Plot & Creation: Don Giovanni
The Story of Don Juan
In the late 18th century, the literary character of Don Juan was well known across Europe. A swashbuckling antihero with an extraordinary weakness for women, he had been featured in numerous plays and operas since fi rst gracing the stage in 1630 in the Spanish playwright Tirso de Molina’s El Burlador de Sevilla y Convidado de Piedra (The Trickster of Seville and The Stone Guest).
The essential storyline of the popular legend was as follows: The gentleman (and unrepentant womanizer) Don Juan kills a nobleman after attempting to rape his daughter (or sister). In a moment of remarkable hubris, Don Juan invites the nobleman’s funerary statue to dinner. The statue accepts, shows up for the dinner date, and promptly drags Don Juan down to hell. Beyond this rough outline, however, the story proved remarkably pliable. The French playwright Molière’s 1665 Don Juan, or The Feast of Stone, for instance, was a mordant satire on 17th-century hypocrisy, poking equal fun at the lecherous nobleman and his superstitious yet worldly manservant (who responds to the Don’s damnation by lamenting his lost wages). Mozart and Da Ponte found in the story a productive tension between comedy and tragedy. And at the same time that Mozart and Da Ponte were working on their opera, the San Moisè theater in Venice was featuring a version of Don Giovanni that treated its source material mockingly, with characters remarking that the story was so hackneyed that it was fit for use only at country fairs.
Yet it is Mozart and Da Ponte’s version that has become a paradigmatic shorthand for both the Don Juan myth and the genre of opera itself. Since its 1787 premiere, authors including E.T.A. Hoffmann, George Bernard Shaw, and Anthony Burgess have directly referenced the opera in their writing, as have philosophers such as Søren Kierkegaard and Albert Camus. Composers Franz Liszt and Frédéric Chopin both wrote solo piano works inspired by Mozart’s music, and Don Giovanni, like many of Mozart’s operas, makes appearances in popular culture, including two film soundtracks, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows and Amadeus.
Don Giovanni’s servant Leporello keeps watch outside the Commendatore’s palace. He grumbles that he’d like to be the nobleman someday, free from worries and the obligations of work, rather than always being to be subject to Giovanni’s whims. Suddenly, the Commendatore’s daughter, Donna Anna, comes running out of the building. She is struggling with Giovanni (who is wearing a mask): She has found him hiding in her room, and, certain that he wanted to rape her, she demands to know his identity. Alerted by his daughter’s cries, the elderly Commendatore appears. He challenges the masked stranger to a duel and is killed. Giovanni and Leporello escape. Anna asks her fiancé, Don Ottavio, to avenge her father’s death.
The following morning, Giovanni has a new conquest in mind: a beautiful woman who is traveling alone. The tables are soon turned, however, when it turns out that the “mystery” woman is looking for him, and she is furious. Seduced and then abandoned by Giovanni in another city, Donna Elvira is now desperate to either marry him or make him pay for his betrayal. Giovanni slips away, leaving Leporello to distract Elvira. Leporello explains to her that she is neither the first nor the last woman to fall victim to Giovanni’s disingenuous charms, and he shows her a catalogue with the names of 2,065 other women Giovanni has seduced. Hurt and disgusted, Elvira flees.
Once again left to wander through the streets of Seville, Giovanni and Leporello stumble upon a wedding party. Two young peasants, Zerlina and Masetto, are celebrating their nuptials with a group of friends. Giovanni offers to provide a grand feast and tells Leporello to escort the groom, Masetto, to his palace. Masetto balks at first, but he eventually complies—unwittingly leaving Giovanni alone to flirt with Zerlina. Giovanni tells the young woman that she is destined for a better life than that of a peasant and promises to marry her. Just as he is on the verge of successfully seducing her, Elvira appears, denouncing Giovanni and leading Zerlina away to safety.
Anna and Ottavio appear and wave down Giovanni. Recognizing him only as a nobleman (and not as the masked intruder from the night before), they ask for his help in finding the man who attacked Anna and killed her father. Elvira returns and once again denounces Giovanni, who in turn tries to convince Anna and Ottavio that Elvira is deranged. As soon as Giovanni leaves, Anna realizes that she has recognized his voice: It was the voice of the man in her bedroom, and Giovanni is her father’s murderer. She again asks Ottavio to avenge her father’s death.
Leporello tells Giovanni that he took Masetto to the palace, only to be met at the door by Zerlina and the angry Elvira. Using all his cunning, Leporello managed to lock Elvira out of the palace and Zerlina in, and Giovanni looks forward to an evening of dancing and drinking in the company of the beautiful young peasant. Masetto comes to Giovanni’s palace to find Zerlina, who asks his forgiveness for having fallen for Giovanni’s charms. Masetto hides as Giovanni appears and resumes his flirtatious talk with Zerlina. When Giovanni spots the groom, he scolds him for leaving his bride alone, then escorts them both back to the party.
Elvira, Anna, and Ottavio arrive wearing masks. Prompted by Giovanni, Leporello invites them in, unaware of their identity. In the ballroom, Leporello distracts Masetto as Giovanni yet again attempts to seduce Zerlina. Once her desperate cries are heard, Giovanni tries to pin the seduction on Leporello, but Elvira, Anna, and Ottavio take off their masks and confront him at last.
Leporello tries to convince Don Giovanni to abandon his pursuit of women, but Giovanni insists that he needs them more than air or food. Now he has his eye on Elvira’s maid. To avoid detection, he convinces Leporello to switch clothes with him. Giovanni then calls out to Elvira through her window. When she comes down to the street, Leporello (disguised as Giovanni) leads her off for a walk, leaving the real Giovanni (now disguised as Leporello) free to serenade the maid. His song is interrupted by Masetto, who leads a posse in search of his bride’s seducer. Still pretending to be Leporello, Giovanni sends the men off in various directions, then beats up Masetto and hurries off. Zerlina finds her bruised bridegroom and, apologizing for the pain she has caused, promises that she loves only him.
Leporello is still with Elvira. She is baffled by his insistence that they stay in the shadows, but she is sure that this time his proclamations of love are genuine. Leporello attempts to slip away just as Anna and Ottavio appear, only to be surprised by the arrival of Zerlina and Masetto. All four believe him to be Giovanni and are ready to punish him, but Elvira defends him. Fearing for his life, Leporello reveals his true identity, which causes Zerlina to accuse him of beating up Masetto, while Elvira charges him with deceit. Leporello is fi nally able to escape. Ottavio proclaims his resolve to take revenge on Giovanni. Elvira is torn between a yearning for retribution and her renewed love.
Giovanni and Leporello fi nd each other hiding in a graveyard. As Giovanni laughs over his adventures of the day, a strange voice scolds him: It comes from the marble statue at the Commendatore’s tomb. Laughing at Leporello’s fear, Giovanni forces his terrified servant to invite the statue to his palace for dinner. The statue accepts.
Ottavio, meanwhile, is satisfied with the idea that Giovanni will soon be brought to justice. But Anna, who is still mourning her father, can’t share his sense of resolution. Ottavio accuses her of not loving him. Indeed, she does, Anna replies, but he must be patient until time can heal her wounds.
Giovanni is enjoying dinner at his palace. Elvira enters and makes a last, desperate attempt to convince Giovanni to change his life and make amends. He laughs at her. Exasperated, she leaves. Moments later, she is heard screaming in terror. Giovanni sends Leporello to investigate. A fearful knocking at the palace door reveals that the statue has come to dinner. The marble Commendatore demands that Giovanni repent, but Giovanni refuses: He will bow to no man, alive or dead. As Leporello watches in horror, the earth cracks open and devils drag Giovanni down to hell. Elvira, Anna, Ottavio, Zerlina, Masetto, and Leporello contemplate their future and the fate of an immoral man.
Tirso de Molina publishes El Burlador de Sevilla y Convidado de Piedra. It is one of the earliest incarnations of the Don Juan myth, which will appear throughout the 17th and 18th centuries in various literary and operatic guises under titles including Don Juan, Don Giovanni, Il Dissoluto Punito (The Villain Punished), and Il Convitato di Pietra (The Stone Guest).
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is born on January 27 in Salzburg, a small city in western Austria. His father Leopold is a violinist at the court of the local archbishop. Of the seven children born to Leopold and Anna Maria Mozart, Wolfgang and his older sister Marianne (born in 1751 and affectionately called “Nannerl”) are the only two that survive past infancy.
Little Wolfgang’s astonishing musical abilities are clear from a young age. He begins playing harpsichord at age three. At four, he composes a harpsichord concerto that is declared “unplayably difficult” by his father’s musician friends—until the child sits down at the harpsichord and plays it. And at age six he begins to teach himself violin.
Leopold is eager to share his child’s miraculous (and highly profitable) talent with the rest of the world. In January 1762, he sets off with his not-quite-six-year-old child for the first of numerous international concert tours. On these journeys, little Wolfgang will meet and play for the most important leaders of Europe, winning them over with his stupendous musical gifts and natural charm. (It is said that, at age seven, he even proposes marriage to the child Marie Antoinette.) These musical tours also allow Mozart to meet Europe’s most important musicians. He composes his first symphony at age nine and his first opera at twelve.
After years of travel, Mozart and his family once again settle in Salzburg, where the young composer is given a job at the court of the newly elected Archbishop Hieronymus Colloredo. Yet Mozart is never satisfied with the position: Colloredo is a domineering and difficult man, and Mozart, used to the great capitals of Europe, finds Salzburg provincial, and his wages are meager. He will continue looking for employment elsewhere, with minimal success.
Mozart is fired by Colloredo—“with,” he writes to his father, “a swift kick in the backside.” He moves to Vienna, one of the most important musical centers of the day, and quickly becomes known as the city’s finest keyboard player.
This same year, the poet and ex-priest Lorenzo Da Ponte moves to Vienna, having been banished from Venice because of his liberal politics and illicit involvement with several married women. In Vienna, he attracts the notice of Emperor Joseph II, who appoints Da Ponte as the poet to the court theater. His libretti for Mozart, Antonio Salieri, and Vicente Martín y Soler stand as landmark achievements of Italian opera buffa in Vienna.
Le Nozze di Figaro, the first of Mozart’s collaborations with Da Ponte, premieres on May 1. Following a very successful run of Figaro performances in Prague, Pasquale Bondini, the Italian impresario of the city’s National Theater, commissions Mozart to compose a new opera based on the Don Juan story.
Giuseppe Gazzaniga’s opera Don Giovanni, based on a libretto by Giovanni Bertati, premieres on February 5 in Venice. The work is modeled as a play-within-a-play, in which a traveling opera company decides to revive the old Don Juan story, even though the players complain that the plot is stale and overused. Da Ponte, aware of Bertati’s text, will draw on this predecessor when crafting his own Don Giovanni later this year, although he notably fails to mention his debt to Bertati when writing his memoirs.
Mozart begins composing the music for Da Ponte’s libretto over the summer, and their Don Giovanni premieres at Prague’s National Theater on October 29, with Mozart himself conducting the first four performances.