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Behind the Mask: Who is Don Giovanni?

Thu, Nov 19, 2015


This post is by Sarah England, a Ph. D. candidate in Musicology.

Mozart’s Don Giovanni o sia Il dissolute punito (Don Giovanni, or the Rake Punished) presents the composer’s fantastic musical interpretation of the Spanish folk legend, Don Juan. First recorded in literature by Tirso de Molina in the seventeenth century as El burlador de Sevilla y convidado de pietra (1630), the legend tells of the exploits of a lustful libertine, who seduces a series of unsuspecting young women, commits murder, refuses to repent for his sins, and ultimately meets his demise (click here for a link to the synopsis).

The Don Juan legend had been a popular topic of entertainment long before Mozart premiered his opera at the National Theater in Prague in 1787, and continued to capture the imaginations of audiences long after his death. As the German poet Johann Goethe famously remarked, “No one could live until he saw Don Juan roasting in Hell and the Commendatore, as a blessed spirit, ascend to Heaven” (click here for more about Don Giovanni beyond Mozart).


Should I be laughing?

Why did the legend of Don Juan have such resonance in seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and what explains the continued success of Mozart’s Don Giovanni to the present day? The answer to this question lies in part in the duality of the tale, which is simultaneously riveting and revolting. We as audiences are captivated by the swashbuckling swagger of the rule- breaking Don, and horrified by the depravity of his actions.

Mozart’s Don Giovanni aptly treats the legend of Don Juan as a drama giocoso (literally, a comical drama). With a libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte, who also collaborated with the composer on Le Nozze di Figaro (1786) and Cosí fan Tutti (1790), both the story and music interweave elements of opera seria (serious opera) and opera buffa (comic opera).

The division of opera seria and opera buffa styles highlights the divisions of class within the opera. Upper class characters, the titled set that includes Donna Anna, Don Ottavio, and Donna Elvira, sing primarily in the seria style, characterized by long artful melodies and impressive passages of coloratura. Meanwhile, the lower class characters, the servant Leporello and peasants Zerlina and Masetto, sing in the buffa style, characterized by simple, folk or popular sounding melodies, and rapid patter singing. An interesting moment can be heard at the end of Act I in the ballroom scene, when Mozart writes three simultaneous dances–a minutet, a contradance, and a teitsh–representing the upper, middle, and lower classes respectively. Whether the opera feels more like an opera buffa or opera seria also depends on the director’s presentation of the finale. Following Don Giovanni’s downfall and journey to hell, Mozart includes a lieto fine (light ending) typical of opera buffa in which the characters happily discuss their plans for the future. Some directors chose to cut this lieto fine, ending with the more gruesome descent to Hell.

Mozart depicts the title character, Don Giovanni, as a musical blank canvas. We learn little about his inner person through his music; rather his music takes on the characteristics of those with whom he interacts. His musical style shifts with his needs, whether to appeal to a potential lover or to escape from his latest exploits. Mozart’s musical portrayal of Don Giovanni leaves audiences asking the question, who is Don Giovanni?


The Don's Political Undertones

The romantic poet E.T.A. Hoffman suggested that the question should not be who but what Don Giovanni represents. In his opinion, Don Giovanni was the physical embodiment of the soul-never-satisfied, an embodiment of the battle between good and evil, Heaven and Hell, and the consequencesof temptation. Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard agreed, writing that the Don Juan “hovers between being an idea– that is to say energy, life–and being an individual.”

In a more concrete sense, Don Giovanni represents what happens when social order is questioned–something that was in flux during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Not only does Don Giovanni blatantly defy the laws of civilized society, but he also challenges social norms by forcing himself not only Zerlina, a woman of the lower class, which might not have been questioned in the eighteenth century, but also on women of his same social class. He also blurs the distinctions between class by disguising himself as his servant in order to pursue a maid. Don Giovanni’s toast “Viva la liberta” toast at the end of the first act places the opera within the historical context of the French and American revolutions, a time period in which the notions of social order and class hierarchy were being challenged.

Interestingly, the political undertones in Don Giovanni help to explain why Mozart premiered his opera in Prague instead of the operatic center, Vienna. The work was simply considered too controversial for the musical center of Vienna where the opera was controlled by the imperial court, which may have objected not only to the morality of the story but to the political subversion as well. In fact, this toast and the entire second half of Act I was cut from an early version of the libretto intended to fool Viennese censors who may have been wary of its political undertones. Certainly when Don Giovanni was finally premiered in Vienna the following spring, it was not greeted by the same success it had enjoyed in Prague. The emperor himself reportedly said that the music was, “perhaps, perhaps better than that of Figaro…but no meat for the teeth of my Viennese,” to which the ever witty Mozart replied, “let them chew on it longer.”

In our modern society, the issues raised by Don Giovanni also take on new significance. The sexual violence against women in particular is seen in new light as awareness for domestic violence grows. In this context, Leporello’s famous “catalogue aria” in which he names the Don’s many conquests at first may elicit our laughter, but soon provokes our disgust. The consequences of the breakdown of social order when all of humanity does not agree to abide by the same basic moral codes too feels poignant in an era when global violence dominates our newsfeeds.

The timelessness of the story of Don Giovanni continues to capture audience imagination today as like a chameleon, it artfully adapts itself to changing conditions and circumstances. We as audiences continue to be charmed and delighted, horrified and disturbed and by this sensational story. Nevertheless, this fact alone does not fully answer the question of Don Juan’s enduring popularity. Perhaps the best answer is that whether we care to admit it or not, there is a little Don Giovanni inside of us all: a part of us that fantasizes about breaking the rules. As scholar Charles Russell writes,  “Don Juan lives in us all…our daydream of adventure, our nighttime dream of escape.”


For Further Reading:

Daniel Heartz, Mozart’s Operas, edited with contributing essays by Thomas Baumann, (Berkley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1990).

Mary Hunter, Mozart’s Operas: A Companion (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008). 



The Maryland Opera Studio presents Don Giovanni from November 20 - 24 at The Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center. Tickets are available here.