Cities are intriguing for a variety of reasons. We can all think of cities we have visited that
have captured our imaginations because of architecture or natural beauty or historical
associations or romantic interludes or some combination of all of these.
AN INTRIGUING CITY
David Willard Maher
Delivered to the Chicago Literary Club
February 8, 1999
The city that I am talking about this evening appears to me uniquely intriguing. The city is
Sevilla (or Seville) in Spain. It has provided the name for an automobile, but I am not going to
pursue that. It is certainly a tourist attraction of the first rank. (Those of you who have stayed at
the Alfonso XIII and have visited the churches and museums would certainly agree.) But Seville
has one more distinction - it is the setting for three stories that have provided the basis for some
of the greatest operas of all time.
These stories are, first, Don Juan, a legend probably first written down by Tirso de
Molina in 1630 under the title, El burlador de Sevilla; second, the story of Figaro, made
Beaumarchais' s two comedies, Le Barbier de Seville in 1775 and Le Mariage de
Figaro in 1784,
and third, the story of the gypsy girl, Carmen, from Prosper Merimee's novella of that name in
Attempting a list of all the operas that have been based on these stories, or at least the
first two, would consume too much of this evening, but the operas currently in the repertoire of
major companies include:
Don Giovanni, with music by Mozart and libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte
I know you are familiar with the stories of these operas, but a brief review might be in
Il Nozze de Figaro with music by Mozart and libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte
Il Barbiere di Siviglia with music by Rossini and libretto by Sterbini
Carmen with music by Bizet and libretto by Meilhac and Halevy
Don Giovanni was labeled by Mozart a "dramma giocosa", or comic drama, a phrase
used for no other opera. The opera opens in a palace in Seville with Don Giovanni running out of
the bedchamber of Donna Anna, whom he has apparently been attempting to seduce. Her cries
have awakened her father, the Commendatore, who attacks the Don. In a brief duel, the
Commendatore is fatally wounded. The Don escapes with his servant Leporello. Donna Anna's
betrothed, Don Ottavio, appears, attempts to comfort Donna Anna and promises to avenge the
death of the Commendatore . Don Giovanni, having escaped successfully, comes upon Donna
Elvira, whom he has seduced in the city of Burgos. She furiously recounts the tale of his
wickedness, but the Don again makes his escape, leaving Leporello to tell her that she is not the
first to have been so mistreated by his master. "ma in Ispagna, gia mille e tre". In Spain, already
one thousand and three. The Don meanwhile is attempting the seduction of a servant girl, Zerlina,
whom he has found with her husband-to-be, Masetto. This seduction is foiled by the
reappearance of Donna Elvira. Never a shrinking violet, the Don throws a large and festive party
for Zerlina (the servant girl) and Masetto. The party is unusual in its all-encompassing guest list.
In the Don's own words, "it's open to all" and "viva la liberta", which must have sounded
radical in Prague in 1787. The Don again attempts the seduction of Zerlina, but it is foiled by her
resistance, and the party ends with the Don fleeing for his life.
At the beginning of the second act, the Don is attempting the seduction of Donna Elvira's
maid. This too fails, and after some further action, the Don meets his servant, Leporello in front of
the stone statue of the Commendatore, the man he had killed in the opera's opening. The statue
speaks to him, and the Don, showing that he has no fear, invites the stone statue to dinner, which
he accepts. The dinner is the penultimate scene; the Don greets his guest and takes his hand.
The Don is then dragged down to hell in one of the most dramatic scenes ever created for opera.
A final sextet follows, sung by the survivors. It comments on this terrifying end to the Don's life
and ties up the loose ends - Leporello sings that he will go off in search of a better master; Donna
Elvira promises to go to a convent, Don Ottavio wants to marry Donna Anna immediately to
assuage her grief at the death of her father; she sings "maybe in about a year"; Zerlina and
Masetto head off to married life.
Mozart's Nozze di Figaro is based on the second part of the story that Beaumarchais told
in his two original plays about Figaro. This makes Rossini's Barbiere a "prequel" in Hollywood
parlance. Rossini's opera appeared later than Mozart's, but it tells a story that precedes the action
of Mozart's earlier opera. Mozart's Nozze opens in Count Almaviva' s palace in Seville where the
two servants, Figaro and Susanna, who are about to get married, are happily planning the
wedding. They are also celebrating Count Almaviva's public declaration that he will no longer
claim the feudal "droit de seigneur", the right of the lord of the manor to spend the first night with
any bride in his domain. The Count, however, has not given up his roving eye, and he has his eye
on Susanna. The Countess, aware of this, is not happy and schemes with Susanna to trick the
Count and embarrass him so that he will be faithful to his Countess. A sub-plot involves the page,
Cherubino, a young man whose role in the opera is sung by a woman. As part of the goings-on,
Cherubino is stripped of his masculine attire and is dressed by Susanna and the Countess as a
woman, in what must be one of the high water marks of operatic gender confusion. Later in the
story, Figaro is nearly forced to give up marrying Susanna because he cannot repay a debt he
owes to an older woman, Marcellina, but it turns out that she is his mother. The trick set up by
Susanna and the Countess is played out. The Count is exposed as a bumbling would be
adulterer who thereupon promises to remain ever faithful to the Countess, while Figaro and
Susanna are happily married and Cherubino gets to marry his young inamorata.
Rossini's Barbiere di Siviglia tells the first half of the Figaro story. In the opening scene,
the youthful and as yet unmarried Count Almaviva is serenading under the window of a beautiful
young woman, Rosina, whom he has seen but never met. His serenade produces no immediate
results, but he then finds an ally, the barber, Figaro, whom he has known previously. It develops
that Rosina is the ward of Dr. Bartolo, who is anxious to marry her and get control of her fortune.
Dr.Bartolo vainly takes what steps he can to keep his ward from contact with other suitors, but
Count, operating under a pseudonym, plots with Figaro, who is a master at cooking up schemes,
to get into the house. Once inside the house, the plot thickens, with mistaken identities and a
generally disrespectful attitude towards established authority and the mores of the aristocracy.
The opera ends happily, with Count Almaviva marrying Rosina, making her his Countess. The
Count gives her dowry to Dr. Bartolo, placating him for the loss of his ward.
Bizet's Carmen moves us to a later period in Seville's history. The tobacco factory,
still stands and serves as the campus of the University of Seville, was opened in 1757. The story
is set in the early 19th century. It opens with Micaela, a young peasant girl, looking for her
betrothed, Don Jose, a corporal in the guard unit at the factory. He is elsewhere on duty, and
Micaela leaves. Carmen appears with the other cigarette girls and is arrested for an alleged
attack on another of her coworkers. Don Jose is assigned to be her guard, but she inveigles him
into allowing her to escape, resulting in his arrest. In the second act, Don Jose has fallen in love
with Carmen, who manages to get him into even deeper trouble. The two of them head off to a
life with a band of smugglers, singing of the joys of liberty and freedom. The third act is set in the
smugglers' mountain hideout outside Seville. A famous toreador, Escamillo, shows up and
promptly gets into a knife fight with the jealous Don Jose. This is broken up by the gypsies, but
Don Jose is compelled to leave because Micaela has brought news of the illness of Don Jose's
mother. Escamillo takes advantage of his departure and persuades Carmen and her friends to
come back to Seville to see the bull fight. In the final act, Escamillo takes Carmen in his carriage
to the bull ring. While he goes in, she remains outside waiting for Don Jose, having heard that he
will show up. He does and pleads his case unsuccessfully, since Carmen is now in love with
Escamillo. As Escamillo triumphs in the bull ring, Don Jose draws his knife, fatally stabs Carmen,
and falls on her body, singing "O Carmen, my adored Carmen".
In these thumbnail sketches of the four operas, I have omitted many plot elements that
are memorable from an operatic standpoint. The point I am making is that these four operas have
something in common in addition to being set in Seville. They are profoundly subversive, both
politically and sexually. Remember that Don Giovanni in 1787 shortly predates the French
Revolution. Also, Mozart and Da Ponte had considerable difficulty in persuading the authorities
allow the production of Il Nozze di Figaro for the very good reason that the authorities knew
the message was, and it was not supportive of the Habsburgs. Carmen was a liberated woman
before her time, and the opera was considered indecent when first performed in Paris.
But what was it about Seville that led all of these Italian, Austrian and French creative
geniuses to turn to a Spanish city for the setting of their subversive tales? This question has
intrigued me for years, and I finally decided that I would attempt to find an answer. I'm not sure
there is a satisfactory answer but I hope you will agree that it is an interesting
None of Mozart, Rossini or Bizet, or any of their librettists, are known to have visited
Seville, but they all found, over a period of more than a century, that Seville provided a setting
appropriate for their great artistic works.
Seville is intrinsically an interesting place. Set on the banks of the Guadalquivir River in
Andalusia in southwestern Spain, it has been an important port at least since about 900 B.C.,
when Phoenician traders came up stream and found a settlement of the indigenous people. A
prosperous trading village flourished until 257 B.C., when the Carthaginians arrived. Unlike the
Phoenicians, the Carthaginians were not welcomed, and native resistance continued until the last
decade of the third century B.C., when the city was burned and razed to the ground. The stability
and security of the Pax Romana arrived in 206 B.C. after the defeat of Carthage. Scipio Africanus
moved in with his legions and named the settlement Italica. In 45 B.C., Julius Caesar renamed it
Julia Romula, and a period of prosperity returned. The Vandals and then the Visigoths upset all
this in the fifth century A.D., but the city continued to be an important center of trade and culture.
One of the leading lights of early medieval Christianity was St.Isidore of Seville, a famous sixth
Century bishop and encyclopaedist, recently named patron saint of the Internet.
In 711, the Arabs, mostly of Yemeni origin, arrived, introducing another era of stability
which lasted until 844, when the Vikings sailed up the Guadalquivir. The Vikings took their
customary liberties with the city and its citizens, but did not stay permanently, and by 900 the city
became known as Seville (or Ixbilya in Arabic), and took its place as one of the most important
cities in the Caliphate of Cordoba which itself was one of the wealthiest and most cultivated
states in the world at that time. Arab dominance began to waiver in the eleventh century, when
Toledo fell to the Castilians in 1085, although for a century and a half after that date, Seville
continued to live under Muslim domination. The shifting fortunes of the Arab rulers led to a
of control by the African Almorivades, but under all of these Arab reigns, the city was enlarged
and beautified. Some of the mosques survive to this day.
On November 23, 1248, Ferdinand III, leading the Castilian army, and aided by the
Castilian navy which came up the Guadalquivir, expelled the Moorish rulers after a two year
siege. At this time, a repopulating occurred, with many of the Muslim inhabitants fleeing and
Castilians moving in to replace them.
The thirteenth and fourteenth centuries saw further growth and the conversion of the
mosques into the Christian churches we see today. Economic problems surfaced with the
conflicts between aristocratic families and the craftsmen and merchants, many of Jewish origin. In
1481, the first tribunal of the Inquisition was set up. On a more positive note, on Palm Sunday in
1493, Christopher Columbus returned in triumph from the New World, bringing with him Indians,
plants and birds to capture the imagination of all of Europe. In 1503, Seville was awarded the
monopoly of commerce with the Americas. Magellan's fleet, the first to circumnavigate the globe,
set forth from the city in 1519.
The peak of Seville's power and wealth came in the sixteenth and first half of the
seventeenth centuries. Zurburan, Velazquez and Murillo all lived and worked there, and
Cervantes, while a prisoner in Seville, began writing Don Quixote. However, a terrible plague
carried off half the population in the middle of the seventeenth century, and by the eighteenth
century, the Guadalquivir silted up and economic decadence had set in. There was decadence in
other respects. In 1726, women bathing in the river Guadalquivir were excommunicated by the
archbishop, and in 1757, the Fabrica de Tabacos (later to be Carmen's place of work) opened.
In the early eighteenth century, the ruling Habsburg kings of Spain were replaced by the
Bourbons, following the Wars of the Spanish Succession. Spain lost control of the Netherlands
and its place as a great world power.
For two years, 1810 until 1812, the French troops of Napoleon occupied the city. In 1847,
the Spanish railway system reached the city, and its modern history began.
The two centuries after Columbus' triumphal return appear to have set the tone of
Seville's reputation as a wealthy and somewhat mysterious city. This reputation was enhanced by
its physical location - at the far western and southern end of European civilization - the outpost,
the jumping off place, the port where the riches of the Americas were first landed.
Casanova, writing in the late 18th Century, addressed the question why the Don Juan
legend had originated in Spain:
"both men and women are subject to passions and desires as keen as the air they
breathe....The women are very pretty, burning with desires, and all ready to lend a hand
in schemes intended to deceive all those who surround them to spy on their doings. The
lover who most boldly faces and defies dangers is the one they prefer to all those who
are timid, respectful, guarded. Their coquetry makes them want to keep them, but at
bottom they despise them. In the public walks, in churches, at the theaters, they appeal
with their eyes to those to whom they wish to speak, possessing that seductive language
to perfection: if the man, who must understand it, can seize the occasion and take
advantage of it, he is sure to be successful; he need not expect the slightest resistance; if
he neglects the opportunity or does not profit by it, it is not offered him again."
On the other hand, Seville's reputation was not all good. A recent book on the
Reformation and its aftermath describes Seville in the following less than flattering manner:
"The confraternity that endowed and kept [the famous Hospital de la Caridad] in late
seventeenth-century Seville was a rich and aristocratic club with a waiting-list for
membership that could run into years. But the city in which it operated was an
impoverished and decaying wen, plague-stricken, crime-ridden; a ‘Thieves’ Babylon’
where the unburied dead stank in the streets, a sin-city where the theatres were shut in
expiation of the citizens’ cry for penance.
The renowned stories set in Seville, that is, Don Juan, the Barber and Carmen, paint a
more complex picture.
Taking them in order historically, Don Juan is now thought to have been part of the local
folk lore, when, in 1630, Tirso de Molina is credited with the first publication of the legend under
the title, El Burlador de Sevilla. Since then, it is estimated that there have been over one
thousand seven hundred retellings of the story. The story has become the subject of "myth-
criticism", exercises by modern critics who seek reductively to find the Platonic essence of the
A recent book on the Don Juan legend, Byron's Don Juan and the Don Juan Legend, by
Moyra Haslett , points out that attempts to confine the myth to a single canonical form are
misguided. The legend has many forms, and its enormous appeal to authors and composers
stems at least in part from its adaptability. For example, Byron's Don Juan has been described by
another modern critic as a hero "who is gentle, tender-hearted and, although amorous, forever
being seduced by women rather than seducing, with none of the traits of his treacherous
archetype." Haslett points out the error of this view. She analyzes Byron's approach and
contrasts it with other retellings of the legend, including Mozart's and Da Ponte's. Their Don
Giovanni "has enjoyed a particularly diverse stage history." In Germany, the opera was turned
into a singspiel, a play with interpolated arias. Most nineteenth century productions omitted the
final sextet because it detracted from the supposed moral lesson of the Don being dragged to
Hell. In other productions, new finales were introduced. "In one Victorian production, Donna
sang 'Non mi dir' kneeling in prayer while Don Giovanni died with his house collapsing around
him like Valhalla".
In the twentieth century, "fair Nordic womanhood" (Rethberg or Schwarzkopf) was
sometimes seduced by dark, lustful Latin manhood (Cesare Siepi). From another vantage point,
Peter Sellar's famous, or infamous, television production was set in the slums of the Bronx with
the Don shooting up heroin. Another, and I would say more successful, film version is set among
Palladian villas in the Veneto and retells the story from a Marxist viewpoint.
Claude Levi-Strauss also opposed attempts to confine the Don Juan myth to a single
supposedly pure version: "We define the myth as consisting of all its versions; or to put it
otherwise, a myth remains the same as long as it is felt as such . . ." From this standpoint, we
see the importance of connecting the Mozart-Da Ponte retelling of Don Juan to the other
versions. Don Juan was never just a moral tale. The final sextet does not contradict the legend; it
provides commentary which the audience may reflect upon as they bring their own beliefs,
prejudices and preconceptions to the story of the ultimate seducer. Mozart's subtitle, a dramma
giocosa, makes a good deal more sense in this context.
The political and sexual implications of Don Juan are extremely complex. Politically, Don
Juan, like Count Almaviva in the Figaro stories, does not reflect credit on the ancient but then
expiring feudal remnants of governance. When Mozart was composing, the French Revolution
was just around the corner, and Rossini's Barbiere was first performed in Rome in 1816. The
political handwriting was already on the wall.
From the standpoint of sexual morality, Don Juan invokes a whole panoply of views on
the hero's behavior. Moliere's theatrical Dom Juan was a great popular success in Paris in 1665,
but had to be withdrawn after pamphlets appeared attacking its immorality. It was clear even then
that the drama, and especially the humor, was "seductively subversive of the plot's apparent
message." An anti-Moliere pamphleteer in Paris in 1665 put it this way:
"Who can endure the boldness of a clown who makes a joke of religion, who preaches
libertinism, and who makes the majesty of God fair game on stage for a master and a
servant - for an atheist who laughs at it, and for a servant, even more impious than his
master, who makes the audience laugh at it?"
Byron, in portraying his hero, Don Juan, ostensibly as a romantic youth seduced by
women, used puns, innuendo and allusion to provoke reaction from his readers. They responded
as he intended. Some found it a moral tale, others found it repugnant and further proof of the
corruption of the aristocracy. (Lord Byron's life, of course, provided ample evidence of the
rot of the ruling classes.)
The genius of Bryon is intriguingly parallel to that of Mozart's librettist, Da Ponte. Both of
them put the audience in a terrible double bind. In Byron's Don Juan, you are ostensibly urged to
view the hero as the innocent youth pursued by lascivious women, but at the same time innuendo
suggests that he is not so innocent. If you react to the innuendo, it means that you have a dirty
mind. As for Don Giovanni, you are supposed to react with horror to the crimes of this terrible
person and to rejoice in his punishment, but at the same time you probably admire his talent.
Perhaps you are willing to give him the benefit of a doubt; after all it takes two to tango, as we
say. But this just makes you an accomplice in his crimes. Either you are being prudish, or, again,
you have a dirty mind. In the story of Figaro, there is a sexual ambivalence in Cherubino, and
then, in Byron's Don Juan, we see a youthful androgyny that is strikingly similar. The city of
Seville seems to have had the reputation of being a place where these notions could flourish. Its
citizens alternated between the joys of the flesh and serious Catholic guilt. It was a city of easy
virtue, but it would punish itself from time to time for its sins.
There is an interesting more general political connection to the sexual politics of Don
Juan. The objection to a supposedly moral tale - the villain dragged to Hell on account of his sins
- is that implicitly another message appears. There is no justice in this world; the system doesn't
work, the aristocracy is rotten and can't deal with its own criminal element. Supernatural
intervention is required to bring the villain to justice. Seville is not a happy city, in this
In the two Beaumarchais comedies, the subversiveness of the sexual and political
messages are even more obvious. The poor old Count - in his youth, unable to win his beloved
without the help of his barber, and then, once married, torn between following his modern liberal
better instincts - the abolition of the droit de seigneur, and his base desires to seduce the fiancee
of his servant. The Count is not exactly a noble figure, and the European audiences, hearing both
the Beaumarchais plays and the two operas, heard this message clearly, much to the chagrin of
Carmen is set in a considerably later Seville, but it is still a city of violence and sexual
promiscuity. Merimee visited the city and records that he was impressed by its civic pride in being
the home of Don Juan. He found it the appropriate setting for his tale of sex and violence. It
seems fitting in a way that Carmen is stabbed while Escamillo triumphs with his sword in the
bullring. Seville can readily be presented as a city where bloodshed is taken for
I am told that there is an old Spanish proverb, "Hell is like the city of Seville". This brings
to mind Mark Twain's quip, "Heaven for climate, Hell for company". Seville as Hell certainly
provided a lot of good company - some of the most memorable personalities known to literature
I have the nagging feeling that there is not really any clear answer to the question I
posed earlier - why Seville as the setting for all these subversive stories? History alone certainly
does not make it unique. Many other European cities were burned, ravaged by disease, pillaged
and invaded as often if not even more often. Its Moorish architectural heritage is shared by
several other Spanish cities. The reason must lie partly in its location - the far southwest end of
Europe, just a short boat ride to the Moors of North Africa. Perhaps more importantly, it was the
original gateway to the New World, still a wild and mysterious place for Europeans of the 18th
and early 19th centuries. It must have always been an absolutely fascinating city. It still is, and I,
for one, don't blame the inhabitants for being proud of the stories set there.
Giacomo Casanova History of My Life, trans. Willard R.Trask (New York: Harcourt Brace
Jovanovich, 1970), 10:310-11.
Felipe Fernandez-Armesto and Derek Wilson Reformations, (New York: Scribner, 1996) p. 67.
Moyra Haslett Byron's Don Juan and the Don Juan Legend, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997), p.
Moyra Haslett Byron's Don Juan and the Don Juan Legend, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997).
Op.cit., p. 3.
Op.cit., p. 6.
Op.cit., p. 7.
Op.cit., p. 7
Op.cit., p. 9
Op.cit., p. 26
Op.cit., p. 25