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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.  Read More 
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