by Thomas May
Few compositions have gripped the cultural imagination as forcefully as Don Giovanni. By the time Mozart took it up, the legend of the libertine aristocrat who remains unrepentant until the end, when he is no longer able to escape his just punishment, could already claim a long and varied pedigree. The earliest literary source predates his opera by over 150 years; since then, what originated as an obvious morality tale had morphed (rather like the older Faust legend) into popular entertainments featuring carnival clowning and the goosebump-inducing Schadenfreude of watching demons clawing at their prey.
But it was through Mozart’s opera, the second of his three great collaborations with librettist Lorenzo da Ponte, that the sexually insatiable rebel acquired a genuinely mythic stature and evolved into one of the most resonant cultural icons from the composer’s time to our own. When Mozart and da Ponte decided to use the Don Juan legend—the topic of numerous earlier operas, including a recent one whose libretto da Ponte freely adapted as a model—they could hardly have foreseen the degree to which their own work would itself become enshrouded in myth and speculation. It’s all the more amazing to realize the opera was created with very specific audiences and singers in mind: In 1787 Mozart wanted to capitalize on the enormous success The Marriage of Figaro, his first effort with da Ponte, had enjoyed in Prague. The next year he introduced Don Giovanni, though with less success, to Vienna, making some changes to the score to adjust to circumstances there.
Don Giovanni’s impact goes far beyond the realm of opera: its immensely rich “afterlife” extends to theater, poetry, fiction, film, criticism, and even philosophy. While both Søren Kierkegaard and George Bernard Shaw, for example, interpreted Mozart’s representation of the rake as the embodiment of the principle of desire itself, the “life force,” in our own time the pendulum has in some ways swung back to a perspective that views the Don once again as a cautionary tale for excessively rampant individualism and unchecked power.
The opera has similarly been instrumental in shaping Mozart’s own reputation over the last two centuries. On the one hand, as the enduring influence of Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus demonstrates, the image of what biographer Maynard Solomon aptly calls “the eternal child” continues to have currency. There are lots of variations here (from angelic innocence to Shaffer’s pleasure-loving, scatalogically inclined bon vivant), but in general this image depicts Mozart as a kind of idiot savant who is the conduit of serenely timeless beauty for us mere mortals. Yet Don Giovanni’s tremendous effect on Romantic composers and writers opened up an entirely new perspective: Mozart as “demonic” genius who probes the deepest longings of the soul in music of restless passion (in contrast to the essentially innocuous “eternal child").
A prominent early advocate of the latter viewpoint was the remarkable early-Romantic writer and critic E.T.A. Hoffmann, whose idolization of Mozart even induced him to incorporate the composer into his pen name (the “A” in his string of initials stands for “Amadeus”). In a sort of “fan fiction” response to the opera, Hoffmann wrote a short story imagining a hidden relationship between Donna Anna and Don Giovanni as the secret key to Mozart’s meaning. His music, when properly understood, overwhelms its listener with “the insatiable, burning desire…to attain on earth that which dwells in our hearts as but a heavenly promise—the very longing for the infinite that directly joins us to the world above”: practically a formula for one aspect of the Romantic credo. Goethe, whose Faust echoes certain facets of the operatic libertine, famously suggested that the ideal composer to set his tragedy to music would be Mozart writing “in the manner of Don Giovanni.” (It’s interesting to note that the two most satisfying attempts to set parts of Faust are by composers who are completely unalike but who shared a profound admiration for Mozart: Schumann and Mahler.)
How is it that an opera about the last day in the life of a self-centered playboy—during the course of which, incidentally, his attempted seductions are thwarted—could wield such an enormous influence? How could an opera that restlessly mixes high-minded tragedy with violence, farce, and stagey supernatural effects remain so endlessly captivating? One answer lies in that very ambivalence. Much as Mozart himself fuses aspects of the Apollonian with the Dionysian, the Classical with the Romantic, Don Giovanni embraces diametric extremities of human experience. The need for order and the drive to transgress coexist in a deliriously thrilling framework that remains unsettling even after the Don’s “just desserts” have been meted out. Its incomparable synthesis of music and drama makes Don Giovanni the most potent of Mozart’s creations.
The superabundance of invention here is immeasurably exciting, no matter how many times we come back to this music. Mozart continually presents new configurations of melody, rhythm, harmony, and vocal and instrumental colors to mirror the kaleidoscopic changes in mood of which the opera is comprised. Gestures immediately associated with the comic sparkle of opera buffa run up against the idioms of tragic pathos and the emblems of sacred music (the portentous trombones that accompany the Commendatore). Especially in the climactic dinner scene in which the Don meets his fate—with its awe-inspiring harmonies prefigured in the opening bars of the Overture—the composer conveys an oracular sensibility that serves as an impressive counterweight to the driven, fleeting momentum so characteristic of his score.
This entanglement of the comic and even cartoonishly lowbrow with the deadly serious is Mozart’s musical formula in Don Giovanni. It’s no wonder then that ensembles—above all the pivotal sextet in the second act—figure so prominently in Mozart’s musical dramaturgy in this opera. This is the operatic form par excellence for expressing simultaneous and multilayered perspectives. As an instrumental tour de force that similarly conveys a bewildering plenitude of viewpoints, Mozart interlaces the dance music of three different bands playing in three distinct time signatures in the party thrown by the Don at the end of the first act.
David Cairns, one of the most perceptive recent writers on the operas of Mozart, eloquently captures what he calls the “Shakespearean diversity of the work:” “Nothing escapes him. He lives every moment of the characters’ griefs and joys and crimes. But he never judges them, even his totally callous and amoral anti-hero, who treats women like commodities and is simply not interested n the consequences, however dire, of what he does. Mozart allows, encourages, helps everyone to be themselves. He sympathizes and identifies with them all, the Don included...”
Ultimately Don Giovanni resists our attempts to assign him meaning—no matter how tenaciously legions of critics, commentators, performers, stage directors, and listeners have tried. He eludes our need for resolution even after his victims step out of character in the epilogue and make their way back into “ordinary life.” It’s this ungraspable nature that is at the heart of the Don’s subversive allure. He is the mirror in which all the other characters in the opera—and we beyond it—see the reflections of yearnings acknowledged or not.
—Thomas May writes regularly for Washington National Opera.