“Mille tre”

In Act I of Don Giovanni, Leporello shows the inconsolable Donna Elvira a “catalogue”
of Don Giovanni’s conquests—a remarkable document, compiled by Leporello himself,
listing no fewer than 2,065 women in five countries.

The scene (Track 1) is often played for laughs (although Don Giovanni’s pickup-artist-style antics may well leave modern viewers uncomfortable). The notion that all blondes will be seduced by praising their gentility while brunettes prefer to hear about their constancy is, on its surface, patently absurd. This humorous sentiment is augmented by Mozart’s music, which cleverly uses text painting (a compositional technique in which music imitates the literal sense of the words) to convey the variety of women that fall under the Don’s spell. Sustained, largo melodies traversing wide leaps illustrate the “large women” whose majesty Giovanni lauds, while the description of “la piccina” (the small woman) that immediately follows shrinks down to a narrow range, with rapid-fire repetition of short, staccato notes. In many cases, the baritone playing Leporello also imitates these qualities physically, offering large gestures for “la grande maestosa” and collapsing down for “la piccina.” Yet the most memorable aspect of the scene seems to be utterly random: the number “mille tre” (1,003), the number of Giovanni’s conquests in Spain. Leporello lingers lovingly over the number, repeating it over and over to a thoroughly astonished Elvira.

So why this particular number? One possible reason for “mille tre” has to do with the conventions of Italian poetry. The default setting for Italian scansion (the rhythm of the verse) is to have the accent fall on the penultimate syllable, a structure known as a “verso piano” (pl. “versi piani”). Listen to how Leporello pronounces the first two lines of the aria, and you’ll hear flawless versi piani:

Madamina, il catalogo è questo               Mah-dah-MEE-nah
                                                                 eel kah-TAH-lah-goh eh QUES-toh

Delle belle che amò il padron mio          del-leh BEL-leh keh ah-MOH
                                                                eel PAHD-ron MEE-yoh

By contrast, lines with an accent on the fi nal syllable are referred to as “tronchi,” or truncated. (For a fun vocabulary word, lines with an accent on the antepenultimate syllable are called “sdrucciolo,” pronounced ZDROOCH-cho-loh.) But while the punchy fi nality of a verso troncho is ideal for ending verses, “tre” (“three”) is the only Italian number between one and ten that carries a syllable on the final accent .

Even so, “cento tre” (“103”) would technically have worked just as well in creating the verso tronco Da Ponte desired. So why choose a number that was an order of magnitude larger than all other numbers in the aria? In a lengthy essay, the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard argued that the randomness of the number implies that Don Giovanni is still adding to the list (an argument borne out by the libretto, in which Giovanni pursues both Donna Anna and Zerlina). Another argument might be found in the writings of Jorge Luis Borges in an essay on the One Thousand and One Nights: “To say a thousand nights is to say infi nite nights, countless nights, endless nights,” he suggests. “To say a thousand and one nights is to add one to infinity.” Applying this argument to Leporello’s list, we would extrapolate that 1,003, while not exactly infinite, implies an almost unimaginably large number.

Yet no matter how we understand Leporello’s famous catalogue, the aria is a microcosm of the opera as a whole: funny, terrifying, and a biting social commentary that is as timely today as it was in the 18th century—or at any time when men feel a sense of entitlement and ownership with regards to women.