Première page du manuscrit de Don Giovanni, de Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Première page du manuscrit de Don Giovanni, de Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart © Getty

Everything you always wanted to know about… Mozart's Don Giovanni

Premiered in 1787 in Prague, it is a masterpiece since it was created. Composed during the last years of Mozart's life, it represents one of the composer’s greatest successes. Today, Don Giovanni is still charming us…

Created by the duo Mozart/Da Ponte (who also wrote the libretto for The Marriage of Figaro and Così fan tutte), Don Giovanni is a dramma giocoso (literally “drama with jokes”) that mixes various genres: comic, pathetic, tragic, supernatural… Difficult to classify this work in a category, since it is full of ambiguities, it is part comedy, part farce, part tragedy, mixing the anecdote with the metaphysical drama. Behind all his women conquests, Don Giovanni challenges and derides the church and the world order - risking of ending up cursed.

A masterpiece completed in a hurry

Mozart composes the opera in Prague. There, he has an active social life and is always in a rush; this is why he has very little time to finish the work. Some say he completed the overture the day before the premiere, some on the very day. On the eve of the premiere, Mozart is drinking punch with Constanze, his wife, while she is telling him some stories. The composer falls asleep like a child. She doesn't dare to wake him up until five in the morning: his sleep is interrupted, and he starts writing the overture. Two hours later, Mozart hands the overture to the scribes for copying the score for the orchestra.

The overture to the opera almost seems to announce the tragic end of Don Giovanni. Once it is performed for the first time, it immediately surprises the audience: they are expecting entertainment, whereas the opera starts as a requiem mass!

The Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Herbert von Karajan, whose facial expressions will make your blood run cold.

Don Juan, Don Giovanni, Dom Juan…

The creator of the character of Don Juan and of his legend is a Spanish dramatist and Catholic monk living in Spain around 1630, Tirso de Molina. His character embodies the revolt started by the Christian morality of that period - which stresses the sins of the flesh and the holy institution of marriage.

The subject is highly topical. Playwrights, fascinated by the ambiguity of the character, get their hands on Don Juan. Molière attempts in 1665 and makes him a cynical, atheist rebel in Dom Juan or The Feast with the Statue. As for the music side, before Mozart, two other musicians try to assess the literary theme of Don Juan: Gluck in a ballet in 1761 based on Molière’s work, and Gazzaniga in an opera created in the same year as Mozart's version, in 1787. Thanks to all these sources, Da Ponte and Mozart can finally create the masterpiece we know today, which Wagner will later define as “the opera of all operas”: Don Giovanni.

Casanova left in the dark

It is Lorenzo Da Ponte, Mozart’s librettist, the one who proposes the composer to write on this subject. Some say that Casanova, during his visit to Prague, takes part in the work of the librettist, he even drafts dialogue for the drama. Casanova and Da Ponte are both Venetians, and they know each other well. The story sounds very plausible, especially since some verses were found in his manuscripts, although none were ever incorporated into Mozart's opera.

Da Ponte compares himself with Casanova: although he is a priest, Da Ponte takes some mistresses, with whom he has children; he even visits some brothels, and he is found guilty some time after and banished from Venice. This is why he travels first to Vienna and then to Prague, collaborating with Mozart and working on his operas. After Mozart’s death, this Don Juan in a cassock moves first to London to work as a grocer, then to New York City where he opens a bookstore. He dies at the age of 89; he was the first professor of Italian literature at the prestigious Columbia College: a happier ending than his hero’s death.

Portrait de Lorenzo Da Ponte dans les années 1830
Portrait de Lorenzo Da Ponte dans les années 1830  /  Attribué au peintre Samuel Finley Morse

The death of a father

Don Giovanni starts with the murder of a father. The story begins when Donna Anna, the Commendatore's daughter, is raped by Don Giovanni. The father of the young girl, waked up by her screams, forces Don Giovanni, who is masked, to fight a duel. But the Commendatore is killed by his daughter's aggressor. The duel takes place on a trio of men's voices, a rare thing in opera. And even rarer, Don Giovanni has a bass voice: he is not a tenor, as one would expect from the male protagonist - especially from a seducer. Vocally, nothing distinguishes him from the other basses: neither from Leporello, his servant (even if Don Giovanni constantly reminds him the status differences between them) nor from the Commendatore, who represents moral authority (whereas Don Giovanni is a real adulterer).

Don Giovanni, far from showing remorse for his crime, invites the Commendatore to come back from the dead and supper in his company twice. While Don Giovanni is at home celebrating and behaving even worse with his servant, the statue of the Commendatore appears as promised, coming from a graveyard. All of a sudden, the opera becomes a tragic and supernatural drama. The one who was first a father is now a terrifying spectre waiting for revenge, with his bass voice coming from the bottom of the dead world and accompanied by a religious orchestra to carry Don Giovanni down to Hell.

The final scene of Don Giovanni with Kurt Moll in the role of the Commendatore

Biographers and critics did not hesitate to point out that Don Giovanni was premiered five months after Mozart's father's death: Leopold Mozart died on May 28. His father had been his first teacher (he was a composer, too), his friend and also his manager. However, the departure of his son from Salzburg, his hometown - in 1781 - and his marriage to Constanze Weber signed the break between father and son. According to Milos Forman, director of Amadeus, there is no doubt: the Commendatore and Don Giovanni represent Leopold and his son - a son dreaming of freedom but who is still under the influence of his powerful father even after his death.

Human, too human

The characters in Don Giovanni are not limited to a single archetype. Take, for instance, Leporello, Don Giovanni’s servant: ironic buffoon of the Commedia dell'arte, he is Don Giovanni’s moral awareness but who also proudly describes and counts his master's numerous lovers in the Catalogue Aria (below); he is a valet jealous of the great life of the aristocracy… Leporello is all of those things.

"Madamina, il catalogo è questo": the bass catalogue aria where Leporello (Ferruccio Furlanetto) sings to Donna Elvira the list of his master’s conquests, classified by country and hair colour.

Another very realistic and multifaceted character is Donna Elvira. Don Giovanni seduces her and promises to marry her, before ditching her and running away. She is seeking revenge and goes to Seville, where Leporello makes a list of all his master’s women. But Donna Elvira ignores him and refuses to see the real nature of Don Giovanni, whom she still loves without question.

Don Giovanni, who is anything but sorry and believing that Elvira will trust him better if he appears in lower-class clothes, orders Leporello to exchange cloak and hat with him; he sends Leporello (who is wearing his clothes) under Elvira's window, to serenade her. Leporello poses as Don Giovanni, while Don Giovanni sings, “dubbing” Leporello. With dissonances and Leporello trying to keep from laughing, the three characters sing as a trio, and their voices end up overlapping: Elvira has fallen into the trap and is convinced, Don Giovanni wins and Leporello can’t believe it.

You women

Prima la musica, poi le parole: first the music and then the words. In other words, Mozart commands and Da Ponte obeys. The music often contradicts the words in the libretto and always prevails, for the benefit of drama and action. Beyond the text, it expresses the tensions between Zerlina’s heart and mind. She is a peasant girl and Don Giovanni’s new prey, and she tries to resist him when he promises to marry her. Although their words express two very different attitudes (Don Giovanni’s proposal against Zerlina’s doubts and reservations), the music remains the same: “Là ci darem la mano” (“There we will entwine our hands”), that is what Don Giovanni tells her. Zerlina answers: “Vorrei e non vorrei” (“I would, and yet I would not”), but on the same aria as Don Giovanni's… she has already given up.

Mariusz Kwiecień as Don Giovanni and Mojca Erdmann as Zerlina at the Metropolitan Opera, 2011

Women: that's all that matters to Don Giovanni. Blonde, brunette, married, aristocrat, peasant... This variety doesn’t scare him, surely not more than decency and morale. He is a seducer, a predator when it comes to conquering a new woman: he is ready to sing to each one of them adapted variations of his aria. Mozart’s music keeps saying that. In order to seduce Zerlina, the peasant girl, he sings a pastiche of Neapolitan romantic music; for Donna Elvira, the aristocrat, he uses a more serious and noble register in Ah taci, ingiusto core. Therefore, if on one hand Mozart's characters usually have an aria or a musical motif that characterises them, on the other Don Giovanni has no musical identity, other than being the master of artificiality and of acting.

The philosopher Don

Mozart’s music does not parasitise the myth of Don Juan: instead, it enhances its aura. Many philosophers have looked into Don Giovanni with great interest, especially psychoanalysts such as Otto Rank, Freud's "right-hand man", fascinated by this hero who feasts upon the death of a father and who laughs when they announce him eternal damnation. But Søren Kierkegaard is probably the one who pays Mozart’s opera the highest possible tribute. For this Danish romantic philosopher, who is also a great seducer and a theologian, Mozart’s opera played an immense role. In "The Immediate Erotic Stages or the Musical Erotic", he praises Don Giovanni’s composer, describing him as a passionate man: “Immortal Mozart! You to whom I owe everything [...], if his name were blotted out, that would demolish the one pillar that until now has prevented everything from collapsing for me into a boundless chaos, into a dreadful nothing”.

To Kierkegaard, the hero of Mozart’s opera is more than just a character - he is a summary of man in his entirety, of his courage and his cowardice, of his greatness and his vices.

“Listen to Don Giovanni; that's to say, if you cannot get an idea of Don Giovanni by listening to him, you will never get one. Hear the beginning of his life; as lightning twists out of the thunder cloud's murk, he bursts forth from the depth of earnest, swifter than lightning, less constant than it yet just as measured. Hear how he plunges into life's diversity, how he dashes himself against its solid dam, hear these light, dancing tones of the violin, hear the beckoning of joy, hear the exultation of desire, hear the festive bliss of enjoyment; […] hear the murmur of love, hear the whisper of temptation, hear the swirl of seduction, hear the stillness of the moment – listen, listen, listen to Mozart's Don Giovanni”

Portrait de Søren Kierkegaard, aux environs de 1840
Portrait de Søren Kierkegaard, aux environs de 1840  /  D'après un dessin de Niels Christian Kierkegaard

Today, Don Giovanni keeps telling us something, and there are many different versions of it that are set in a current context. Since, today as in the past, the character of Don Giovanni and his adventures deeply challenge our modern and Western idea of love. At a time when some believe in free love, Don Giovanni the libertine continues to question ourselves!

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