The opening D minor chords of Mozart’s Overture to Don Giovanni send shivers down one’s spine. They are full of foreboding. Rarely one to dwell at length on the dark side, Mozart soon switches gears. We move from music of menace and revenge, to music reflecting the manic gaiety and determined pleasure-seeking that dominate much of the opera's action. The full title of the opera is Don Giovanni, ossia Il Dissoluto Punito [Don Giovanni, or The Libertine Punished]. Mozart subtitled it dramma giocoso - a curious amalgam of comic opera with a dark underside.
His overture captures the spirit of the opera without quoting from its famous numbers. Only the Commendatore's vengeance music – those chilling D minor chords – recur during the stage action proper. The overture's entire D major portion is made up of new themes, expressing perfectly the Don's devil-may-care bravado.
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The plot is complicated. We are in Spain. Don Giovanni is a sophisticated rake and a sociopath. He has no apparent consideration for the impact of his innumerable dalliances, and is always in pursuit of his next amorous conquest. As the curtain rises, his servant Leporello waits outside the Commendatore’s house, where his master, in disguise, is attempting to seduce the Commendatore’s daughter, Donna Anna. Pursuing the would-be seducer, the Commendatore and Don Giovanni fight. The old man falls, mortally wounded.
Undeterred that he has killed the Commendatore, the Don next tries to cozy up to another lady, Donna Elvira, who turns out to be an old flame he jilted. She hopes to win back his love; Leporello mocks her, cataloguing his master’s conquests.
Meanwhile, Don Giovanni has come upon a country wedding and takes a fancy to Zerlina, the bride. He romances her, but Elvira intervenes. Then Donna Anna and her fiancé Don Ottavio arrive to seek Don Giovanni’s assistance in bringing her father’s slayer to justice – but then, aghast, she recognizes him as her assailant and the guilty party.
Later, Don Giovanni tries again with Zerlina, who is attracted to him, but hesitant because of loyalty to her bridegroom Masetto. Giovanni lures her into a side room. In the nick of time, masked players burst in to rescue her, condemning the Don and demanding punishment.
Mistaken identity and more antics populate the second act. Eventually, Don Giovanni takes refuge from his pursuers in a cemetery. He laughs with Leporello about his adventures. Their banter is interrupted by a deep, menacing voice. It is the statue atop the Commendatore’s tomb. He intones a dark warning to Don Giovanni, who responds by instructing Leporello to invite the statue to dinner.
In the sumptuous dining room of Giovanni’s palace, musicians play. Elvira makes a last ditch effort to persuade her former lover to repent. He mocks her. As she departs, the Stone Guest arrives, and she shrieks in terror. Don Giovanni grasps the statue’s hand, which is ice cold. Still, Giovanni refuses to repent. He descends into the flames of hell. The other characters re-enter and sing the story’s moral.
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Don Giovanni contains many of the best known arias in opera, and a beloved duet. Here are some highlights.
Mozart was kind to his operatic baritones and basses. Their characters are generally richer than those in tenor roles. Both Don Giovanni and Leporello are superb examples. Leporello’s ‘catalogue’ aria, ‘Madamina, il catalogo è questo,’ takes place shortly after Donna Elvira’s first entrance. She is determined to win back her philandering lover by instilling some pangs of conscience in him. This aria is Leporello’s scornful attempt to dissuade her, by reciting the astounding record of Don Giovanni’s amatory conquests. The first part of his gleeful recitation is an early example of a patter song. The second part is a minuet in which he describes the type of women who have succumbed to the Don’s charms. Doubtless with the knowledge that his recitation is psychological torture for Donna Elvira, Leporello systematically reviews the Don’s preferred techniques, then his partners’ demographic profile: age, social and financial status, and finally appearance. Leporello takes vicarious pride in this dubious exercise, which serves the twofold purpose of filling in the audience on the Don’s tawdry history, and humiliating Elvira. Mozart’s dramatic instincts, as always, were infallible.
At the beginning of Act II, Leporello is furious with his master because of the escapades of the first act. Leporello demands that the Don relinquish women. That is not a possibility, the libertine insists: they are as necessary to him as the air he breathes. He bribes Leporello to switch clothing with him. That way, Leporello can distract Donna Elvira, while the Don attempts his next seduction: Donna Elvira’s maid. The canzonetta ‘Deh, vieni alla finestra’ is Don Giovanni’s serenade to the maidservant. Mozart captures its ambience by scoring the orchestra accompaniment for mandolin and pizzicato strings.
Mozart was also generous to his sopranos with lower ranges, though he might not necessarily have designated their roles as mezzo-sopranos. This vocal favoritism certainly carried forth in Don Giovanni. Zerlina, a simple, attractive peasant girl, is awarded some of the choicest melodies in the opera. Mozart’s emphasis is noteworthy, because Zerlina is the least socially prominent of the three principal women in the opera (Donna Anna and Elvira are both noblewomen). From the standpoint of today’s political correctness, Zerlina is a very traditional, subservient wife-to-be. “Vedrai carino” is her opportunity to make up with Masetto, her betrothed, after he has been roughed up by Don Giovanni, who has attempted to seduce her.
That attempt is the backdrop for “La ci darem,” the opera’s most celebrated duet. Don Giovanni has swept Zerlina off her feet on her wedding day to the peasant Masetto. The duet is delicate, loving, melodious and totally believable. Despite the fact that Don Giovanni is elsewhere unsuccessful in his amorous pursuits in this opera, this gorgeous duet gives us complete confidence that his reputation as an invincible ladies’ man is wholly justified. For her part, Zerlina holds the stage musically, and Mozart renders her acquiescence to the Don’s entreaties with a switch of meter and tempo that signals her change of heart with winsome beauty.
All the other major characters have at least one moment in the spotlight. Donna Anna’s is the dramatic “Or sai chi l’onore,”when she realizes that Don Giovanni was her father’s murderer and demands that Don Ottavio seek vengeance. Donna Elvira sings “Ah, fuggi il traditor” when she intervenes, preventing Zerlina from dishonor with Don Giovanni, and “Mi tradi quell’alma ingrata,” as she reflects on the dilemma of recognizing Giovanni’s guilt even as she still loves him. Don Ottavio has two big tenor arias, “Il mio tesoro” and “Dalla sua pace,” both of which focus on his love for Donna Anna and his own happiness depending on hers. The baritone Masetto chafes at his low social station in “Ho capito.” And of course Giovanni’s reckless – even manic – “Finch’han dal vino” is one of opera’s greatest drinking songs.
Perhaps the greatest miracle of this opera is the ensemble writing, when the various characters interact in the complex fabric of three, four, or even more singers at once.
© Laurie Shulman, 2018