ossia il dissoluto punito:
So reads the title page of Mozart and Da Ponte’s famed opera. What comes before the colon is easy enough to parse: Don Giovanni, or the Villain Punished. But what about that pesky designation of genre, “dramma giocoso”? In the most literal terms, “dramma giocoso” means simply “humorous drama” (or, to use a modern portmanteau, a “dramedy”), and indeed, the opera is by turns horrifying and hilarious. Yet to read this work as simply partly funny, partly serious, is to miss a fascinating history of genre, style, and the potentially subversive power of opera as an art form.
In the 18th century, Italian opera was divided quite neatly into two genres: opera seria and opera buffa. The translations are simply “serious opera” and “comic opera,” respectively, yet far more went into distinguishing these genres than simply the relative comic value of their plots. Opera seria was the older genre of the two; its characters were gods, mythological heroes, and the august fi gures of ancient Greece and Rome, and its narrative style tended towards the static, with a succession of solo arias and recitatives and very few ensembles or choruses.
Opera buffa, on the other hand, centered fi gures from the middle and lower classes of society. Drawing on naturalistic plots that eschewed the divine interventions common in opera seria, opera buffa explored (and exploited) humanity’s foibles. Complex musical ensembles contributed to the humor of the plot, as did mistaken identities, the vagaries of love, and—most notably—clever servants outwitting their blustering noble counterparts. (For a fantastic example of opera buffa in action, check out the Act II fi nale of Mozart and Da Ponte’s Le Nozze di Figaro.)
For much of the 18th century, these two genres were as distinct as the social classes that they depicted. Yet by the 1780s, revolutionary ideas were beginning to shake the very bedrock of this highly stratifi ed European society. (A decade before, a group of rag-tag colonies in North America had even founded a country on the “self-evident” principle of equality for all.) So, what might we glean from this “dramma giocoso” if we think about it from the perspective of class?
For starters, there is nothing noble about the nobleman Don Giovanni. Utterly devoid of noblesse oblige, he is in every respect the antithesis of the wise, benefi cent rulers of opera seria, such as the benevolent emperor in Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito. Moreover, there are no mitigating circumstances to help us view his behavior in a more favorable light. Whereas opera seria characters (like the hero in Antonio Vivaldi’s Orlando Furioso) could be granted a temporary period of madness to explain certain unsavory deeds, Don Giovanni is a rational actor, forcing us to scrutinize his actions and judge him guilty.
Compare this figure to the servant Leporello. Although the comic servant character had existed since ancient Greek drama, Leporello is no mere fool or buffoon. Being a servant to the daredevil Don, Leporello has adopted a cynical practicality. He knows that the Don’s behavior is reprehensible, and he resents a social system that forces him to enable Don Giovanni’s toxicity. From the very first moments of the opera, Leporello is already imagining a different world order: He is sick of working “day and night,” and he’d like to occasionally be the gentleman himself. And he is by far the smartest character in the opera. Hiding under a table when the Commendatore comes to call may be funny, but it’s also a more intelligent response than Giovanni’s devil-may-care hubris.
The genre-bending nature of this “dramma giocoso” thus goes beyond merely merging opera buffa and opera seria. Instead, Mozart and Da Ponte actively subverted stereotypes of social class and operatic structure, creating a work of art that deftly reflected the revolutionary ideals of its age.