FORGET all those daytime soap operas! Forget the luridly illustrated paperbacks about romance, passion, and intrigue invariably found down at the supermarket checkout counter. If it's the stuff of heavy drama you want - and the occasion to dress up in tux or dinner clothes as well - there's nothing better than a night (or weekend afternoon) at the opera. Yes, opera - the real opera. As an art form, opera deals with all aspects of life: love, religion, mythology, philosophy, social conditions. Is there a better way to travel to late 19th century Paris than via ``La Boh`eme,'' to observe the Reformation's passions than through ``Les Huguenots,'' or to discover the German Middle Ages with ``Lohengrin''? As critics never tire of informing us, the facts won't be accurate, and the drama will be imperfect. But while tourists may have misunderstandings, they will no longer be completely ignorant of other cultures - nor of dramatic themes and grand music. A night of drama
``Can I tell you everything freely?''
``Well, since that's the case, my dear master, you lead the life of a knave!''
What is a servant doing telling off his noble boss in the 18th century?
Despite his solemn promise not to get angry, Don Giovanni beats up Leporello, appropriately enough, since Leporello has compounded his crime by speaking the truth. As we all know, Don Giovanni, the rake, is punished for his sins at the opera's end, his legendary exploits with women subsequently inspiring much discussion as to the meaning of excessive philandering.
Obviously, however, Lorenzo da Ponte's libretto set to Mozart's magnificent music has been subject to infinite interpretation beyond this particular theme. The film ``Amadeus'' portrays the statue of the murdered Commendatore, which drags Don Giovanni down to hell as the terrible representation of the composer's father, who, dressed all in awe-inspiring black, claims his son.
Black? Leporello describes the statue as ``The man of stone, the white man!'' But if ``Rigoletto'' can be performed as a Mafia story, such trivialities must not matter.
One interesting, important detail is the year of the Don's debut, 1787, two years before the Bastille's fall in Paris. Although the French Revolution ended the aristocracy's domination, the nobility had long since declined. It no longer performed essential functions, it had become superfluous, but it still demanded power.
What is ``Don Giovanni'' but an extremely unflattering portrait of the nobility. Could it have been painted for an area of Europe buffeted by quasi-revolutionary winds which, unlike France, had been fostered from above by a ``Peasant Emperor'' -- Joseph II -- whom the aristocracy had defeated?
Consider the noble characters.
Don Giovanni is eager to assert the aristocracy's prerogatives. But he cannot do without Leporello, whose salary he increases when he threatens to quit. The Leporello-like Figaro is also essential to the doings of nobles in Mozart's ``The Marriage of Figaro'' and Rossini's ``The Barber of Seville.''
Donna Elvira, a classic portrait of an empty-headed female, continues chasing the Don despite Leporello's catalog aria, no matter how many times Don Giovanni has tricked, humiliated, and dropped her.
The dead Commendatore's daughter, the rigid Donna Anna, loses our sympathy by upbraiding her devoted suitor Don Ottavio in the perfect opera's only boring piece. How could he raise the subject of marriage while she is still grieving for her father. This late in the long opera, Act II, Scene 4, the argument hardly convinces us.
In fact, during the finale, immediately after Don Giovanni has been dragged to the fires below, Don Ottavio timidly presses his suit once more, and sure enough Donna Anna asks him to wait another year. And given the star-struck Don Ottavio's bland character, who in his right mind would trust him with power?
Of course, Don Giovanni's peers wish to punish him for his dastardly behavior. Yes, it's real
Ah, opera! With a longer attention span and the will to understand this extraordinarily pleasant, pleasing, and informative art form, the average American might discover more of real life in opera than in television's constantly bubbling soap.
Spencer Di Scala teaches history with no little amount of drama at the University of Massachusetts, Boston.