe it was at a party, the year before I was married. And I hope that Mrs. Willoughby, whom I saw at that time, is well."
Brandon made a small bow, retaining his wife's hand in the crook of his arm. Joining in her game, he said, "Mr. Willoughby. I believe we last met nearly twenty years ago, but I remember the occasion well. Perhaps you recall it also."
Willoughby blanched but bowed politely as he took Marianne's proffered hand. She immediately withdrew it and placed it in Brandon's. Without acknowledging Brandon directly, Willoughby stammered, "I --, I never -- that is to say, I am surprised -- pleased -- to meet you both again, after all these years. I -- did not expect to meet you again. I hope you have been well, -- and may I introduce my friend, Mrs. Lacey. And yes, thank you, my wife is well. She --, I believe she may be with a friend this evening."
"Thank you, Mr. Willoughby, for your kind wishes," Marianne said. "As you see, we are both very well, as we always are when together. Please convey my kind regards to Mrs. Willoughby. I believe she may remember me." And with that, the Brandons bowed and returned to their box.
Flushed with triumph, Marianne clasped her husband's hand and said, "Thank you, James. I can hardly tell you how much satisfaction that gave me just now."
"It was my pleasure, Marianne. Truly. I tried to dominate him once, and I believe I did so. But I did not feel as much satisfaction then as I did just now, watching you confront him. I can never forget how miserable he once made you."
"James, he sees that I am happy with you, and that you are a man any woman would be fortunate to love. That's all I wanted."
As they settled down for the second act, they saw that Willoughby and his companion had left.
Brandon and Marianne found they had to explain to each other the amusing opening scene of the second act. Giovanni and Leporello exchanged clothes and pretended to be each other so that the real Giovanni could try to seduce Elvira's maid as Leporello, while Leporello pretended to be Giovanni courting Elvira. Leporello had to evade Elvira, who thought she was pursuing Giovanni.
Giovanni and Leporello both escaped into the graveyard, where they found the murdered father's funeral statue. Giovanni made the terrified Leporello invite the statue to dinner and, in a sepulchral voice, it accepted.
Giovanni was already dining when the stone guest arrived. Giovanni insolently invited it to eat, but the statue refused mortal nourishment and commanded Giovanni to repent. When he refused, the statue demanded his hand; in a show of bravery, Giovanni grasped the statue's hand and was dragged, screaming, down to hell, as the music suggested flames or demons.
In the final scene, the six surviving characters sang a triumphal chorus in which they drew the moral that goodness is rewarded but the wicked are punished as they deserve.
Afterwards, the Brandons lingered in the theater, talking with friendly strangers about the opera; it seemed no one wanted to go home. At last, the Brandons decided to walk toward the Middletons' house, where they were staying, and to take a cab if they tired of walking.
Marianne said she perceived some parallels between the opera story and their own lives. "I was like Zerlina -- we both were nearly seduced by an amoral man whose appeal lay in his charm, persuasiveness, ease in society and seeming goodness. Don Giovanni didn't seduce all those two thousand women by force, but by overcoming their judgment, their self restraint and sense of self preservation -- by exciting them. I was excited."
"And perhaps I was like Don Ottavio," said Brandon, "an earnest stick, in love but ineffectual and boring -- not at all like the Great Seducer."
"Oh no, James. I might have thought so once, but not after knowing you as you really are. But what you do have in common with Don Ottavio is that you are patient and faithful and," she said with a smile, "you sing as beautifully as he does."
Brandon acknowledged his wife's compliments with a kiss.
"And what about Willoughby, is he the Great Seducer? Don Giovanni is immensely appealing, not only to his thousands of conquests, but also to audiences of both sexes -- I noticed that this evening. He's rich and powerful, but his personal qualities are what so attract -- his wit, his self confidence, the way he flouts social restrictions and values personal liberty, his bravery. Many men would like to see themselves that way, and I have no doubt that women are attracted by those qualities too. And until the statue comes knocking at his door, Don Giovanni seems certain to get away with it all, despite the efforts of the good people trying to bring him to justice. But of course, he invites his own destruction, and his appalling fate ultimately satisfies our desire for an orderly, moral world. What do you think -- isn't Willoughby like him?"
"No, James. I saw that tonight. Willoughby is no anti-hero like Don Giovanni. Giovanni gave the statue his hand, but Willoughby runs away. This evening he could not stay in the same room with two people he has so wronged and who reminded him of three others whom he has also wronged -- Eliza, his child by her, and his own wife. He has always been a coward -- didn't I tell you that he announced his engagement by writing me an insulting letter that his fiance had dictated? He couldn't even write his own letter!
"And he sold himself into a loveless marriage! I'm sure he justified submitting to his wife's spiteful whims because he needed her money, until his aunt forgave him and guaranteed him his inheritance as soon as he announced his engagement. When he found that the entire transaction had probably been unnecessary, it was too late to withdraw.
"And I have no doubt that even now he and his wife know how far each can go -- I'm sure if either embarrassed or inconvenienced the other too much, the newspapers would be full of a scandal. He can't afford to disregard social limits openly, as Don Giovanni did."
"Marianne, your worldliness astonishes me!"
"James," Marianne said laughingly, "do you imagine that only men read the newspapers and gossip about what they read and hear? I didn't need Mozart to instruct me!"
By this time they were in sight of their doorstep. They drew each other into a shadowed doorway to savor a last embrace before breaking the evening's spell by entering the Middletons' well-lit house.
"I much prefer you to any other hero or villain -- fictional or real!" whispered Marianne.
"I'm glad you do," he replied, and sealed his reply with another kiss.
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