Seville, 1600s. At night, outside the Commendatore's palace, Leporello grumbles about his duties as servant to Don Giovanni, a dissolute nobleman. Soon the masked Don appears, pursued by Donna Anna, the Commendatore's daughter, whom he has tried to seduce. When the Commendatore himself answers Anna's cries, he is killed in a duel by Giovanni, who escapes. Anna now returns with her fiancé, Don Ottavio. Finding her father dead, she makes Ottavio swear vengeance on the assassin.
At dawn, Giovanni flirts with a high-strung traveler outside a tavern. She turns out to be Donna Elvira, a woman he once seduced in Burgos, who is on his trail. Giovanni escapes while Leporello distracts Elvira by reciting his master's long catalog of conquests. Peasants arrive, celebrating the nuptials of their friends Zerlina and Masetto; when Giovanni joins in, he pursues the bride, angering the groom, who is removed by Leporello. Alone with Zerlina, the Don applies his charm, but Elvira interrupts and protectively whisks the girl away. When Elvira returns to denounce him as a seducer, Giovanni is stymied further while greeting Anna, now in mourning, and Ottavio. Declaring Elvira mad, he leads her off. Anna, having recognized his voice, realizes Giovanni was her attacker.
Dressing for the wedding feast he has planned for the peasants, Giovanni exuberantly downs champagne.
Outside the palace, Zerlina begs Masetto to forgive her apparent infidelity. Masetto hides when the Don appears, emerging from the shadows as Giovanni corners Zerlina. The three enter the palace together. Elvira, Anna and Ottavio arrive in dominoes and masks and are invited to the feast by Leporello.
During the festivities, Leporello entices Masetto into the dance as Giovanni draws Zerlina out of the room. When the girl's cries for help put him on the spot, Giovanni tries to blame Leporello. But no one is convinced; Elvira, Anna and Ottavio unmask and confront Giovanni, who barely escapes Ottavio's drawn sword.
Under Elvira's balcony, Leporello exchanges cloaks with Giovanni to woo the lady in his master's stead. Leporello leads Elvira off, leaving the Don free to serenade Elvira's maid. When Masetto passes with a band of armed peasants bent on punishing Giovanni, the disguised rake gives them false directions, then beats up Masetto. Zerlina arrives and tenderly consoles her betrothed.
In a passageway, Elvira and Leporello are surprised by Anna, Ottavio, Zerlina and Masetto, who, mistaking servant for master, threaten Leporello. Frightened, he unmasks and escapes. When Anna departs, Ottavio affirms his confidence in their love. Elvira, frustrated at her second betrayal by the Don, voices her rage.
Leporello catches up with his master in a cemetery, where a voice warns Giovanni of his doom. This is the statue of the Commendatore, which the Don proposes Leporello invite to dinner. When the servant reluctantly stammers an invitation, the statue accepts.
In her home, Anna, still in mourning, puts off Ottavio's offer of marriage until her father is avenged.
Leporello is serving Giovanni's dinner when Elvira rushes in, begging the Don, whom she still loves, to reform. But he waves her out contemptuously. At the door, her screams announce the Commendatore's statue. Giovanni boldly refuses warnings to repent, even in the face of death. Flames engulf his house, and the sinner is dragged to hell.
Among the castle ruins, the others plan their future and recite the moral: such is the fate of a wrongdoer.
— courtesy of Opera News
The Making of Don Giovanni
"Mama, mama...thats real music."
— Charles Gounod when he first heard Don Giovanni
E.T.A. Hoffmann called it “the opera of all operas.” Certainly, the opera has fascinated audiences, musicologists, philosophers, and actors for 225 years. Such longevity longs for explanation, especially since the libretto has been described as “imperfect in conception, a miscarriage as a drama, defective in important features” (Robert Craft). But Mozart blessed it with some of his greatest music—savagely beautiful, funny and tender all at the same time—so it endures and thrives, as lively in the imagination today as it was at its premiere in Prague some 200 years ago.
The subject matter helps. The lascivious Don predates the concept of the Marquis de Sade’s “libertine” (1. One who acts without moral restraint, a dissolute person. 2. One who defies established religious precepts; a free thinker) by 150 years. A study of the artistic interpretations of Don Juan (on whom Giovanni is based) would read like a philosophical and religious history of Europe. Each artist to interpret Don Juan casts him in a different light, breathing new motivations into his personality, each using him—or justifying him—in a way which legitimizes the contemporary point of view. For Molière, he was a slothful, shallow aesthete, ruined by a lavish lifestyle, untouched by external restrictions—a salient metaphor for the excesses of the Sun King’s court. A 17th century English version of Don Juan philosophized that desire is from nature and nothing natural can be bad, ergo all actions are justifiable based on desire (which stems from nature). Therefore the 30 murders he has committed (including patricide) prior to the action of the play are justifiable homicide. The deadly logic of Don Juan in this incarnation underscores the fatal flaw of 17th century Empiricism.
Today, everyone thinks they know Don Juan. Ask a passerby on the street to define “Don Juan” and most will reply with some variant of “a ladies’ man.” Men admire him and women fantasize about him. The richly dangerous, multi-faceted, beguiling figure has become a rakish version of Casanova. But scholars know differently. They know too much to be comfortable with the charming rascal interpretation—throughout his literary life, Don Juan has been a much darker character, a manipulator, liar, seducer (rapist?), obsessively claiming women, not always with pleasure. There is charm and wit, true, but something dark and broken as well. The literary Don Juan attracts and repels in equal measure.
Don Juan as we recognize him made his debut in 1630 in a play by a Spanish friar and playwright, Tirso de Molina, though in truth, there were many precursors and hints to this character starting as early as Ovid. What Tirso did was to persuasively reflect the concerns of his time by linking religious consequences to the carnal actions of the licentious seducer. Tirso’s comedy, El burlador de Sevilla y convidado de piedra (The Trickster of Seville and the Stone Guest), outlines much the same story that Mozart and Da Ponte tell. Tirso’s is a morality play warning against atheism. El burlador was never considered “important” during the friar’s lifetime, despite having birthed an archetype, but it laid the foundations for greater playwrights than he, and planted the seeds of French, Italian and English Don Juans, each familiar to Da Ponte when he sat down to create Don Giovanni.
Don Juan became a favorite stock character of Italy’s commedia dell’arte, where he devolved into a selfish brute, entirely at the mercy of his relentless sexual appetite. Undoubtedly, Da Ponte knew the commedia’s interpretation of Don Juan, as well as Molière’s, Goldoni’s and Tirso’s plays too. He certainly borrowed from all of the Don’s incarnations, most notably from another opera which opened a mere nine months before Mozart’s Prague premiere. This opera, Don Giovanni Tenorio, o sia Il convitato di pietra, was written by composer Giuseppe Gazzaniga and librettist Giovanni Bertati. It goes without saying that their opera was eclipsed by Mozart’s, but Da Ponte owes them much. Da Ponte’s libretto follows theirs closely, sometimes borrowing scenes verbatim. Da Ponte, of course, added a few touches of his own, most notably comic flourishes.
Don Giovanni is certainly funnier than any of its predecessors. In this opera, there is some question as to whether Giovanni is ever entirely successful in his romantic endeavors, and his conquest of Donna Anna is an open question. Here, Giovanni is a bit of a cipher as well. His mystery owes to Mozart’s shifting musical characterization. Giovanni becomes a mirror of his prey, by turns gallant or charming, persuasive, frenetic, desperate, dissolute, resolute or brave. The score leaves us questioning who Giovanni is in himself. It is this score with its ambiguities that saves the opera from becoming a burlesque.
As in all of Mozart’s operas, the women are the clearly-drawn individuals, even if the men are props like Don Ottavio, stock characters like Leporello (though Leporello offers some interesting dichotomies himself) or archetypes like Giovanni. Of all of these women, Donna Anna inspired the Romantics the most—at least as much as the Don himself. E.T.A. Hoffmann argued that had she come into Don Giovanni’s life in time to save him, she would have been his true love. (She didn’t and she wasn’t.) Hoffmann assumed that because Donna Anna clearly is reluctant to wed her fiancé, Ottavio, after Giovanni’s assault and her father’s death, that she is in love with the Don. Feminist theorist Liane Curtis points out that it could just as easily mean that after surviving these traumatic events, she had simply outgrown Ottavio’s somewhat earnest love.
Modern audiences, however, find more satisfaction in Donna Elvira, dismissed by 19th century Romantics as a somewhat pathetic figure trailing after Giovanni like a proactive Miss Havisham. Rather, Elvira protects the other women in the opera, especially Zerlina, by interrupting Giovanni’s seductions, warning the others that he is a deceiver, and revealing to Donna Anna that he is her assailant. Once she joins forces with Anna, Ottavio, and Zerlina, she is ever-present and clever. She foresees Giovanni’s doom and even tries to forestall it with her warnings. Her position as a noblewoman and her seduction and abandonment by Giovanni offer her more moves on the chessboard of the opera than either her younger counterpart, Anna, aided (and hampered) by Ottavio, or the peasant girl, Zerlina. Elvira has power and range and is a worthy foil for Giovanni, capable of great depth of feeling, as evinced in her opera seria style arias.
And what of young Zerlina, tempted on her wedding day? It is easy to dismiss her as a minor, comic player, all too willing to succumb to Giovanni’s wiles, especially in relation to the formidable operatic goddesses Anna and Elvira. Though both of them have their social status to inure them somewhat from the effects of Giovanni’s seductions, Zerlina has only her own sexual wiles to stave off the potential disaster wrought by Giovanni’s attentions. She is endangered in a very real way. Though Giovanni doesn’t threaten her life, her ability to live happily with her husband, Masetto, is threatened, and her ability to live as a member of her society is in peril, too. Should Masetto reject her, what recourse would she have as a “spoiled” woman in her time and place? Very little. So if Zerlina uses her own powers of seduction upon Masetto to smooth the path to happiness and security for them both, there is little to compare with Giovanni’s game-playing.
One of the characteristics of a great work of art is that it offers enough depth for future generations to find relevance and meaning in it for their own time. Modern analysis of his operas was hardly on Mozart’s mind when he was commissioned by the opera house in Prague to write a comedy in 1787. Prague was eager to repeat the success of The Marriage of Figaro, and Mozart was anxious to oblige. Clearly, the librettist had to be Da Ponte. The subject must have appealed to him. He was a close friend of Giovanni’s spiritual brother, Casanova, and had quite a reputation as a romantic rogue himself. But he was busy. Da Ponte was also already at work on two other libretti—one for Salieri and one for Martín, in addition to his duties to Emperor Josef in Vienna. As an imperial employee, he was obligated to let the Emperor know what he was doing and the Emperor, in his characteristically paternal way, was reluctant to allow him to write three libretti at once. Da Ponte convinced him, saying, “I shall write in the evenings for Mozart, imagining that I am reading the Inferno; mornings I shall work for Martín and pretend I am studying Petrarch; my afternoons will be for Salieri—he is my Tasso!” For two months, Da Ponte worked 12 hours a day, dandling a young muse who fed and entertained him in fine Giovanni-esque style. After 63 days Mozart’s and Martín’s libretti were complete and Salieri’s was near completion. This Herculean task diminishes somewhat when we realize that only one of these libretti was wholly original. Martín’s was merely a translation and Mozart’s was a “re-write,” albeit with some additions. Still, this tremendous output is impressive.
Meanwhile, Mozart was at work on the music. There were some peculiar limitations with which he had to work. The cast had to be small—Prague was a modest company with limited means. The Commendatore and Masetto were both the same bass at the Prague premiere. While he knew many of his singers from the Prague Figaro, it is possible he was writing blind for the tenor, which was not his custom. Nevertheless, he and Da Ponte churned out Don Giovanni like professionals.
This professionalism is important to remember. Most great artists are not thinking of posterity when they write. Mozart and Da Ponte certainly were not. “They were working for an immediate success, a job well done, performers well satisfied, and perhaps some performances elsewhere … they regarded their work as ephemerally as today any journalist does.” (William Mann). It is easy for modern listeners and interpreters to forget that, at the time, they were just working artists. This reality makes Giovanni’s failure in Vienna more understandable.
After a very successful opening in Prague, Don Giovanni was taken to Vienna. Mozart even adapted his opera for Viennese audiences, but according to the Emperor, it proved “too much for the teeth of my Viennese.” (To which Mozart is reported to have muttered— one assumes under his breath—“Then let them chew on it.”) The Emperor himself grew bored. When given in Italy, the Italians resented having to work so hard to “get” it. The Italian prima donna sneered, “I can understand nothing of this cursed music.” She was not alone. Although Mozart’s music was always attractive and masterful, it was often on the “cutting edge,” and Don Giovanni, with its shifting dance meters in the first act finale and its unprecedented harmonic language, was more than many of Mozart’s contemporaries could comprehend. Though its action was popular, its music was not particularly loved in Mozart’s lifetime.
It would take the Romantic movement to embrace Don Juan as the standard bearer of independent thought and action for the opera to achieve immortality. Through the richness of the characters and the sublimity of Mozart’s music, Don Giovanni will never leave us, offering each generation the opportunity to be seduced by whichever mask of Don Juan as is most relevant for us to insist he wear. For in the end, Don Juan lives for his audience, be it one woman or the whole world. He will be whatever we choose, as long as we respond. And respond we do. Every time.
— Alexis Hamilton