Il Convitato di Pietra

As regular readers of this blog will know, I have a – sometimes excessive –  interest in the origin and meaning of words. It’s not something that many people share, but I think language is a fascinating thing, in the way that it evolves so that words and phrases take on different nuances.

It’s not just in English that this happens, of course. The other day I received in a brochure about Welsh National Opera’s forthcoming production of  Don Giovanni (for which I’ve already got first-night tickets). I’ll no doubt post a review in due course, but probably the most famous scene of what is arguably Mozart’s greatest opera is near the end of Act II when the statue of the murdered Comendatore arrives to claim Don Giovanni’s soul, with the words

Don Giovanni a cenar teco
m’invitasti e son venuto!

(Don Giovanni, you invited me to dine with you and I have come!) It’s a stunning scene from the point of view of both music and drama, and can also be genuinely frightening when done well.

Here’s an example from Youtube, with the doom-laden basso profundo of Kurt Moll as the Comendatore

Some years ago in Nottingham I went to see Don Giovanni performed by the Lithuanian National Opera. It was a nice but unremarkable production until it reached the Comendatore scene. The arrival of the ghostly figure is preceded by an ominous knocking sound which, in this production, emanated from offstage, to the right, as the audience watched. The cast all looked in this direction, as did all the audience. But it was a classic piece of stage misdirection. Suddenly, the music announced the arrival of the statue, a spotlight flashed on and there was the Comendatore already in centre stage. It took me completely by surprise and I gasped audibly, to the obvious disapproval of the team of old ladies sitting in the row in front of me, who shook their heads and tutted. I had  seen Don Giovanni before, and knew exactly what was coming, but was still scared..

Anyway, that’s not really the point of this post. At a conference some years ago I was talking to an Italian colleague of mine and he told me something I found fascinating, which is that the Comendatore scene had led to an idiomatic expression in Italian Il Convitato di Pietra (“The Stone Guest”) which is in quite common usage.

In fact there  are other works that allude to this phrase including an earlier opera called Don Giovanni o Il Convitato di Pietra and a later play by Pushkin called The Stone Guest.

So what does it mean? It’s not quite the same as the Comendatore scene would suggest. In Italian it is given as

(una) presenza incombente ma invisibile, muta, e perciò inquietante e imprevedibile, che tutti conoscono ma che nessuno nomina

which I’ll translate with my feeble Italian as

an impending but invisible  presence, dumb and therefore disturbing and unexpected, which everyone knows but no-one names

In other (English) words, “The Stone Guest” is someone who’s not actually present – at least not physically – but who nevertheless manages to cast some sort of a shadow over the proceedings. I’m sure we can all think of occasions when this would have been a very apt phrase but there seems to be no English equivalent. It’s not quite the same as the Elephant in the Room, but has some similarity.

Now that I’ve had a chance to think, though, perhaps there is an English equivalent. A person who is perpetually absent but despite that exerts baleful influence on those present? A name connected with stone?

It’s got to be Keith Mason….

13 Responses to “Il Convitato di Pietra”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    The phrase “the spectre at the feast” is fairly standard, and might derive from this scene, or from Banquo’s ghost in MacBeth, or from Belshazzar’s feast in the Book of Daniel where a ghostly hand etches “the writing on the wall” – another idiom.

    • telescoper Says:

      The phrase “spectre at the feast” is close, but not quite the same meaning. I always take it to refer to someone who is definitely present and who spoils everyone’s enjoyment, e.g. someone who’s in a bad mood ruining a dinner party.

  2. Anton Garrett Says:

    Don Giovanni thanks Il Commendatore for his kind invitation in return but regrets that he will be unable to attend due to a prior assignation… More plausible, but wouldn’t have made for a grandstand finish.

  3. telescoper Says:

    I should also mention that the Lithuanian National Opera I mentioned were touring with the National Ballet, and performing on alternate nights. The demons that appear to take Don Giovanni away were clearly made up from the Corps de Ballet, and they whirled and danced about in splendid style.

    I have to say, though, that if I were directing this Opera I would probably cut the Epilogue and just end it with Don Giovanni’s descent to Hell.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      The Victorians did that. If you imagine it ending at that point, the result is clearly unsatisfactory. I wonder if people who take your position in fact dislike the epilogue that Mozart and da Ponte actually wrote, rather than dislike the notion of any epilogue after that scene.

  4. telescoper Says:

    I just find the ending rather sanctimonious. It’s not as if the moral message of the opera isn’t sufficiently obvious!

    Musically, the role of the Epilogue is to return everything back to a major key, as all the supernatural goings-on that precede it are in D minor. Bringing it to an end abruptly would be disquieting, but I personally think it would work. Perhaps I’m a Victorian at heart!

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      I agree that it would work dramatically, but to work musically things would have to be a bit different. I can *feel* how the present score is not designed to be cut off at the end of that scene. I’m sure that if da Ponte had taken your view then we would have got something stunning out of Mozart to match. But then, a lyricist who thought like that would not have given us all those gloriously cynical asides of Leporello’s…

  5. Bryn Jones Says:

    I have sometimes wondered how different the world would be if Don Giovanni’s fate came about in real life – if statues really came to life to bring punishment on those who deserved it.

  6. Grumpy Old Woman Says:

    I don’t know about deserving it, but …… whatever you do, don’t blink …………….

  7. “As regular readers of this blog will know, I have a – sometimes excessive – interest in the origin and meaning of words.”

    Do you follow World Wide Words? There is a lot of information here, but it has at least 3 RSS feeds, so it is relatively easy to keep up with what’s new.

    Do you own a copy of Skeat? My favourite part is near the back of the book where he groups words by their origin: not just the standard Old English, Scandinavian, Old French, Latin, Latin via Old French etc but things like French from German, Portuguese from English from Portuguese from English, Dutch from French from German etc. A boon for folks who enjoy classification, be it living things, galaxies, elementary particles, whatever. A particular interest of mine are similar words which entered the language at different times with slightly different meanings, e.g. warranty and guarantee, shirt and skirt, warden and guard etc. These are often borrowed from French at different times or one is Scandinavian and one Old English.

    For decades now, three of my four main interests have been music, language and science (particularly cosmology, astrophysics and astronomy). 🙂

  8. […] Commendatore while seeking refuge in a graveyard. Later, back at Don Giovanni’s  house the statue arrives  and sends Don Gito […]

  9. One english equivalent that might work could be the phrase “the empty chair”, which refers to gathering together while reserving a place for the person who will never return – an ominous void that cannot be ignored.

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