Saturday, March 6, 2021

The myth behind Mozart's Don Giovanni

Left: Illustration (c. 1914) of a scene from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's opera Don Giovanni (1787), in which Don Giovanni attempts to seduce Zerlina. Credit: World History Archive. Right Jared Byee (Don Giovanni) and Laura Wilde (Donna Elvira) in Seattle Opera's streaming Don Giovanni. Ken Christensen image 

Mozart's infamous character Don Giovanni is based on the legend of Don Juan, one of the most famous stories in European cultural history.

By Seattle Opera Dramaturg Jonathan Dean

Even though many people have aspired to be Don Juan (and a few have racked up numbers of sexual partners to rival his), he never really existed. He first appeared as a fictional character in a Spanish play printed in 1630, The Prankster of Seville and the Stone Guest by Tirso de Molina (pen name of the monk Gabriel Téllez). Molina was writing during the Golden Age of Spanish drama; but this play is no masterpiece. Much of it is pretty typical of its period: proud Spanish gentlemen defending their sacred honor with drawn swords and bristling mustaches while virtuous damsels swoon. But Molina was the first to introduce into the story of the great seducer the old folktale about the offended dead person who comes back for revenge. Don Juan ensures his damnation by blaspheming; he insults the corpse of a father who died defending his daughter’s honor. Audiences for the last four centuries have delighted in the scene where the statue of the dead man comes to dinner, invites Don Juan to dine with him, and then clasps Don Juan in his grip of death.

Jared Bybee as Don Giovanni in Seattle Opera's streaming production of Dion Giovanni. Video still, image by Ken Christensen
But they encountered this scene in many versions besides Molina’s. Prior to Mozart’s opera, great playwrights like the French Molière, the Italian Goldoni, and the English Shadwell portrayed Don Juan as a real villain, whose unspeakable acts entertained those of us in the audience but whose death we all cheered. Also, there were countless puppet show versions of the Don Juan story performed regularly all over Europe.

Mozart wrote his great opera in a hurry, basing it scene-for-scene on a Don Juan opera which had been written a few years before. But somehow, perhaps in the wake of his overbearing father’s recent death, he sympathized profoundly with the central character, and gave us a Don Juan whom we can love and hate at the same time. Also, Mozart’s psychologically penetrating music paints the secondary characters with greater depth than any previous dramatist had ever achieved. Only in Mozart do we really come to care about Don Juan’s servant Leporello, the anguished Donna Anna and her noble fiancé Don Ottavio, the sassy country girl Zerlina and the obsessive Donna Elvira.

After Mozart, and inspired by his music, Romantic writers like the Germans Hoffmann and Lenau saw Don Juan as a kind of hero, the prototype of what the later German philosopher Nietzsche was to call the übermensch or “over-man”: the man who did not know guilt. Don Juan, to these writers, was continuously in quest of the perfect woman; poor fellow, he could never find her, and had to keep sorting his way through her pale reflections in flawed human women. At the same time (in the early nineteenth century), the great British poet Byron wrote his immense and often hilarious epic poem, Don Juan (pronounced “Jew-un” in Byron, for purposes of rhyme). Before Byron, Don Juan, a man in his late twenties, always wanted every woman he met but didn’t always get them. After Byron, Don Juan is a few years younger, and although he doesn’t always want all the women he meets, they want him. (The 1995 film Don Juan de Marco stars Johnny Depp as Byron’s Don Juan. Joseph Gordon-Leavitt’s 2013 film Don Juan doesn’t have much to do with the myth.

Jared Bybee (Don Giovanni) and Kenneth Kellogg (Commendatore) in Seattle Opera's streaming production of Don Giovanni. Ken Christensen photo
Don Giovanni premieres on Seattle Opera’s website at 7 p.m. on Friday, March 19 and can be viewed until 11:59 p.m. on Sunday, March 21. Tickets are available online at or by calling 206.389.7676 or 800.426.1619. For questions about streaming, view our Streaming FAQs. This opera is rated PG-13 for sexual violence. Read content advisories.

No comments:

Post a Comment