Punishing Don Giovanni: Yesterday’s Art in Today’s Times

In an age of righteous indignation and hostility toward those men in powerful positions who have used their influence to get whatever they want, it should hardly seem improbable that an opera has already been written about just that topic, long foreshadowing the #MeToo and Times Up movements. In some ways, Mozart and Da Ponte’s Don Giovanni based on a long-worn hackneyed theme (indeed, it was already so by Mozart’s time) has perhaps predicted our social movements today. Mozart’s enduring musical masterpiece and character study of the Don provides remarkable historical commentary about the conduct of such men. Indeed, the roots toward understanding the libretto’s salty depictions of a man’s unstoppable depravity, and the opera’s splendid musical text painting are to be found in the genre’s history itself and how the opera came to be.

Don Giovanni is a dramma giocoso, literally a comedy-drama, somewhat different in sensibility from the buffo antics of its groundbreaking forerunner Marriage of Figaro. Dramma giocoso carefully overlaid both genres and was frequently the norm in Italian opera of the time. Composer and librettist relished the chance to mix dramatically difficult with comically improbable situations, such as juxtaposing Leporello’s Catalogue aria with Donna Elvira’s disconsolate feelings at being rejected by the Don, who had promised to marry her.  

Yet, the Don is not just hurtful and harmful, he is the archetypical cad of the worst sort, so how can someone who so licentiously contributes to the destruction of women’s lives be even remotely comical? To answer that question we need to examine the circumstances under which the opera was composed.

After the immense success of Marriage of Figaro in 1786, Pasquale Bondini, impresario of the Prague Opera, commissioned Mozart for a new opera in 1787 to celebrate the marriage of the Emperor’s niece, the Archduchess Maria Teresa. Da Ponte, who had seen Gazzaniga’s Don Giovanni on Bertati’s one-act libretto, apparently told Mozart he thought the composer could do a better job and that he (Da Ponte) would write a better libretto (Da Ponte apparently disliked his rival Bertati intensely). Da Ponte expanded Bertati’s libretto, itself based on Molière’s study of the Don, into two acts adding greater psychological depth to the characterizations. Da Ponte further supplied Mozart with his favourite dramatic devices for the composer to work with — intrigue and social commentary. Moreover, he made the women more bold and clearly defined: Donna Anna was the parta seria, Zerlina the comic servant-class buffa, and the most complex was the mezzo carettere Donna Elvira, a blend of comic and tragic elements. 

Da Ponte’s literary expansion of the libretto, while keeping the most basic elements of Bertati’s original and borrowing lines from both Bertati and Molière, allowed Mozart to write arias in three different linguistic types. Most remarkable of all was how Mozart would blend all three character genres together in the astonishing Act I finale when three separate dance types are heard simultaneously, evocative of three different social classes and their musical-dramatic languages. Throughout Act I, sashaying and dancing meanderingly amid them all defying social conventions of all the classes, would be the the at-once charming, but all-too deplorable Don Giovanni himself, set musically and dramatically in dramatic counterpoint to stunning music.  

Today we would simply call the Don a sociopath and diagnose him with a variety of psychological disorders, chief among them, narcissism. In Mozart and Da Ponte’s vision, The Don would be a controlling figure who ruins the lives of all he encounters, providing the opera with multiple opportunities for musical and literary commentary not only on human nature but how far society is prepared to tolerate such destructive narcissism. It is precisely such inherent tensions in the opera that fascinated the nineteenth century, making Don Giovanni the most popular opera of the Romantic Era.

The essential conflicts of the Don’s compulsive libertine nature, for which he defiantly will not apologize, and for which he will ultimately be condemned, are key elements that still fascinate us today. For Edmonton Opera, Director Oriol Tomas has placed a new spin on the Don with an interesting contemporary twist that aligns well with the legend of the Don as compulsive abuser. In his version, Don Giovanni is not a nobleman rather he is a celebrity with popularity-conferred status, in this case a matador in Seville. He ultimately is a man who believes he can do whatever he wishes and use whomever he wishes in any manner he chooses, the true definition of a libertine. Moreover, Tomas makes his women not merely the Don’s victims, but instead chillingly and effectively, the Don’s judges of his actions. And as the Me Too and Time’s Up movements gather steam, one wonders if and when the same fate will befall men of similar celebrity status today.

— Stephan Bonfield

About the author:

Stephan earned his BA In undergraduate Music History and Literature from the University of Toronto, and then his MA Musicology with a concentration in Music Theory from the University of Calgary. He followed this with graduate studies in Psychology but moved to the Faculty of Medicine where he next completed his MSc. in Neuroscience. He operates his own busy music history and theory studio and currently lectures at Ambrose University, where he recently offered a fourth-year course in Music Analysis and Aesthetics, and is currently teaching core music history. He is a senior Examiner with the Royal Conservatory of Music in both history and theory, and is a freelance reviewer for the Calgary Herald of concerts and arts events in Calgary and the Banff Centre. He has served as a writer and a public lecturer to many music organizations in Alberta, and frequently gives talks at the Canadian Opera Company, Edmonton Opera and Calgary Opera.