These two sentences are excerpted from a love letter by Gustave Flaubert to Louise Colet, a poetess whom he met while she was posing for sculptor James Pradier. Colet apparently had complained that Flaubert wrote to her more about Shakespeare than about himself; apparently Flaubert found the Bard more interesting.
Don Giovanni costume design by Andrea Viotti
Such is the power of art and literature, and Flaubert’s praise of Don Giovanni has been reflected by many other artists over the centuries, demonstrating the impact of Mozart’s opera on the arts. Yet, even Mozart had to be inspired to write one of his greatest works, and that inspiration was the legend of Don Juan (“Giovanni” is the Italian equivalent), which, itself, has been the subject of countless incarnations.
It would be convenient to be able to name a single historic person who was or became the Don Juan of myth, but this particular legend does not have that kind of history. Instead, the legend owes itself to a fictional character—but, complicating matters, even this fictional Don Juan may not have marked the first appearance of Don Juan in history. The history books point to a seventeenth-century dramatic play by a Spanish monk who used the name Tirso de Molina. Titled El Burlador de Sevilla y convidado de piedra (The Trickster of Seville and His Guest of Stone), the play might have been revised by another playwright. Interestingly, the title of an earlier version, Tan largo me lo fiáis, refers to the idea of deferred payment, quite appropriate to describe Don Juan’s payback at the end of the opera.
“Trickster” in the title does not refer to someone who plays practical jokes, but rather to someone who tries to trick people into believing him. That motivation is central to the Don Juan character and to Mozart’s opera: Don Giovanni continually manipulates women into falling in love with him, and making them believe that he loves them. Also significant, fathers in Spanish plays of the time defend their daughters’ honor, and defense of female honor, in general, was a common theme in Spanish dramas—prevalent ideas in Don Giovanni.
At the end of Molina’s play is an encounter with a statue, a scenario that may have been adapted from versions of an ancient European folk story, The Double Invitation. In the story, a young man insults a dead man and then invites him to dinner. The dead man keeps the appointment and returns the invitation. At the second meal, the young man is terrified into repentance or is punished by death or madness. This double invite serves as the foundation for two scenes in the opera.
Following Molina’s play, so many versions of the Don Juan legend have been published, composed, staged, or filmed that it seems as if every artist wanted to attach his or her name to the story. Bergman, Dumas, Goldoni, Molière, Pushkin, Shaw, and Zorrilla immortalized Don Juan in plays. Gluck composed a ballet, and Richard Strauss composed a symphonic poem. E.T.A. Hoffmann penned a novella. Byron is recognized for his epic poem. Both Leroux’s novel The Phantom of the Opera and Lloyd Webber’s musical adaptation include a fictional Don Juan opera. A silent film starred John Barrymore, and Errol Flynn appeared in Adventures of Don Juan. Plus, there were at least four operas.
When the time arrived for Mozart’s rendition, commissioned by the Prague Opera, he was approaching the end of his life. Composed four years before he died, Don Giovanni followed Le Nozze di Figaro and preceded Così fan tutte, Die Zauberflöte, and La Clemenza di Tito. Librettist Lorenzo da Ponte’s main sources for Don Giovanni were Goldoni’s, Molière’s, and Tirso’s plays, and an opera by Gazzaniga (libretto by Bertati). Together, da Ponte and Mozart married comedy and tragedy in what da Ponte termed “dramma giocoso” (“merry drama”); the comic element was important because the Prague theater’s manager, Pasquale Bondini, wanted Don Giovanni to replicate Figaro’s rousing, buffo spirit in orderto help his company’s finances.
Copyright laws did not exist, so, working from Bertati’s libretto for Gazzaniga’s opera, da Ponte followed the story, but limited the number of characters based on the number of available singers. Ultimately, Mozart chose to set the opera in two acts, instead of three, to keep the action moving, since the libretto consists mainly of episodes. The work premiered in October 1787 as Il dissoluto punito, ossia Il Don Giovanni (The Rake Punished), reflecting da Ponte’s moral judgment of the character.
For the singers of the Vienna premiere in May 1788, Mozart needed to make revisions: two new arias and a new scene. “Dalla sua pace” was inserted in Act I for the tenor singing Don Ottavio, because he could not manage “Il mio tesoro” in Act II (Mozart did not intend for both of Ottavio’s arias to be sung in the same performance, but they usually are today, as in this production). The soprano singing Donna Elvira wanted an aria on the scale of Donna Anna’s, so Mozart obliged with “Mi tradì.” In place of “Il mio tesoro,” Mozart added a scene for Zerlina and Leporello, but this scene is often cut today (which is the case for this production).
Dramatic elements of the opera generate from Don Giovanni: they begin with him murdering the Commendatore, Donna Anna’s father, leading her fiancé Don Ottavio to swear vengeance. Don Giovanni abandoned Donna Elvira, leaving her lamenting his betrayal of her. He woos Zerlina on her wedding day and simultaneously chases away her fiancé. He forces his servant Leporello into several uncomfortable situations, such as when Leporello needs to make excuses for him, carry out his wishes, or trade places with him so that Don Giovanni can serenade Donna Elvira’s maid.
Set design for Don Giovanni by Alessandro Camera
Much of the opera’s humor stems from Leporello’s actions and comments. He is, at various times, foolish, fearless, wimpy, sympathetic, amused, and appalled. The audience can laugh at his Catalogue Aria (in the true spirit of a merry drama, the aria is at once funny and shameful) and be his cheering section when he tries to convince Don Giovanni to leave women alone, only to have his intentions backfire.
Doom is foreshadowed from the first note. The orchestral chords that begin the overture are the same chords that will accompany the Commendatore’s second entrance. Subsequent dominating chords and changes in atmosphere leave many possibilities for interpretation, such as mysterious, high, wandering strings and pulsating woodwinds, perhaps representing heartbeats. A galloping motif heard three times in the woodwinds could symbolize Don Giovanni’s carefree attitude or his glee at making new conquests.
Heavy, descending chords followed by fluttering strings comprise a two-part recurring theme throughout the overture. Perhaps the darker chords symbolize the demonic Don Giovanni, and the strings signify the sweet, innocent women of whom he takes advantage. Or the two parts might represent Don Giovanni’s face-off against the Commendatore, or the somber and comic scenes in the opera—or possibly all of these ideas at once.
Overall, it is important to remember that there are two kinds of operatic overtures: those that contain themes from the opera and those that do not, but serve as curtain raisers. Don Giovanni is in both categories, because it personifies the Commendatore, foreshadows the dinner scene, makes clear that this is an opera of contrasts and mood swings, and serves as Mozartean flair.
Drama and comedy aside, this would not be a Mozart opera if it did not contain tender, melodic arias. Don Ottavio’s “Dalla sua pace” and “Il mio tesoro” are in this category, as are Zerlina’s “Batti, batti, o bel Masetto” and the Don Giovanni/Zerlina duet “La ci darem la mano.” However, for sheer speed, Don Giovanni’s Champagne Aria, “Finch’han dal vino,” is most impressive.
Significantly, this brief aria, in which he anticipates more conquests, is one of at least two moments in the opera when he outright declares his motivation. The other—also in the spirit of funny and shameful—is when he tells Leporello that he needs women more than bread or air, that to be true to one woman is to be harsh to all of the others, that women call his good intentions “deception.”
Whether intentional or not on da Ponte’s part, the passage of time between the murder and the dinner scene has a notable emotional effect. It leaves no doubt about Don Giovanni’s objectives and depicts one attempted seduction after another, making one feel like someone or something needs to end Don Giovanni’s ruthlessness toward women, or else he will continue his pursuits forever.
In the dinner scene, a fragment of the woodwind motif from the overture is heard again, and the onstage ensemble plays three melodies to entertain Don Giovanni while he dines. The first, a joke on Mozart’s part, is from Una cosa rara, an opera by Martín y Soler that premiered in Vienna in November 1786 and became a box office favorite over Le Nozze di Figaro. The second is the aria “Come un’agnello” from Sarti’s Fra i due litiganti il terzo gode (“While Two Dispute, the Third Enjoys”), and the third is “Non più andrai” from Figaro. However, all levity ends with the arrival of the Commendatore’s ghost.
Musically, this scene with the Commendatore is a stroke of genius. Mozart repeats the opening segments of the overture, with all of the dread and mystery that they convey, now heard in the perfect context. As Don Giovanni is dragged to his doom, the music turns frightful and unforgiving, with harsh drum beats and other vigorous melodies. It would be difficult to imagine Mozart sounding more menacing than he does in these few bars.
Ever since the world was introduced to Don Giovanni, Mozart’s opera has received similar treatment as the original Don Juan legend. A number of composers and writers have praised the work by borrowing from it or simply arguing for its greatness. Liszt and Thalberg composed piano fantasies (Liszt’s is Reminiscences of Don Juan). Chopin wrote variations for piano and orchestra on “La ci darem la mano.” In addition, Beethoven and Danzi wrote variations on that duet, and the twenty-second variation in Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations is based on Leporello’s “Notte e giorno faticar” at the beginning of the opera. Don Giovanni is also referenced in Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann.
Mozart would probably be flattered by the comments of Danish philosopher Kierkegaard in the essay “The Immediate Erotic Stages or the Musical-Erotic” from his book Either/Or, a discussion of the aesthetic and ethical stages of life. Kierkegaard argues that Don Giovanni makes Mozart “a classic composer and absolutely immortal” and that the opera is “supreme among all classic works.” His logic, condensed: the most abstract idea is the “sensuous,” which can be presented only through the abstract form of music; Don Giovanni is the perfect unity of this idea and form; and the subject matter is musical, meaning that the music is not mere accompaniment, but that the story, with its emotions, needs this music, and one could not visualize the story without this music.
One could ask, centuries after Don Giovanni made its debut, whether it was appropriate of Mozart and da Ponte to treat the story of a philanderer with drama and humor. Perhaps not, and, if it were composed today, its impact might be perceived much differently. Yet, given that Mozart composed the opera for an open-minded Prague audience as opposed to a prudish Vienna, and given that the intention was entertainment (like any other opera), the synthesis is justified. Plus, could anyone conceive of this opera without Leporello’s humor and asides, without his Catalogue Aria? Some things, no matter how incongruous, are simply inseparable once joined—in this case, Don Giovanni’s story, music, and wit.
Greg Waxberg, a writer and magazine editor for The Pingry School, is an award-winning freelance writer and a program annotator for opera companies.