<i>A cenar teco</i>

A cenar teco

In Brief

Echoes of Mozart's Don Giovanni in Ulysses include not only the sexual excitement of Là ci darem la mano and the servile aspirations of Leporello's voglio but also Giovanni's passion for food and drink, which figures in climactic scenes at the end of both acts. In Lestrygonians, as Bloom walks away from Davy Byrne's feeling better for a sandwich and a glass of burgundy, he thinks of the powerful scene at the end of Act 2 in which a statue accepts an invitation to supper: "Don Giovanni, a cenar teco / M'invitasti." And in Sirens, after an early supper at the Ormond, he recalls the feast that Giovanni throws for some peasants at the end of Act 1. Both references involve moral judgment. In the scene with the statue, food links Giovanni's riotous hedonism with the divine justice that Lorenzo da Ponte's libretto finally metes out to him. The earlier scene makes Bloom think of Irish peasants who starved while aristocrats thrived.

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In the Ormond dining room, Bloom hears Bob Cowley playing some Mozart on the bar's piano: "Minuet of Don Giovanni he's playing now. Court dresses of all descriptions in castle chambers dancing. Misery. Peasants outside. Green starving faces eating dockleaves. Nice that is. Look: look, look, look, look, look: you look at us." The famished faces belong to Irish peasants gazing at a rich manor house, but Bloom's fantasy is triggered by hearing a minuet from the scene where Don Giovanni throws a grand festive ball in his house for some peasants. The largesse is purely exploitative: in an earlier scene Giovanni has told Leporello, "Now prepare a great feast until the wine heats every head. If you find some girls in the square, bring them along too. Let the dancing be wild: here a minuet, here a folia, here an allemande will make them dance. And I meanwhile will hearken to another tune, making love to this one and that one. Ah! by tomorrow morning my list should be a dozen longer."

In the ballroom scene that follows, he and Leporello urge the peasants celebrating the marriage of Masetto and Zerlina to enjoy the elegant refreshments that servants are handing out: "Do take a drink, my fine young men." "Ho! some coffee!" "Chocolate!" "Ices!" "Sweetmeats!" Giovanni caresses Zerlina in front of her furious fiancé, dances with her, and then pulls her into a secluded room to rape her, but his effort is thwarted: she cries out, the partygoers break down the door, and Giovanni is nearly brought to justice. In this scene food and drink figure as images of, and accomplices in, Giovanni's predatory sexual pursuits. His amoral indifference to the welfare of his guests gives Bloom occasion to think of Irish aristocrats who flaunted their wealth in front of starving peasants.

At the end of the opera, feasting again signifies rapacious, amoral appetite, but the feasting ends with the arrival of a man whom Giovanni murdered at the beginning of the opera. There, having attempted to seduce or more likely rape Donna Anna in her own house, Giovanni flees into the night streets. Confronted by her father, the Commendatore, he kills him. Much later, he walks home through a church graveyard with Leporello, laughing about his latest criminal exploits, and sees a statue of the Commendatore which, remarkably, speaks: "You will be done laughing by dawn." The inscription on the statue's base delivers other ominous words: "Here I await vengeance on the unholy man who drew me to my last step."

The rake responds with flippant defiance, spoken in the language of food: "That old fool! Tell him that tonight I'll expect him at supper with me (a cena meco)." He bullies the terrified Leporello into relaying the message that "my master...would like to sup with you (vorria con voi cenar)." The statue nods assent, paralyzing Leporello with fear, but Giovanni mocks him and delivers the invitation himself: "Speak, if you can: will you come to supper (a cena)?" The statue replies: "Yes." Two scenes later, it knocks at the mocker's door and sings the lines that Bloom remembers: "Don Giovanni, you invited me to sup with you, and I have come (Don Giovanni, a cenar teco / m'invitasti, e son venuto)."

Bloom walks down the street in Lestrygonians humming these measures and "prolonging in solemn echo the closes of the bars." Mozart's cadences for the Commendatore's basso voice are indeed solemn: four thunderous pairs of half-notes announcing that justice has arrived for Giovanni. Don Gio- VAN-NI drops an octave from D to D, a ce-nar TE-CO settles on an A in the middle, m'in-vi TAS-TI repeats the drop from D to D, and finally e son ve- NU-TO, the dramatic reply to the invitation, drops from the A to a resounding low A an octave down. After three hours of futile resistance to the seducer, an irresistible force has at last appeared.

Bloom puzzles over one detail of the Italian text: "What does that teco mean? Tonight perhaps." It means "with you," but the rest of his English translation is accurate: "Don Giovanni, thou hast me invited / To come to supper tonight, / The rum the rumdum." When the phrase "a cenar teco" recurs in Circe, it reprises Bloom's thought in Sirens about aristocratic oppression of peasants. Some "IRISH EVICTED TENANTS" join the chorus of his accusers, and he sits in a pillory whistling the music. Here, Bloom appears to identify with the wicked nobleman (as any musically inclined listener must!), adding Don Juan crimes to all the others that Circe makes him confess to.

That justice comes for Giovanni at suppertime is no accident. The ballroom scene has associated his erotic appetites with feasting, and earlier in this climactic scene of Act 2 Giovanni has wolfed down food and wine while Leporello marvels: "Ah, what a barbaric appetite! What giant mouthfuls!" Giovanni's rapacious appetite makes him a giant among pygmies, a Gothic barbarian ravaging polite society. The jilted Donna Elvira enters, pouring out her romantic anguish one last time, only to have Giovanni mockingly invite her to have a bite with him: "Long live women and good wine, the support and glory of mankind!"

When the Commendatore enters the same room moments later he countermands Giovanni's order for more food: "Stay a moment. He who eats heavenly food does not graze on mortal food." He takes advantage of aristocratic etiquette to extend a reciprocal invitation: "You invited me to supper: you know your duty. Tell me: will you come to sup with me?" Never one to display fear, Giovanni agrees and shakes the statue's hand on the bargain. It proves to be an icy, unshakable death grip. Apprehended at last, and fiercely rejecting the Commendatore's demand to repent, he is torn by physical and spiritual tortures and sinks into a fiery chasm. Supper at the statue's place turns out to be a one-way trip to Hell.

Da Ponte's association of food with destructive sexual predation seems well suited to the Homeric themes of Lestrygonians, but Bloom does not think such thoughts. Instead, Joyce makes the linkage more covertly throughout the novel. In Hades Bloom sees Boylan going into the Red Bank restaurant, perhaps to lunch on the oysters for which it was famous, and in Lestrygonians he recalls this sighting while reflecting on the supposed aphrodisiac properties of oysters. In Wandering Rocks, an hour before his appointment with Molly, Boylan enters a shop and arranges for a gift basket to be sent to Eccles Street, containing pears, peaches, a "small jar" of something, and a bottle of port wine. In Ithaca Bloom sees the remains of this wicker basket in his kitchen and finds flakes of Plumtree's potted meat in his bed. Between bouts of potting his own meat in Molly, Boylan has liberally stuffed his mouth.

Joyce leaves it to Molly to spell out the implied connection between food and sexual appetite. The size, firmness, and stamina of Boylan's member make her wonder not only if he consumed oysters earlier in the day, but how many, and whether his herculean copulative feats may have left him hungry afterwards: "he must have come 3 or 4 times with that tremendous big red brute of a thing he has...like iron or some kind of a thick crowbar standing all the time he must have eaten oysters I think a few dozen he was in great singing voice no I never in all my life felt anyone had one the size of that to make you feel full up he must have eaten a whole sheep after." Boylan's enumerated orgasms echo Giovanni's enumerated sexual conquests. His appetite for food too seems similar.

Molly's quantitative awe at Boylan's fucking and his eating, combined with her qualitative appreciation of his singing, suggest a symbolic equivalence with Don Giovanni. The linkage becomes undeniable if one asks what he was singing. In Ithaca Bloom has seen several recently smoked cigarettes on the piano in his parlor, not far from some sheet music for Love's Old Sweet Song. Boylan appears, then, to have accompanied Molly in a run-through of one of the two pieces scheduled for her upcoming concert. It is a solo, but her other number, Là ci darem la mano, is a duet. If this song too was rehearsed, with Boylan singing the baritone part to Molly's soprano, then he has taken the role of Don Giovanni at the piano before imitating him in the bedroom.

Joyce found parts of da Ponte's libretto useful: the story of one man courting another man's wife, and the linkage of sexual appetite with food. Other themes—murder, vengeance, divine justice—evidently did not interest him much. Bloom's association of Giovanni's ball with starving Irish peasants shows deep hostility to aristocratic oppressors, and his humming of the "M'invitasti" bars suggests that he would like to see adultery punished. But Bloom is no commanding Commendatore, nor even a plucky Masetto. He fails to confront either Boylan or his wife about their planned adultery, and in Ithaca, after the deed is done, he rejects various forms of "retribution": "Assassination, never, as two wrongs did not make one right. Duel by combat, no. Divorce, not now." Bloom supposes that adultery ranks lower than "theft, highway robbery, cruelty to children and animals," and 28 other specified crimes—hardly enough cause to challenge a lusty nobleman to fight to the death.

But one element in the opera's logic of divine judgment may have played some role in Joyce's imagination when he was writing Ulysses. The statue repeatedly demands that Giovanni "Repent" ("Pentiti, cangia vita...Pentiti, scellerato...Pentiti") and Giovanni repeatedly refuses ("No, no, ch'io non me pento...No, vecchio infatuato...No!"). This authoritative religious demand for repentance, met with heroic secular defiance, finds an evocative analogue in the climactic passage of Circe where Stephen's dead mother demands that he repent ("Repent, Stephen...Repent! O, the fire of hell!") and Stephen batters back at the judgmental mirage ("The ghoul! Hyena!...His noncorrosive sublimate! The corpsechewer! Raw head and bloody bones"). For Joyce, a vengeful God's demand to repent one's human choices was the uncrossable bridge. Whether God exists or not, whether Catholic teachings are defensible or not, were questions that did not provoke him. But, like Giovanni, he could ill afford to renounce the momentous choice that had constituted him as a person and an artist. To the orthodox demand to Repent!, he said No!

JH 2021
Still from a Sarasota Opera performance in 2020, showing the Commendatore and Don Giovanni at the end of the opera. Source: malabar.net.
Engraving by an unknown artist in an 1811 Breitkopf & Härtel vocal score that  shows the Commendatore and Don Giovanni at the same moment, next to a loaded dinner table. Source: www.buechel-baur.com.
The Commendatore's opening bars. Source: musescore.com.