… but there is a scene where a woman asks her husband, at length, to spank her – and that’s surely an open invitation to opera directors everywhere!
The story of Mozart’s opera, first performed in Prague on October 29, 1787, concerns the libertine title character – better known in European legend as Don Juan – and his sexual exploits. One of these takes place when he comes across a country wedding, and seduces the bride, Zerlina. She goes off with him, leaving her new husband Masetto, but Don Giovanni doesn’t get to have his wicked way with her, thanks to the intervention of one of his old flames.
Zerlina now has to face Masetto, who is understandably not very impressed to have been jilted immediately after his marriage. Evidently it’s over between them almost as soon as it has begun. So she sings an aria, ‘Batti, batti, O bel Masetto’, whose opening lines might be loosely translated as:
Spank me, O fair Masetto, spank your poor Zerlina.
I’ll be like a little lamb, awaiting your smacks.
Her importunity persuades him to forgive her, and the opera continues on its way: Don Giovanni gets to have another attempt at Zerlina, but she rejects him and goes home with her love for Masetto reinforced, while Don Giovanni ends up going to hell.
Zerlina’s aria presents a problem of ambiguity that we often come across when dealing with other languages. The Italian word batti translates literally as beat, and covers the full range of meaning from spank to assault. (The verb specifically for spanking is sculacciare.) So Zerlina could in fact be asking for generalized physical violence as an expression of Masetto’s rage. And that is indeed how she continues:
I’ll let you tear my hair out or gouge my eyes,
And I’ll be glad to kiss your beloved hands.
But there is good reason to think it is an aria about spanking and not any more extreme kind of masochism. Mozart’s inspiration was a scandal in Venice in 1775: a doctor named Giuseppe Mussolo had a quarrel with a young lady named Matilde Cassinis, the daughter of a Paduan nobleman, that ended with him giving her a public spanking on her bare bottom in front of a crowd that was torn between enjoyment and outrage. The incident led to Mussolo’s banishment from Venice, but he was later pardoned, bringing the story back into the news; that was in 1787, just as Mozart was writing Don Giovanni.
What’s more, there is good reason to think that Mozart would have been interested in the case. Eighteen months later, in 1789, he wrote to his wife Constanze…
… telling her that, for imagining that he might have forgotten her while they were apart, ‘on the very first night you will get a thorough spanking on your dear little kissable bottom – and this you may count upon’. Nor was that the only time. In another letter of 1791, when she was at the hot springs in Baden, he warned her against excessive exposure to the baths, telling her that if she took them more than once, ‘you will be thoroughly spanked when I come out to you again’. Evidently this was a regular part of their relationship, as featured in Juliet Waldron’s award-winning historical novel, Mozart’s Wife (2000):
I struggled, but he held me face down, so that I was half-smothered. My shift was tossed over my head, the lacy edges a froth around my face. Several stinging smacks were delivered to my bare bottom.
So perhaps it’s only natural that husband-and-wife spanking should also have found its way into Mozart’s work…
‘Batti, batti’ has been called, informally, ‘the “spank me” song’, and in Bari Biern’s 2015 English-language adaptation of the libretto, the aria’s first line is actually ‘You should spank me’. So you’d think that, if we take Zerlina at her word, a bit of batti on the botty ought to be a good outcome. What usually happens is more along the lines of kiss and make up, but there are vague stories of occasional productions over the years where, before that, she does get spanked. Finding them, however, among the tens of thousands of versions that make up this opera’s stage history, involves a lot more luck than effort.
Much depends on how Zerlina is realized. We don’t know how she was played in 1787 by the original soprano, Caterina Bondini, but in subsequent tradition she has been portrayed as a simpering ingenue so eager to get back into her husband’s good graces that she will accept any brutality he chooses to inflict on her, hair and eyes included. Many other sopranos seem more interested in the aria’s musical complexities, and skimp on the psychological side of the performance. But in more recent times, Zerlina is often presented as a more overtly sexual creature…
… especially in what the opera world calls Regie productions – that is, where the director (in German, Regie) has imposed a concept on the piece. And that makes for a much more seductive, ‘spank me’ treatment of ‘Batti, batti’, with the eye-gouging stuff as merely an ironic, self-consciously over-the-top escalation.
For the most part, that entails a performance where at some point the singer leans forward and offers her bottom to be smacked. She may actually bend over like Xenia Odintsova in 2009 here:
She may get down on all fours, like Alessandra Contaldo at Pavia in 2014:
In the same year, Amanda Crider at the Castleton Festival, Virginia, is pretty overt in offering her bottom to Nicholas Masters as Masetto:
And, still in 2014, the Berlin production saw Alma Sadé’s Zerlina lift her skirts, inviting a spanking on her bloomers. No photo of that, sadly, but here she is showing the same exhibitionistic tendencies in another scene:
At Milan back in 1987, Suzanne Mentzer made a similar offer, albeit in a much more stylized way:
And it has been known to go further than that. At the Steyr music festival in 2010, Brigitta Simon fetched a broom and encouraged Masetto to whack her bottom with the handle:
In 1996 Anke Hoffmann even took her feet off the ground in what would have been an attractive spanking position if only she had Masetto’s lap underneath her:
There’s also some appealing play over whether or not he is actually going to whack her with his belt. Here’s the whole aria:
In yet another 2014 production, this time in Vienna, Misaki Morino smacked her own bottom encouragingly, then, when Masetto (David Ostrek) continued to be unresponsive, laid herself across his lap:
No room for ambiguity there!
But it’s much rarer for the big lug Masetto to respond to the invitation. But in 2006, the Greek National Opera featured a Zerlina who returned from Don Giovanni wearing only a towel and her panties, and got spanked on the seat of the latter:
Sadly that’s not very effective positioning of Irini Kyriakidou across Petros Magoulas, though at least it’s progress. But in the same year there was very much better to be seen just to the north of the Balkans, where Keith Warner’s production opened in Vienna on 20 July, with Adriana Queiroz as Zerlina:
This was a Regie production set in a swanky hotel, with Zerlina portrayed as one of the chambermaids and Masetto, played by Markus Butter, as the bellboy. By all accounts she was an unprecedentedly coquettish Zerlina who made it absolutely clear what she wanted, and duly got it. There are no photos, but the production was revived with some cast changes in August 2009. Masetto was still Markus Butter, but Zerlina was now taken over by Nina Bernsteiner. Here she is singing ‘Batti, batti’:
And what she got was a proper central European raised-skirt spanking:
There’s just a glimpse of the scene in the opera’s video trailer, which also gives you a sense of just how outlandish a Regie production can be:
Nina Bernsteiner was so pleased with the spanking scene that she put the picture on her website!
And here’s one last Zerlina, in a New York production from July 2015, making the offer and getting a response from Masetto in much the same terms:
You might think that’s not very much to show for nearly three minutes of suspense, but at least what she does get, she gets with her skirt up!