Interpreting Zerlina

My university’s opera society recently announced that they’ll be performing Don Giovanni this year, so I’m naturally devoting a lot of brainpower to thinking about auditions. Traditionally, all three of the women in the opera are sung by sopranos, but some opera companies have recently been casting mezzos as Zerlina (and, much more rarely, Donna Elvira, but that’s beside the point), so she’s on my mind. On the surface, Zerlina is a boring character: a peasant girl who, on the day of her wedding, is taken in by the Don’s charms and status but is prevented from carrying her indiscretion too far and eventually makes up with her fiance. She sings two arias: “Batti, batti,” in which she invites her angry fiance to beat her but begs him to then make peace with her and “Vedrai, carino,” in which she promises to cure him of his injuries (sustained in a one-sided fight with the Don’s servant) through her love. They’re fairly standard soubrette pieces, and in traditional productions Zerlina can be very forgettable.

However, there’s no reason Zerlina has to be a flighty, chirpy, submissive woman. One can imagine all sorts of situations and motivations beyond the surface reading: Maybe her fiance Masetto is actually abusive, and “Batti, batti” reflects past reality. Maybe their relationship has an S&M streak and “Batti, batti” is a straightforward sexual seduction. Maybe Zerlina was never interested in the Don at all but played along to protect Masetto from the Don, who presumably has the resources to crush him on a whim. (Many other readings are also possible; feel free to suggest your favorites in the comments.)

Thanks to the magic of YouTube, we can see video examples of several interpretations of “Batti, batti”:

This is the rather standard traditional approach: Zerlina feigns sincerity in her invitation, but she and the audience both know that she will get what she wants, so the aria is flirtatious and humorous rather than desperate or disturbing.

This is still fairly traditional, but a bit more serious: Zerlina seems seriously distraught and much less confident at the opening of the aria. However, by the time she’s sings “ah, lo vedo,” she’s clearly realized that she is in control of the situation.

Here, Masetto is far to drunk to even put his own vest on, and Zerlina’s aria is almost a motherly lullaby to get him to go along with her quietly. While the staging works from an overall character perspective, it doesn’t seem to be using the text of the aria to any great effect, so I’m not a fan of this interpretation.

In this modern staging, Zerlina is seducing Masetto, essentially promising him hot sex if he’ll forgive her. In case her mannerisms don’t make that clear enough, a bed even appears midway through the aria. (“Batti, batti” is at 1:07:50 in the video.)

In this very amusing staging, Zerlina wants S&M action, and Masetto is hilariously uncomfortable with the whole idea. He took his belt off to threaten her with it, but fights to get it back when she makes it clear that she want him to use it! (“Batti, batti” is at 1:04:00 in the video.)

I haven’t decided what to do for auditions yet–whether to play it safe with a traditional interpretation or put a more exciting spin on the character. (I can assure you, I won’t be imitating that last video clip!) But I’m enjoying thinking through the many possibilities for Zerlina and affirming her often-denied dramatic complexity.