Archive for Pushkin

Il Convitato di Pietra

Posted in Literature, Opera with tags , , , , on August 7, 2011 by telescoper

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….