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An opera written by Mozart, based on the Don Juan fable, which is basically a tale of a promiscuous man attempting to get laid.

The da Ponte libretto was based loosely on Moliere's Don Juan. The Don Juan story was first published in 1630 in the form of a play by a friar named Tirso de Molina, entitled El Burlador de Sevilla Y Convivado de Pietra (The Trickster of Seville and the Stone Guest). Since then, many interpretations of this story have been written by authors of many nationalities such as Jean-Baptiste Moliére (Dom Juan ou le Festin de Pierre, 1665), Lord Byron (Don Juan, 1821), Aleksandr Pushkin (Kamennyj Gost', 1830), and Baudelaire (Don Juan aux enfers, 1861).

The main characters are Don Giovanni, his servant Leporello, Donna Anna, Don Ottavio (Anna's fiance), The Commendatore (Anna's father), Donna Elvira, Zerlina (a peasant girl), and Masetto (Zerlina's fiancee)

The opera opens with Don Giovanni escaping from Donna Anna's home. He has failed to seduce her, and she cries out. As a matter of honor, her elderly father, the Commendatore, challenges him to a duel, in which Don Giovanni slays him.

Don Giovanni then travels around looking for more opportunities for seduction, which he finds at a peasant wedding between commoners Zerlina and Masetto. He promises Zerlina love and marriage, and as a nobleman, nearly carries her away. However, Donna Elvira, one of Don Giovanni's previous conquests, reappears and warns Zerlina of his reputation. After his failure with Zerlina, Don Giovanni plans a party to lure in not only Zerlina but every peasant woman in the area to add to his book of conquest. Zerlina and Masetto end up attending. Donna Anna, Don Ottavio, and Donna Elvira arrive at the party disguised in masks, planning to expose Don Giovanni; they are not disappointed, their opportunity soon arrives. When Giovanni suddenly forces Zerlina into a room, Zerlina screams and Masetto rushes to rescue her. To save his reputation, Giovanni tries to pin the blame on Leporello, but no one is fooled. They proclaim that Don Giovanni will be punished by Heaven for his sinfulness.

After escaping from the party without injury, Don Giovanni meets up with Leporello in a graveyard, where the Commendatore's statue demands that he repents. When Don Giovanni refuses, he is dragged down to hell.

Opera by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, from a libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte. First performed on October 28, 1787, at the Stavovské divadlo (National Theatre, or Theatre of the Estates) in Prague, with Mozart himself conducting.

Following his successes with Die Entführung aus dem Serail (1783) and Le Nozze di Figaro (1786), Mozart was commissioned to produce an opera for the royal wedding celebrations. With Da Ponte, he adapted material from the plays El Burlador de Sevilla by Tirso de Molina and Le Festin de Pierre by Molière, producing Don Giovanni. The opera was an instant success, and has since been widely regarded as one of the finest examples of the opera form ever produced.

The story

Don Giovanni is set in Sevilla in the 17th century and tells of a bold libertine, the eponymous protagonist of the opera. Abetted by his servant Leporello, he philanders his way across Europe, leaving behind a trail of female conquests:

Madamina, il catalogo è questo
delle belle che amò il padron mio:
un catalogo egli è che ho fatt'io;
osservate, leggete con me.
In Italia seicentoquaranta,
in Almagna duecentotrentuna,
cento in Francia, in Turchia novantuna,
ma in Ispagna son già
mille e tre.

Little lady, this is the list
of the beauties my master has loved,
a list I've made myself;
look at it, read it with me.
In Italy six hundred and forty,
in Germany two hundred and thirty-one,
a hundred in France, ninety-one in Turkey,
but in Spain already
a thousand and three.

Leporello's catalogue - Act I, Scene 2

Things begin to go awry for the bold charmer when his seduction (he is in masquerade) of Donna Anna ends in a duel between himself and Il Commendatore, her father. Don Giovanni kills the old man, and flees the scene. Donna Anna then elicits an oath from her betrothed, Don Ottavio, that he will not rest until her father is avenged.

With the appearance of Donna Elvira, a woman that Don Giovanni has seduced and abandoned, and who is now equally bent on revenge, Don Giovanni's doom is imperceptibly set in motion. He continues his conquests, with his eye on a peasant girl, Zerlina, whom he charms at her very wedding feast, to the great anger of her intended husband, Masetto.

Evading both Donna Anna and Masetto (the latter, by the ruse of switching identities with his servant Leporello, and then assaulting the less-than-clever Masetto), Don Giovanni takes refuge with Leporello in a graveyard - the same graveyard where the Commendatore is interred.

It is in this graveyard that the final phase of Don Giovanni's doom begins. Feeling untouchable by fate, Don Giovanni mockingly invites the stone statue of the Commendatore to join him for dinner later - and to Leporello's terror, the statue responds by accepting the invitation.

The penultimate scene of the opera is hair-raising. Don Giovanni, undismayed by the supernatural events, has commanded a banquet to be prepared for his distinguished guest. Leporello warns him of his impending doom, but he refuses to let it turn him into a coward. Donna Elvira arrives, and pleads with him, but he mocks her.

The Commendatore's statue arrives, and with sepulchral voice offers a return invitation:

Tu m'invitasti a cena:
il tuo dovere o sai.
Respondimi: verrai
tu a cenar meco?

You invited me to supper:
You know your obligation {as host}
so answer me: will you
in turn come sup with me?

Act II, Scene 15

Despite Leporello's pleading, Don Giovanni is steadfast in his twisted nobility. He will not refuse the invitation. He clasps the Commendatore's hand. The Commendatore then offers him a last chance to repent, which Don Giovanni proudly refuses. Flames erupt around him, and he is dragged down to his damnation.

The final scene of the opera is an epilogue of sorts, wherein Donna Anna, Don Ottavio and Donna Elvira arrive, with Masetto and the ministers of justice, seeking to capture Don Giovanni. Leporello tells them of his master's horrible fate, and they leave - Donna Anna and Don Ottavio to be married; Donna Elvira for a convent; Masetto and Zerlina likewise to be married; and Leporello to seek a gentler master.

Interpreting the opera

Any opera worth its salt is subject to numerous layers of interpretation. The most obvious one is the "morality play", which is essentially a story of promiscuity and retribution. No doubt, this superficial and moralistic interpretation is the one that made the play so palatable to Emperor Joseph II (1741-1790), who commissioned the opera - a man notorious for his lack of complexity. On this layer, Don Giovanni is a miscreant, whose crimes are about to catch up with him. The authorities arrive to seize him, in the final scene, only to find that he has already been made to answer to a higher authority.

On a more complex level, Don Giovanni deals with the hazardous life of a libertine surrounded by "lesser mortals". On this level, there is no "right" or "wrong" - there is only the nobility of the philosopher and free thinker versus the baseness of those who spurn Enlightenment. Some interpreters have considered the famous libertine Giacomo Girolamo Casanova (1725-1798) to be the inspiration for the character of Don Giovanni - certainly, this is a reasonable supposition. We know for a fact that Casanova was among the audience on the premiere night. Like the fictional Don Giovanni, Casanova travelled all over Europe (traversing more than 150,000 kilometers in the course of his lifetime), seducing women (and the occasional man) all over the continent.

Casanova met with Mozart during the preparation of the opera, and it is not unthinkable that he may have had an influence on the libretto. It is vitally important to this interpretation that, to the true libertine, morality is an irrelevant concept - a stricture invented by lesser minds to limit the scope of truly enlightened thinking. In this libertinistic interpretation, Don Giovanni's refusal to back down and repent his sins in the confrontation with the Commendatore stands as a symbol of noble Enlightenment versus trite Moralism.

Another interpretation, made popular by the entertaining but somewhat garish film Amadeus (1984, directed by Milos Forman, from a play by Peter Shaffer) is what I like to call the "Oedipal interpretation". In this interpretation, the entire opera is a metaphor for the strained relationship between Mozart and his father, Leopold Mozart. The appearance of the grim Commendatore, promising retribution for past sins, thus becomes interpretable as an insecure son's nightmare version of a strict father.

Whatever interpretation one chooses to invest in (and they are all equally valid in their own way - no story has only one reading), the multitude of possible interpretations stand as a testament to the complexity of this, one of the greatest operas ever written.

Translations from the Italian libretto by myself.
All copyright for these waived.


Afterthought(s):

If you do not have the opportunity to see Don Giovanni performed live, allow me to recommend Joseph Losey's excellent filmatisation of the opera, from 1979, starring Ruggero Raimondi as Don Giovanni. This is done in a historically appropriate style, and is a masterpiece of operatic film. Although it is slightly marred by the somewhat mediocre "talent" of Kiri te Kanawa (as Donna Elvira), this is more than made up for by the sparkling and humourous performance of José van Dam (as Leporello).

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