We’re transported to seventeenth century Spain for what has been called the greatest opera ever composed – Don Giovanni! From the initial thundering chords of the breathtaking overture, this opera is filled with sexual heat, thrilling music and dramatic action. Indeed more action takes place in scene one of Don Giovanni, than that of most operas. Within the first fifteen minutes alone; a disgruntled servant, an attempted rape, a dual, a murder, a grieving daughter, and an oath of vengeance ensnare the audience!
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Our story properly begins in the early seventeenth century, when the character ‘Don Juan’ made his stage debut in a three act play titled ‘El burlador de Sevilla y convidado de piedra’ (The Trickster of Seville and the Stone Guest) the play was first performed in Madrid around 1624, but published in 1630. It appears under the name of a playwright named Tirso de Molina; however this was actually the pseudonym of a Roman Catholic monk named Gabriel Téllez. It was most likely written to present the issue of morality in relation to Don Juan’s amorous excesses. In seventeenth century Italy, it was a favorite story of the ‘commedia dell’arte’. Molière wrote a play on the subject in Paris in 1655. And rather go on decade be decade, we’ll hop forward to 1787. A key year, not for Mozart’s Don Giovanni, but for the first performance in the city of Venice of an opera called ‘Don Giovanni Tenorio, o sia Il convitato di pietra’ (Don Giovanni and the Stone Guest) the composer of this 1787 version was Giuseppe Gazzaniga and the Libretto was by Giovanni Bertati.
The next person I’d like to introduce to this picture is Lorenzo da Ponte; the great court poet in Vienna. Mozart had known of Da Ponte for a while. Four years earlier in 1783, when Mozart was relatively new in Vienna, he writes home to his father from Vienna that he’s after Da Ponte to write a libretto for him, but he is so busy writing original opera libretti for some composers and adapting pre-existing libretti for other composers, it would be actually more than two years before Mozart could pin down Da Ponte to work with him. When he did, Da Ponte provided him with the libretto for their first collaboration the ‘Marriage of Figaro’. It was composed between October of 1785 and April 1786 and was premiered in Vienna. It received success for a limited time, before other productions came to take its place. But as interest in ‘Figaro’ waned in Vienna, there was another city that was crazy about the ‘Marriage of Figaro’ and that city is Prague. (Which at that time, it was the second most important musical centre in Europe)
Mozart went to Prague in January of 1787; it marked the beginning of a passionate relationship between him and Prague. Among other things Mozart conducted a performance of ‘Figaro’ at the Opera house during his stay. On the seventeenth of January he writes to his friend and student Baron Gottfried von Jacquin he says; “I saw with the greatest pleasure all the people in the ballroom dancing with such delight to the music of my ‘Figaro’. For here in Prague nothing is talked of but ‘Figaro’, nothing is played sung or whistled but ‘Figaro’ No opera is drawing like ‘Figaro’. Nothing, nothing but ‘Figaro’. Certainly a great honor for me!”
On foot of the success of ‘Figaro’, comes a commission of an opera for the following season (nine months time). That opera would be ‘Don Giovanni’, which was written to be premiered in Prague as part of the celebrations for the marriage of the Archduchess Maria Theresa (niece of the Emperor Joseph II) to Prince Anton Clemens of Saxony. Mozart was delighted to accept this new commission and, naturally asked Da Ponte to join him on the project.
As it happened, Da Ponte was already heavily committed, working on two librettos Tarare (for Salieri) and L’arbore di Diana (for Martin y Soler). But he too was greatly attracted by the occasion and he was strongly drawn to the subject matter (his friendship with Casanova, was now about to pay dividends) this is what Da Ponte himself says about his choice of subject for Mozart “For Mozart I chose ‘Don Giovanni’ a theme which appealed to me enormously. In working on Don Giovanni, I shall think of Dante’s hell” This is a wonderful image, the great Lorenzo da Ponte, court poet of Vienna, the great operatic librettist. You picture him sitting, inspired by, reflecting on, and plunging into the depths and the mysteries of Dante.
The very simple fact is, he was probably thinking a lot more about the libretto that Bertati had written for Gazzaniga in Venice. Da Ponte knows about that libretto and it’s very clear that he draws very freely from it, he’s not about to write something from scratch if he doesn’t have to. But in fairness to Da Ponte everything he touches gets better, which in artistic circles is what you like to see happening ‘he borrows and repays the debt with interest’.
So back to the chronicle of Don Giovanni and its main character; this is a particularly concise sketch of the quintessential Don Juan character; he is the epitome of the modern age, an expansive type who is determined to enjoy the world, Immeasurably self aware, defiant of all forms of authority and opposed to all higher order – he is in effect a corporate C.E.O.!
Beethoven although he greatly admired the music of this opera, he very famously stated the he could not bring himself to write an opera on a subject so “immoral” as either ‘Figaro’ or ‘Don Giovanni’ .However. this is not to say that Mozart shared Don Giovanni’s moral values. In a letter Mozart writes to his father shortly after he arrives in Vienna he says “the voice of nature speaks as loud in me as it does in others, louder perhaps, but I simply cannot live as most men do these days, in the first place; I have too much religion, in the second place; too great a love of my neighbor and too high a feeling of honor to seduce an innocent girl and then in the third place; I have too much horror and disgust, too much dread and fear of diseases” Mozart; an eighteenth century practitioner of safe sex.who knew?
Now, taking a look at the opera, there’s been a lot of critical discussion over the years. Musicologists and critics of all types have written extensively about Don Giovanni and one central issue that always seems to appear is the question ‘Is it a tragic opera? (opera Seria) or is it a comic opera?(opera Buffa)’ and the simple fact is that what it really comes down to is that it is both! And the strength is that it can be both of them, the juxtaposition of the tragic and the comic heightens the effect of both. This said, it’s not simply the alternation between tragic and comic but the fact that Mozart is often able to have both facets displayed simultaneously. In this regard he has the ideal collaborator in the form of Lorenzo Da Ponte, because Da Ponte is often praised by his admirers for his ability to interweave the tragic and the comic elements. It’s interesting to note that Mozart himself labeled this opera as a ‘drama giocoso’ (Playful drama) which reflects what he understands the opera to be.
To give an example of the juxtaposition between the tragic and the comic I first have to give you a sense of Mozarts gifts of characterization, because that is what a great opera composer has to have at his or her disposal. The ability not only to delineate a character in music, sometimes in the instrumental music even before they open their mouths to sing, but also the ability to somehow express different emotional states of that character in the course of the opera. So to give an example of a contrast of emotional states; the duet that follows the death of the ‘Commendatore’, his daughter ‘Donna Anna’ is quite understandably upset and agitated. Her betroved ‘Don Ottavio’ is much more in control and in their music you hear their emotional states – she is agitated and he is calmer.
Here’s what they sound like in their duet: Track 1
You don’t have to understand what they’re singing in Italian to realize that she’s agitated and he’s calmer because you hear it reflected in what they sing.
If you talk about the expression of powerful emotions in music, which is something that also matters here. To begin with one thing you should know about Mozart, is that he was very much a man of the classic period; in which elegance, balance, restraint and proportion were the stock and trade of the composer. This also extended to his representation of strong emotions. There’s a famous letter that he writes to his father, when he is composing his first Viennese stage work ‘The abduction from the soraleo’ in which there is a surly gate keeper at the poshes palace whose name is Ozmide, he has an aria of rage directed at a man who’s trying to rescue his girlfriend form the heron and Mozart writing to his father says “yes the emotions that are expressed here are extreme, but the music must never lose itself” That’s one thing you have to recognise, there will be later operatic composers who will go over the top with their music, when the emotions go over the top, but the musical range within which Mozart operates, suggests that even at the most extreme, emotions never lose the propriety of the music that is expressing them. The musical range is different from what you might encounter in Wagner or in Twentieth century but Mozart knows exactly what he’s doing and the shading of these levels is what it’s all about.
Now in act two of Don Giovanni its Don Ottavio who swears vengeance for the death of the ‘Commendatore’ he sings the aria ‘il mio tesoro’ the text begins ‘go and console my treasure and try to dry the tears from her lovely eyes.’ I mention this aria because I want you to hear a little of what many consider to be the finest recording of it ever made, which is interesting because it was recorded in 1916 by the great Irish tenor John McCormack: Track 2
We’ve really set the stage now for what I mentioned earlier about the juxtaposition of the tragic and the comic elements. After the duet you heard earlier, Don Giovanni and Leperello (Don’s Servant) return to the stage and we return to the Opera Buffa style. Donna Elvira then sings a very serious and dramatic aria, it’s important to note that in every aria except this one by Donna Elvira, the singer is addressing someone else on the stage. This makes her aria the operatic equivalent of a dramatic soliloquy. It is intense, and yet the intensity is undercut by the fact that the fact that Don Giovanni and Leperello are off to the side of the stage eavesdropping and making comments about what she has to say: Track 3
What makes this convention even more elegant is that the places where Don Giovanni and Leperello are making their side comments are exactly the places where you would normally have an orchestral refrain punctuating what she’s saying. So he’s using the conventional form, but he’s twisting it slightly which again undercuts the dramatic intensity.
Now back to the original play by Tirso de Molina, if you take a look at that you find that at the end Don Juan with his dying breath says that Elvira is ‘virgo intacta’ (a virgin) which makes her the only woman in the original play who gets through untouched. In Da Pontes libretto though, things are very different. As a matter of fact another recurring theme in the critical analyses of this opera is; overwhelming lack of success on behalf of the title character. Legendary loverâ€¦â€¦.where’s it happening?
Here’s a compilation of comments on this subject made through the years:
“The action portrays anything but a successful sexual adventurer”
“The cheerful tone that runs through the whole opera depends chiefly on the repulses with which the hero is continually made on the field of the heroic deeds”
“Of all the Don Juans of literature and of drama, that of Da Ponte is professionally the most futile”
“You can understand Don Giovanni as a professional Athlete with a very high batting average. That he encounters frustrations within the opera, simple shows how difficult the sport is “
“Every time Don Giovanni is absent from the stage you should consider a conquest is taking place. We are accustomed to crime detection in prose; this is sin detection with all the major clues in the music and plenty of others in the Italian”
It would seem like the last authors interpretation is at odds with the intentions of our librettist Mr. Da Ponte, I say that because in that libretto that Giovanni Bertati wrote for Gazzaniga the conquests are explicit and overt. Lorenzo da Ponte decides that he will tone down the obviousness of the amorous conquests in his version of the story.
We believe in his seductive powers by virtue of what he says and how he sings it, which of course is what opera is all about. The duet ‘la ci darem la mano’ is an example of Don Giovanni’s seductive capabilities: Track 4
A man named Edward Dent (Who wrote a famous book on Mozart Operas) he says “After Don Giovanni himself, by far the most interesting character would be Donna Elvira” One of her finest moments is very interesting musically because it is Mozart specifically stepping out of the style of his time and stepping back to the style of Handel. Often you would find a composer in any period to be somewhat conservative in their musical style if they’re writing sacred music; the idea of reaching back and evoking a certain timelessness and archaic quality that serves the text. Well here we’re in the course of an opera, but it’s clear that he probably wants to make this come across like a sermon because what she’s singing is ‘flea the traitor, don’t listen to what he says, his lips are lying ones, his eyes deceiving” and he crafts it in the style of a Handel aria: Track 5
And then just another indication of the music variety you find here a very simple tune Batti Batti (Beat me, beat me) is rendered less trivial by an obligato solo cello: Track 6
The effectiveness of that cello leads us into the whole question of orchestral colour. When we think of the drama and the power of Mozarts music the first thing of course that comes to mind of course is melody, the most inescapable part of an operas score. But then there’s the harmony which we sometimes don’t think about as much as the melody but also exerts a powerful influence, but also orchestration; the use of varying colours in varying situations, which even if we’re not thinking about consciously exerts a very powerful subliminal effect on us.
Here’s a very nice example; orchestral colour used to literally paint an island of repose in the trio ‘proteggia if giusto cielo” (may just heaven protect my determined heart) the strings drop out and the singers are accompanied only by the winds. You can really get the sense that you are somewhere else: Track 7
But the most important instrumental point of interest has to do with trombones. In Mozart’s time, trombones generally belonged to church music and not to the theatre. As far as their use in symphonic music it is not until Beethoven’s fifth symphony (twenty one years later) that the trombone made its first appearance in a symphony. So to put yourself in the shoes of the Prague audience ‘I know trombones but I think of them as belonging to the church’ so how does he use them here? Mozart associates them with the statue of the commendatore, the statue that is going to come to life, and when it comes to life in the graveyard scene that’s when the trombones appear. You can be sure the audience in those days we’re terrified: Track 8
And when the statue comes to Don Giovanni’s banquet he brings his trombones: Track 9
When the statue that has come to life shows up with his trombones, the music is not new to us because we’ve already heard it in the overture, and what is very, very significant about this; it is the only time in Mozarts entire operatic career that he writes an overture that begins with a slow introduction. The obvious reason why he does it in this case is because he wants to give us a taste of that terrifying music at the very beginning: Track 10
It’s interesting to note that the night before the premiere of Don Giovanni; Mozart had to stay up all night to write the overture which according to a member of his orchestra “had not even been sketched”!
Another wonderful point of interest, a very famous passage in Don Giovanni, which is a reflection of Mozarts experience writing dance music for the ballrooms of imperial Vienna that is where he simultaneously gives us three different dances representing three different levels of society. Mozart who we all know could work things out in his head and spew it out on the paper without effort actually made sketches for this, it was something he actually had to think about. It’s the same effect that Charles Ives is going to create somewhat later. The idea of standing in a certain place with different ensembles playing, you hear them simultaneously and the soundscape is the composite of three different elements. This is what it sounds like in Don Giovanni: Track 11
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Now that’s simultaneous combination, I’d like to also tell you about a kind of consecutive juxtaposition of things which is very interesting, it represents a little of the ‘in’ humour of what’s going on here; we are almost at the end of the opera, and we’re in the banquet hall of Don Giovanni whose own personal orchestra is playing. The first tune they play is the act one finale of Martin y Soler’s (one of Mozart contemporaries, and another composer asking Da Ponte for a liberetto) opera ‘Una cosa rara’ so you’ll hear the acknowledgement of ‘cosa rara’: Track 12
Then they play an excerpt from an opera of another one of his contemporaries named i due littiganti by Sarti. Leperello cheers the selection, Don Giovanni simply tells him to pour more wine: Track 13
There is a basic rule of humour or comedy writing that is; ‘set up, set up and punch line’, Mozart knows how to do that! We have ‘something’ by Martin, ‘something’ by Sarti, the third thing that Don Giovanni’s orchestra plays is ‘non piu andrai’ from the Marriage of Figaro. Now of course every single person in that audience in Prague would have immediately recognised it from the first few notes because as we know these were the tunes to which they were singing, whistling, humming, dancing etc. these were the tunes that took over Prague before Don Giovanni! How does Leperello respond he says ‘I know that tune ‘troppo’ (too well)’: Track 14
Since I’ve already given away the ending of the opera, I will play some of the music that accompanies Don Giovanni’s descent into hell…….through a trap door in the stage, which is a lesson to all of us to beware of trap doors in stages, because you know where they lead! Again with orchestral effects and an offstage chorus, it absolutely terrified the audiences of Mozarts time: Track 15
There’s a famous story told of a somewhat ‘out of shape’ Don who got stuck in the trap door on the way down, and no matter what he did, he couldn’t push himself either way, at which point someone in the audience yelled out “Hurray boys, hells full!”
I’d like to close by posing and answering a question, obvious in the light of the history that I’ve provided you with, and that is; after it was performed in Prague, how did Don Giovanni fair in Vienna? Well seven months after the triumphant performances in Prague, it premiered in Vienna, but unfortunately the reception was somewhat cool. The Emperor said to Da Ponte “The opera is divine, I would even venture that it is more beautiful that ‘Figaro’ but such music is not meat to the teeth of my Viennese” and the story goes that Da Ponte relayed this message back to Mozart and his reply was “well let them chew on it”. So Happy Chewing!
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