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The Character of the Characters in Mozart's "Don Giovanni"

Sidney Outlaw, who sings the title role in Boston Baroque's "Don Giovanni"
Kia Caldwell
Sidney Outlaw, who sings the title role in Boston Baroque's "Don Giovanni"

Later this month, Boston Baroque, led by Martin Pearlman, will present Mozart’s incredible "Don Giovanni" in a fully staged production. In anticipation of the performances, General Manager of GBH Music and author of the novel "Imagining Don Giovanni" Anthony Rudel takes a closer look at the opera’s characters and the men who created them.

In October of 1787, Wolfgang Mozart, then 31 years old, traveled from Vienna to Prague to collaborate with the great poet Lorenzo Da Ponte for what would become the second of the trilogy of miraculous operas they created. But, unlike most of Mozart’s other compositions, which seemed to flow from an endless inner source of inspiration, he struggled with the creation of one of his greatest masterpieces, Don Giovanni.

Without doubt, one of the challenges lay with Da Ponte’s libretto and the development and portrayal of the title character. After all, Don Giovanni was a legend, a super-human with powers of seduction far beyond those of mere mortals. The mention of his Spanish name, Don Juan, made men quake and women faint. And so, the challenge they faced was to turn Don Juan into an operatic hero, or anti-hero, who is unafraid of anything, and yet ultimately is punished for his sins.

The struggle to complete the opera had to be significant, for during the rehearsal period, Da Ponte wrote to an old friend asking him to come to Prague to advise and help finish the opera. That invitation was sent to the Chevalier de Seingalt, an aging cheat, criminal, writer, and amateur musician, better known as the notorious rake Giacomo Casanova. He accepted the invitation and clearly tried to contribute; in fact alternate words for the second act sextet were found among Casanova’s papers when he died. With these three famous womanizers at the helm of an opera about another famous womanizer, a striking contradiction emerged: Mozart, Da Ponte, and Casanova filled Don Giovanni with male characters who are ultimately shadows of their own reputations.

The musical inspiration within Don Giovanni is unmatched — except by Mozart himself in Figaro and Cosi fan tutte—and from the first notes of the Overture, which was composed the day before the opera’s premiere, to the score’s final moments, the drama is carried on a bed of rich melodies that present the story with excitement, pathos, and humor. But what makes Don Giovanni a fascinating work is the conflict among and within the characters, a group of personalities, all of whom wrestle with the shadow cast by their relationship with the Don.

While Mozart gave the three women, Donna Anna, Donna Elvira, and Zerlina, some of the most tender and passionate arias ever written, Don Giovanni is an opera that ultimately revolves around the male characters, most definitively the title character, which is a role every great bass-baritone wants to tackle. But oddly, a closer look at the male characters reveals that their creators—that trio of womanizers—could not bring themselves to allow the men in the opera to “succeed” in the same way. In fact, the only moment of male victory in the entire opera occurs in the penultimate scene, a triumph that is given to a statue of the Commendatore, and even he has been dead at Don Giovanni’s hands since the opera’s first scene.

The other men in the opera don’t fare much better. Masetto, an oaf-like peasant, gets the short end of the stick, literally, when he is duped and then beaten by a disguised Don Giovanni, which happens after Don Giovanni nearly seduces Masetto’s new wife, Zerlina, twice in the first act alone. While Masetto and the adorable Zerlina do end up together at the end of the opera, one has to wonder what kind of impact that memory would leave on Masetto’s faith in their relationship.

Don Ottavio, the opera’s only tenor role, initially had only one aria; a second was added for the Vienna premiere. These arias are exquisite, subtle, and gentle, but neither is particularly dramatic, and in many ways, Don Ottavio is a thankless role. While he is a nobleman, he invariably comes across as weak, especially when compared to the far more dynamic Don Giovanni.

And to be clear, things don’t begin well for Ottavio either. The opera opens with his beloved Donna Anna’s father being murdered by Don Giovanni, and, gentleman that he is, Don Ottavio vows to avenge the Commendatore’s death. Poor Don Ottavio; it’s one thing to swear vengeance, but it’s entirely another to have to take that vengeance against one of the most notorious swordsmen alive. Ultimately, that vengeance is not his; instead he leaves that task to the Commendatore’s statue. To add insult to injury, at the end of the opera, Don Ottavio again asks Donna Anna to marry him, but she puts him off, claiming to need time to recover from her father’s death.

Leporello, the Don’s servant, is perhaps the saddest character of all; he despises his master and yet must be his most loyal and greatest promoter (his Catalog Aria, which lists Don Giovanni’s numerous sexual exploits, is part of the foundation of the Don’s carefully constructed reputation. Leporello estimates that Don Giovanni has seduced nearly 2,000 women in total — an outlandish number that even the opera’s three philanderer-creators could not claim for themselves. In the end, Leporello gets the satisfaction of witnessing Don Giovanni’s violent end, but then he resolves to go to the nearest inn to find a new master, clearly one who will not be as exciting as his former boss.

And finally, there is Don Giovanni himself, the nobleman-seducer who relishes his life of decadence and debauchery, a lifestyle summarized in his final scene when he declares his credo to Donna Elvira: “Long live women; long live fine wine; these are humanity’s great glories!” Yet, at no point in the entire opera is there an instance when the audience sees Don Giovanni successfully live the Libertine life he so proudly promotes.

In fact, the opera starts with one of Don Giovanni’s failures. In the opening scene, masked, he attempts to seduce Donna Anna, but is interrupted by the arrival of her father, who he kills in cold blood. The next morning, attracted by the scent of a broken-hearted woman, Don Giovanni gallantly offers her his services, only to discover that he himself is the villain Donna Elvira is cursing for abandoning her. Later that day, Don Giovanni attempts to steal Zerlina from Masetto and is almost successful, until Donna Elvira intercedes and lectures the young maid about the Don’s behavior. Then, at a reception the Don hosts to ‘celebrate’ Masetto and Zerlina’s nuptials, the scheme he devises to seduce the charming maid goes awry, forcing him to flee from his own palace. Ironically, the only time the Don actually manages to seduce someone occurs when he is disguised as Leporello, and even that is never actually seen.

Finally, in the second to last scene, the Don tells Elvira that she is welcome to stay and eat dinner with him, but that he won’t ever change his ways. His declaration is interrupted by the shocking arrival of the dead Commendatore’s statue, which condemns him, and drags him off to hell as punishment.

There is no way to know why Mozart, Da Ponte, and Casanova opted to portray the greatest seducer of all time as nothing more than a failure whose notoriety was due primarily to having a good story and a faithful public relations man. It’s unlikely that these three creative geniuses, each deeply competitive and all too happy to share stories of his own exploits, saw anything sinful or shameful about their own behavior in crafting their anti-hero. Perhaps instead, it came from a desire not to be overshadowed by their own creation — one might easily imagine that they minimized Don Giovanni’s success because they couldn’t stand the competition.

For those who are interested in hearing Don Giovanni for the first time or again, two legendary recordings capture the drama and the humor beautifully and also feature some of the greatest singers of the 20th Century.

First there is the performance starring Cesare Siepi, conducted by Josef Krips.

The singing is excellent throughout and Siepi's scream at the end of the penultimate scene is bone-chilling:

Second, you cannot go wrong with the amazing conducting of Carlo Maria Giulini who, while a superb symphonic conductor, was trained in the opera house style and thus brings a sublimely idiomatic approach to Mozart's score. And Eberhard Wachter is an elegant, slightly demonic Don!

Anthony Rudel is General Manager of GBH Music and is the author of four books, including Imagining Don Giovanni, Tales from the Opera, and Hello Everybody! The Dawn of American Radio.