Don Giovanni was first presented on October 29, 1787. It was not, I believe, initially well received. Saliari in Amadeus said it played only nine times. It was one of three collaborations between Wolfgang Mozart and Lorenzo Da Ponte. The three operas on which these two men collaborated—Cozze fan Tutte, Le Nozze de Figaro and Don Giovanni are often rated some of the best operas ever. Because this is a blog, I’m going to be lazy and not provide citations. Google it. When I was a kid reading my parents big book of Opera, Don Giovanni was listed as the best opera ever. Why?
Well Mozart wrote the book. I like Gilbert and Sullivan and I like Verdi, but Mozart wrote some of the best music ever. To make a musical theatre work really great it’s best if the librettist and the composer collaborate (see Gilbert and Sullivan.) And I think there’s some evidence that they did-at any event they produced three operas together.
But why is Don Giovanni so awesome-why not Figaro instead. After all, Le Nozze de Figaro is comedy and romance and Don Giovanni is dark comedy and people behaving badly.
I have to admit that I was initially drawn to the opera by the super-natural element of it. The Comandatore comes from beyond the grave in the final act to demand that Don Giovanni repent. The Don refuses. What are these sins for which he must repent? Well he’s a womanizer-he’s Don Juan, he’s a jerk to Leporello his faithful servant (when he gets caught sexually harassing Zerlina for the third time he claims that it was Leporello and threatens to kill him) and he killed the Comandatore in a duel.
I hate to try and defend the guy, because there’s no question that he’s a narcissistic asshole, but nothing he does (with the possible exception of seducing ladies of quality-Donna Anna and Donna Elvira) fall out of the norm of expected behavior for noblemen in the 1700s. They mistreated their servants and seduced/raped girls like Zerlina all the time. They got into altercations and killed each other in duels every now and again.
So why exactly is he such a problem? I have spent a while thinking about this and I don’t have an answer for it. Perhaps it’s just because an Opera needs a plot point on which to turn. I have given some thought to the other characters as well. Zerlina is the bride to be who Don Giovanni almost succeeds in seducing with La ci darem la mano. She and her husband to be (Masetto) present themselves at first as poster children for marriage. After their encounter with the Don they quarrel repeatedly. I find this dynamic interesting and actually reflective of real human behavior in a way that a lot of musical theatre isn’t.
The interactions between Don Giovanni and Leporello are also very real. Even though Don Giovanni mistreats him and is ready to kill him at one point in time Leporello is re-seduced by the Don’s charm into continuing to serve him. He is the most interesting character in the whole mix because although he realizes his boss is a dick he wants to be like the Don and he’s incredibly loyal. A smart, loyal servant is worth his/her weight in gold.
The rest of the characters are, I’m sorry to say, mostly annoying. It’s not really clear how Don Giovanni ended up in Donna Anna’s bedroom but she’s got a grudge against him. Her fiancé and the only tenor in the opera is just there for decoration. Don Elvira is an annoyed ex girlfriend.
And somehow, in spite of these annoying characters this opera often gets chosen as the best opera ever-how is that? Well if you can’t figure that out pull Samuel Ramey singing fin ch’han dal vino or la ci darem la mano and you will have your answer. Don Giovanni seduces-that’s his nature. He seduces Leporello to remain in his (the Don’s ) service and Mozart and Da Ponte have provided him with the prettiest words and notes possible so that we, the audience are seduced by him as well.