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Wordbook: The Most Beautiful Word

The most beautiful word is Madamina. It is a word that does not exist in any language. It lives between them, a self-conscious mongrel. It is half-French and half-Italian, a blending of "Madame" and "Signorina." It most definitely cannot be translated into English as "little lady."

"Madamina" is a word used by Leporello in Act 1 of Mozart's opera Don Giovanni. Lorenzo da Ponte wrote the libretto, so it is his invention. The servant Leporello addresses the high-born Donna Elvira, who has been seduced by his master Don Giovanni and has followed him to try to make him honor his promise of marriage. This is the beginning of the famous "list aria," in which Leporello recalls all of the women that Don Giovanni has seduced, 1003 in Spain alone: "Madamina, il catalogo è questo/ delle belle ch'amò il padre mio./ Un catalogo è c'ho fatto io,/Osservate, leggete con me." [Madamina, here is the catalogue of the beautiful ladies loved by my master. I have made this catalogue. Pay attention, read along with me.]

What Donna Elvira "observes" in this scene of communal reading (we read along too), is the evidence of her own humiliation. She is only one of over a thousand. And the list is the reason for her despair. There has been no mistake. It is clear in documentary form. She is ruined.

This is why Leporello calls her "Madamina." It is a word that lies between French and Italian. It calls to mind the entire world of aristocratic European culture of which Mozart's operas are the greatest creation--a world in which Italian and French are known at least in some measure to every educated noble. It calls forth a world in which sophisticated cosmopolitanism shapes wit in conversation and underpins the outlandish ironic fictions that make up the tradition of grand opera. In one sense it is the world of Don Giovanni himself, who can travel the European continent on the strength of his noble breeding, from Seville, to Paris, to Vienna, to Venice. It is the world of Don Giovanni's real-life double, Giacomo Casanova, born in Venice, yet destined to write his own memoirs (his own personal "list aria") in French and die in Transylvania. It is the world familiar to the librettist da Ponte, who was born in Venice, worked with Mozart in Vienna, met Casanova in Paris, and ended up teaching Italian at Columbia University in New York. (His name means "bridge"; now we know why!)

But "Madamina" calls forth more than this. It speaks precisely to the situation of Donna Elvira. "Madamina" blends "Madame" and "Signorina," but it is neither of these terms. In this respect it mirrors what Donna Elvira is. She cannot claim the title, "Madame"--the word that applies to every respectably married woman in her world. For she is not married. She thought she was going to be, but she is learning, at this very instant, that she is not. We might even hear, in the beautiful first syllable of the word, the expression of her disbelief, the Italian word "ma," for "but," or "yet." "But . . .I thought. . ." This is the syllable that Leporello himself seems to throw back in her face when he nails the details of the crime by stipulating, "But, but, but. . . in Spain, there have already been one thousand and three." "Ma, ma, ma. . .in Ispagna, son già mille tre."

And yet--ma. . .ma--Madamina is also a word that recalls "Signorina." Yet a "signorina" is a girl, a virgin, precisely what Donna Elvira is no longer. Madamina is neither married lady, nor virgin, neither "madame" nor "signorina." Falling between them, she is nothing. She is the woman who can be addressed with the beautiful dimunitive word that seems at once infantile (ma--da--mama--dada) and incomparably sophisticated.

That beautiful diminutive word. Also incomparably sad, because before our eyes we watch as the "Madamina" learns why she is being addressed as she is. The list of Don Giovanni's conquests explains why Leporello turns to her with the word "Madamina." The longer the list and the aria continue, the more tragic the word becomes.

It is entirely fitting that she should be so addressed by Leporello. For he is a variant of herself. He longs to be a gentleman, as he tells us in the previous scene ("voglio far il gentil'uomo,/e non voglio più servir"). At that moment in history, the late eighteenth century, when the possibility of escape from service was beginning to be glimpsed, Leporello gives voice to the servant's desire for autonomy and dignity. Yet he continues to serve.

Indeed, exactly at the moment Leporello reveals to Donna Elvira her fallen status--"Madamina. . ."--he is fulfilling his duty as a servant. He is acting as the thug and chronicler of a cruel master whom he hates yet serves. The word is thus the sign of Leporello's own humiliation, as the beautiful utterance of one who serves against his will.

"Madamina" may be the most beautiful word. But it is also the saddest. Even, perhaps, the most tragic. For it both names and implicates those who have had their personhood destroyed by power. It is a word of enchantment, and also the sign of violence. Perhaps it is the purest word for the work of art.
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