166. Don Giovanni (Mozart)

  • IL DISSOLUTO PUNITO, OSSIA IL DON GIOVANNI
  • Dramma giocoso / opera buffa in 2 acts
  • Composer: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
  • Libretto: Lorenzo da Ponte
  • First performed: Estates Theatre, Prague, 29 October 1787

CHARACTERS: Don Giovanni (baritone), a young, extremely licentious nobleman; Il Commendatore (bass); Donna Anna, his daughter (soprano); Don Ottavio (tenor), her fiancé; Donna Elvira (soprano), a lady of Burgos abandoned by Don Giovanni; Leporello (bass), Don Giovanni’s servant; Masetto (bass), a peasant; Zerlina (soprano), his fiancée.

SETTING: Spain


As early as 1835, Berlioz complained that too many critics, musicians, and poets had analysed Don Giovanni for him to do more than make general remarks.

Certainly, Don Giovanni needs little introduction. It’s one of the 10 most performed operas in the world; and it’s easily Mozart’s best opera. Figaro may be tighter; it’s a neat little farce with flashes of sympathy and a sublime ending; Don Giovanni is episodic, looser, protean as its protagonist. If the Don will not be bound by convention, neither will the opera; if the Don is always in motion, eager for the next experience, so is the opera. It’s the musically richest of Mozart’s operas, cramming in as much variety of tone and form as possible.

The first act is excellent. The overture (quoting the statue scene) leads directly into Leporello’s complaints, a trio, a duel, and a death – all in one sweep of music. Mozart shows himself here a master of ensembles that are both musically splendid and advance the story. The quartet is masterly, and the maskers’ trio in the finale is an oasis of beauty and stillness (Hoffmann called it “a prayer that radiates heavenward in lustrous beams of sound”) before the Don’s assault on Zerlina unleashes the storm. We find also two majestic portrayals of wronged women: Don Elvira’s ‘Ah, che mi dice mai’ and Donna Anna’s ‘Or sai chi’; Leporello’s Catalogue Aria; the Don’s explosively virile ‘Finch’an dal vino’; and the famous duettino ‘La ci darem la mano’.

Things go haywire in Act II. The story effectively stops; there is plenty of incident – master and servant impersonate each other, &c – but those incidents are material for music rather than drama. The trio is excellent; the serenade lovely; the sextet brilliant. But the second half drags badly: three concert arias (from Prague and Vienna versions of the score) and a duet (usually cut). The allegro vivace chords at the start of the finale sound like the opera waking up again – but we have to endure a puerile display of bad table manners (Mozart’s sense of humour was unsophisticated: hear, for instance, the canon ‘Leck mich im arsch’) and warmed-over quotations before the statue drags Don Giovanni to hell, the goodies moralise, the curtain falls, and we can go home.

Don Giovanni may be familiar – but does anyone really know the Don? He eludes definition. His first line: “Chi son io tu non saprai” (“Who I am you’ll never know”). Is he unfettered Id, masculine virility, pursuing every woman he sees; the #metoo age’s nightmare made flesh? Is he (as Auden wondered) homosexual? Is he a sexual predator, an aristocrat of the ancient régime with (like his vile contemporary de Sade) a penchant for little girls (‘la giovin principiante’, the young beginner), terrorizing the lower classes, trying to rape peasant women, and beating up commoners who rise against him? Is he a Romantic antihero, an apostle of free love in a religious, sexually repressive age, destroyed by conventional morality?

Or is he, then, what he does? (1003 times in Spain…) Is he a creature of action? Alone of all the characters, he has no solo of introspection; he is utterly extraverted. Don Ottavio, in contrast, is pure reflection; he sympathises with Donna Anna, but is unwilling to act. Even Leporello, his shadow, has a soliloquy at the start, grumbling about a servant’s life: eating and sleeping badly, and wanting to be a gentleman. ‘Finch’an dal vino’ is pure unbridled id: I want – a party, and dances, and girls, and lots of sex. He sings his only other aria, ‘Metà di voi qua vadano’, disguised as Leporello; again, it’s action: telling Masetto to beat up the Don if he sees him, with sadomasochistic glee. Perhaps he is most himself in his praises of ‘Libertà!’ (libertinism and libertarianism), and wine and women through song.

From Don Giovanni came all of romantic opera, Blaze de Bury proclaimed. It is the calm after Gluck: Mozart reconciles melody with drama, using the orchestra to develop scenic expression, like Gluck, but, Bury claims, with more richness and colour?

“It’s a lightning flash, the Milky Way! Mozart multiples himself; with the Marriage of Figaro and Così fan tutte, he sets the tone for the opéra comique of Nicole, Boïeldieu, Hérold and Auber. Idomeneo reveals to Spontini fresh springs ignored by Gluck; the Magic Flute realizes the ideal of a fairy-oratorio; and Don Giovanni, ‘the opera of operas’, plunges into heaven and hell, mystery and drama at once like Faust, showing life and the world in characters one would say were drawn by Shakespeare.”

Is it a Classical or a Romantic opera? It obviously builds on works like Haydn’s Orlando paladino and the operas of Salieri (compare the overture of Les Danaïdes); the buffo statue scene plagiarises Gluck; and Grétry, more a man of his time, didn’t understand it.

The 19th century was fascinated by Don Giovanni; it was to them an operatic anticipation of Romanticism. Hoffmann called it the ‘opera of operas’, and saw it as a contest between the diabolical and the divine – Don Giovanni the epitome of masculinity seeks fulfilment through love rather than heavenly salvation. Scudo compared him to Faust: where Goethe’s hero looks for happiness only in the sole faculties of the mind, Mozart’s embraces the material, the sensual. Both try to seize the infinite; both fail, because they forget that man is an intellect fertilized by feeling. Camille Bellaigue considered it ‘the masterpiece of masterpieces’: “Everything is in there, mind and heart, every feeling and every passion: love, hate, daring, fear, laughter, and tears. The constant mixture, the fusion of drama and comedy, pathetic music and buffo music, make Don Giovanni an exceptional work, diverse and true as life.” Scudo called it the most beautiful of all operas, one of the marvels of the human spirit.

Auber’s Fra Diavolo is a comic reworking, a bourgeois version where the licentious brigand tries to seduce Zerline and is arrested; Herold’s Zampa, aristocrat turned pirate, is damned by the statue of a maiden he ruined; and Adam quotes it in Le farfadet. “Oh! maman, cela c’est vraiment la musique,” the infant Gounod piped; and the adult had his portrait painted hand resting on the score. Offenbach’s Contes d’Hoffmann is another darkly imaginative parody: the would-be philanderer is besotted with a singer playing Donna Anna, but his romance is thwarted by a Commendatore-like villain. “So much the worse for Act IV of Les Huguenots!” Meyerbeer exclaimed when a friend preferred the Blessing of the Swords and the 19th century’s defining love duet to Mozart. Lortzing modelled his comic operas on it. Rossini’s Barber of Seville, Conrad argues, is a sequel to Don Giovanni, as much as a prequel to Figaro: social scandal causes petrification; the Don reappears as the Dukes in Verdi’s Rigoletto and Ballo in Maschera (the same character escaping from one opera to be punished in the next?), and even as Falstaff; while Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia restages the feast interrupted by the funeral knell.

Every period finds the Don Giovanni that reflects itself. For George Bernard Shaw, the Don was a Shavian avant la lettre: a studious and rather romantic freethinker in a superstitious age. The modern Don, alas, stalks his victims through a wasteland, a spiritual junkyard strewn with the rubble of civilization. Neither divine retribution nor his faults (as in Greek tragedy) bring him down, but a drug overdose. (An Australian bass once told me he felt ashamed to sing such a travesty.) Ours is a sordid age.


SUGGSTED RECORDINGS

  • Listen to: Eberhard Wächter (Don Giovanni), Joan Sutherland (Donna Anna), Giuseppe Taddei (Leporello), Gottlob Frick (Il Commendatore), Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (Donna Elvira), Luigi Alva (Don Ottavio), Piero Cappuccilli (Masetto), and Graziella Scutti (Zerlina), with Carlo Maria Giulini conducting the Philharmonia Chorus & Orchestra, London, 1959. EMI.
  • Watch: Ruggero Raimondi (Don Giovanni), Edda Moser (Donna Anna), José van Dam (Leporello), Kiri Te Kanawa (Donna Elvira), Kenneth Riegel (Don Ottavio), Malcolm King (Masetto), and Teresa Berganza (Zerlina), conducted by Lorin Maazel, directed by Joseph Losey, 1979.

WORKS CONSULTED

One thought on “166. Don Giovanni (Mozart)

  1. I always felt the same about the second act of Giovanni – it doesn’t live up to greatness of the first act. (Of course Mozart’s “not-so-great” efforts would be most other composers’ crowning achievements.) But in spite of act two’s weak points, Giovanni’s final confrontation with the Commendatore is still one of the greatest moments of all opera.

    Still, there’s something about the second act that appears to be missing or suppressed. DaPonte and Mozart seem to me to be far too meticulous to leave those kinds of gaps and plot dragging scenes.

    Like

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