Spotlight On: DON GIOVANNI

At Seattle Opera October 18-November 1, 2014

Music by
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Libretto by
Lorenzo da Ponte

First Performed Prague, 1787| In Italian with English Captions | Marion Oliver McCaw Hall

Long Story Short:
Bad boy acts badly, then gets punished.

Mariusz Kwiecien won Seattle Opera's Artist of the Year Award for his Don Giovanni, 2007
(Bill Mohn, photo)

Who’s Who?
The Commendatore
is a retired old army general who dies defending his daughter from an unknown assailant. In the cemetery there’s an impressive statue of him, which can nod, walk, and sing in a beautiful bass voice.

Donna Anna is the Commendatore’s daughter. She’s a proud, beautiful noblewoman who has issues with the men in her life.

Don Ottavio is Donna Anna’s fiancé. He’s great at doubting, dreaming, and hesitating, but not much for taking decisive action.

Don Giovanni is a wealthy nobleman who adores women and their bodies but has little interest in human relationships. He is handsome, charming, bold, clever, fearless, and incredibly sexy; and at the same time he’s a brute: a treacherous liar, probably a rapist, and definitely a killer.

Donna Elvira is a noblewoman of staunch religiosity whose love for God is only surpassed by her mad passion for Don Giovanni. Before the opera begins, he promised to marry her, slept with her, and then left town; so in the opera she pursues him with single-minded fury, hoping to get him to return to her, or, failing that, to spoil his attempts to be with any other women.

Zerlina is an attractive peasant girl who catches Don Giovanni’s eye. She is a lot more practical about sex and emotions than Donna Anna or Donna Elvira, and is probably a bit happier than either of them as a result.

Masetto is a big, dumb peasant guy who wants to marry Zerlina.

Leporello is Don Giovanni’s servant. A whiner, coward, and buffoon, Leporello is continually bullied and abused by Giovanni—yet he never leaves the master he loves and hates. He says he disapproves of the way Giovanni treats women, but he obviously admires and respects Giovanni as well.

Where & When?
Technically Seville, in the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries; but really Don Giovanni is a myth that takes place at all times and places.

What’s Going On?
The subtitle of this opera tells you just about everything you need to know: Il dissoluto punito (The Dissolute Man Punished) . There’s this guy, Don Giovanni, who’s dissolute, and he gets punished.

More specifically, the opera chronicles the final twenty-four hours of this notorious libertine’s wicked life. It begins in the middle of the night, as he is trying to escape from Donna Anna’s bedroom after either seducing or raping her (or attempting to do one of the above; the bedroom is offstage, so no one really knows what happened in there).

Pamela Armstrong, Marius Kwiecien, and Eduardo Chama sing the opening trio from Seattle Opera’s 2007 Don Giovanni
Anna’s father, the Commendatore, challenges Don Giovanni to a duel, and Giovanni kills him. Anna forces her fiancé Don Ottavio to swear an oath that he will avenge the murdered Commendatore.

That afternoon, Giovanni is attempting to escape from Donna Elvira, who thinks she’s married to him, when he stumbles upon the wedding of Zerlina and Masetto.

Marius Kwiecien and Ailish Tynan sing “Là ci darem la mano” from Seattle Opera’s 2007 Don Giovanni
He invites them and their friends to a feast at his palace, that evening, where he attempts to rape Zerlina. Ottavio, Anna, and Elvira, who have joined the party wearing masks, protect her and confront Giovanni; but he manages to give them all the slip.

Giovanni continues playing pranks on people all night long, until he and Leporello happen upon the statue of the Commendatore out in the cemetery. Audaciously Giovanni invites the statue to join him for a very late dinner, and the statue says it will come. At dinner the statue offers Giovanni a last chance to repent. He refuses, and gets dragged down to hell. All the other characters rejoice at Giovanni’s fitting punishment.

Vladimir Ognovenko, Eduardo Chama, and Marius Kwiecien sing the Act Two Finale from Seattle Opera’s 2007 Don Giovanni

Mozart’s dramma giocoso
Don Giovanni
is an overwhelming, hilarious, disturbing, sacred, profane, dated, timeless bundle of contradictions. There’s a basic contradiction when you try to figure out what kind of an opera it is. In the early eighteenth century, operas tended to be entirely serious (opera seria) or entirely comic (opera buffa). But Mozart revolutionized the art form in his Italian operas of the 1780s; Don Giovanni mixes seria and buffa, comedy and tragedy, into a more psychologically realistic genre which Mozart called dramma giocoso, “Joking Drama.”

Unlike conventional eighteenth-century opera, real life can’t be neatly divided into comedy and tragedy. The reason Don Giovanni seems so much more TRUE than lots of other operas from the period is that often in this show you won’t be sure whether you’re supposed to laugh or cry. Mozart’s masterpiece shares this feature with most of the world’s greatest theater. Shakespeare, our greatest English dramatist, was similarly wonderful at fusing comedy and tragedy into something we call the grotesque, an aesthetic category meaning weird, funny, scary, sad, all at once.

Erik Anstine as Leporello in Seattle Opera's Young Artists Program Don Giovanni, 2011. Anstine reprises his role on the mainstage in Seattle Opera's 2014 Don Giovanni.
(Rozarii Lynch, photo)

Also, in the early eighteenth-century singing was the be-all and end-all of opera; you didn’t go to the opera for gripping drama, or psychological explorations of human character, or philosophical meditations on man’s place in the universe. But Don Giovanni reflects all the important issues of a tumultuous time, when Enlightenment ideals of equality and human brotherhood were paving the way for revolutions in the United States and France. Mozart gives us a Don Giovanni who represents this new freedom from the rules and restrictions of the past pushed to its most dangerous extreme. Don Giovanni is interested in all women, not just women of his social class; he has no concern for past or future; he has complete disregard for the voices of his elders and the rules we must follow if we want to live together in any kind of a well-functioning society. His life is both a fantasy and a nightmare.

Marius Kwiecien and cast sing the vigorous march in praise of liberty from Seattle Opera’s 2007 Don Giovanni

The Myth of Don Juan
Theoretically, Don Juan Tenorio was a seventeenth-century Spanish nobleman. The world’s greatest lover, Don Juan had sex with many thousands of women. Since he was wealthy and unemployed, his every waking second was spent in pursuit of women: all ages, classes, shapes, and sizes. In most versions of his story, he was finally dragged off to hell by the statue of a man he killed.

Even though many people have aspired to be Don Juan (and a few have racked up numbers of sexual conquests 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 370 years have delighted in the scene where the statue of the dead man comes to dinner, invites Don Juan to dine with him (in the graveyard), and then clasps Don Juan in his grip of death.

Morgan Smith as Don Giovanni in Seattle Opera's 2007 production
(Rozarii Lynch, photo)

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 insipid fiancé Don Ottavio, the sassy country girl Zerlina and the obsessive Donna Elvira.

Mariusz Kwiecien (Don Giovanni) and Ailish Tynan (Zerlina) in Seattle Opera's 2007 production
(Rozarii Lynch, photo)

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; his great anguish was that he could never find her, that he 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, he gets them anyway. (The 1995 film Don Juan de Marco stars Johnny Depp as a Byron Don Juan. Joseph Gordon-Leavitt’s 2013 film Don Juan doesn’t have much to do with the myth.)

Lorenzo da Ponte
The man who wrote the words to Don Giovanni was lived a life that would make a great opera plot all by itself. Successively banished from his native Italy, Austria, and finally England, Da Ponte, who eventually settled in America, embodied so many contradictions it is hard to believe he was only one person: both Jew and Catholic, both playboy and family man, Da Ponte was a friend of emperors and a wagon-driver among pioneers, a benevolent teacher and a villainous intriguer, a mediocre poet and one of the most important opera librettists who ever lived. Although his fame rests entirely on the three great operas he created with Mozart—Le nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Così fan tutte—Da Ponte’s tireless efforts to introduce Americans to European art paved the way for much American high culture of this century.

About the Composer
Johann Chrysostomos Wolfgang Amadeus (also called Theophilus and Gottlieb) Mozart belongs to a special category of artist; he was one of those rare individuals who forever changed the way we think about ourselves and our world. Coming at the climax of the Classical period, with its interest in logic, symmetrical structures, and formal perfection, Mozart’s music prefigures Romanticism in its sensuality, its fragrant delicacy, and its often violent passion. His music is both immediately accessible to the casual listener and, to a great extent, technically within the reach of the novice performer.

Mozart’s unusual childhood has become the stuff of legends. The composer was born in 1756 and taught himself to play violin and piano by the age of 5. His father Leopold a musician eking out a living in the small town of Salzburg (in provincial Austria), recognized his son’s gifts early on and trained him in music. Leopold took his family on tour all across Europe when Mozart was between the ages of 6 and 10. The young prodigy delighted the nobility of Austria, Germany, France, and England by playing the keyboard blindfolded, sight-reading perfectly, and demonstrating his ability to memorize a piece of music upon hearing it once.

As a teenager, Mozart continued his travels. With his father, and then with his mother, he toured Italy, Germany, and France, hoping to find a job in a big city with a booming music business. He especially wanted a chance to write for the theater, and traveled to several cities following commissions for operas. Perhaps because of his age, perhaps because of his immature personality, he was unable to get a permanent job. He returned to Salzburg from this second round of tours a cynical teenager: unemployed, impatient, and altogether unhappy with his prospects.

Mozart moved to Vienna in 1781, angering his father by insulting his father’s employer, the Archbishop of Salzburg, and by marrying against Leopold’s wishes. The rift between father and son grew wider and wider as the years went on and Mozart became more successful; Papa Mozart seemingly never forgave his son for growing up and starting a new life independent of the man who gave him life, taught him music, and showed him off before the crowned heads of Europe.

The decade Mozart spent in Vienna was his most successful, both financially and artistically. But after Leopold died in 1787, Mozart’s fortunes (which up to that time had been mostly favorable) took a downward turn. He ran into debt and lost many of his patrons. He was turning things around and on his way back to financial stability in 1791, when he died of rheumatic fever.

Despite his early death, Mozart left us with an enormous amount of music: 41 symphonies, 27 piano concerti, vast amounts of chamber music, and five of the greatest operas ever written—Die Entführung aus dem Serail, Le nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni, Così fan tutte, and Die Zauberflöte. His ability to write gracefully for every instrument then in use, and to write operas in a variety of languages and dramatic forms, makes him a unique phenomenon among even the greatest composers.

For a fun introduction to Mozart’s world and music, check out the terrific movie Amadeus, which swept the Oscars in 1984. Amadeus began life as a drama by British playwright Peter Shaffer, who also adapted his play into a screenplay. The film was directed by Milos Forman, and British conductor Neville Marriner and his Academy of St Martin in the Fields contributed one of the greatest film scores of all time.

Although Amadeus is a work of fiction, it is firmly grounded in history. The movie features a great sequence at an early performance of Don Giovanni, filmed in Prague, the city where Don Giovanni was first performed.

The Mozart/Da Ponte Collaboration
Mozart first collaborated with Da Ponte two years prior to Don Giovanni, on Le nozze di Figaro. If you know Figaro, it may strike you that its libretto is far superior to that of Don Giovanni. There are three explanations for this: first, since Figaro represented Mozart’s first collaboration with Da Ponte (as well as his first big artistic risk), the composer really did take far greater pains to edit and reviseand to force his librettist to edit and revise. For both artists, Don Giovanni was a much sloppier job, intended to be a quick money-maker. (According to his unreliable memoirs, Da Ponte had made a bet with Emperor Josef II that he couldn’t write three opera libretti by a certain deadline; and thus he wrote Don Giovanni and two libretti for other composers over the course of several all-nighters.) Second, Figaro is based on a truly magnificent play, while the immediate source for Don Giovanni--another opera on the same story which had come out the year before--was truly junk. Da Ponte stole the situations from this earlier opera but wrote new and much better poetry for them. Third, the overall dramatic structure of the opera was skewed when the opera was finally performed in Vienna, several months after the first performances in Prague. Prague had a better Ottavio, although Vienna had a better Elvira, so Mozart wrote new arias for the new singers. But he didn’t simply replace old arias with new ones, and the tradition nowadays is to perform all of them. This way we get to hear more of Mozart’s great music, even though it tends to make the drama a little strange.

Richard Croft sings Ottavio’s “Dalla sua pace” from Seattle Opera’s 2007 Don Giovanni

Lawrence Brownlee as Count Almaviva in Il barbiere di Siviglia, 2011. Brownlee plays Don Ottavio in Seattle Opera's 2014 Don Giovanni.
(Rozarii Lynch, photo)

The Music of Don Giovanni
The operas of Mozart’s day featured three very different kinds of music: recitative, aria, and ensemble. Recitative is as close as opera gets to spoken dialogue; in recitative, the music isn’t as important as the words. Recitatives are accompanied by the harpsichord, which makes it easier to understand the text, and the words go by very quickly, often on just a few notes. An aria is a solo—one character expressing his or her emotional state for several minutes. While the words to an aria are important, there aren’t too many of them, and the singer usually repeats the words many times. Ensembles feature lots of characters singing at once, and are one of opera’s unique pleasures. Mozart was one of the first composers to develop the full potential of the ensemble, which he uses to express simultaneously the emotions of several characters. Don Giovanni features a duet, a trio, a quartet, and a sextet, and both its acts close with enormous finales—ensembles up to twenty minutes in length, featuring all the characters and lots of action and comedy. In his finales, Mozart paved the way for the musical and dramatic structures of modern opera.

The Act Two Sextet from Seattle Opera’s 2007 Don Giovanni

Just as the libretto of Don Giovanni mixes comedy and tragedy (and sometimes merges them into the grotesque), so the music is a big mix of serious and fun, high and low. As you listen, think about the social class of each character. Mozart writes full-scale, serious arias—the kind you might find in an old-fashioned opera seria—for his upper-class characters. In fact, Donna Elvira’s fascinating “Mi tradì”, Don Ottavio’s “Dalla sua pace” and “Il mio tesoro”, and Donna Anna’s stirring “Or sai chi l’onore” and heart-breaking “Non mi dir” are among the greatest arias ever written. But the lower orders—the peasants Masetto and Zerlina, and the servant Leporello—sing simpler music that comes from the world of folk songs and dances and opera buffa.

Don Giovanni himself has a curious lack of musical personality. He loves playing tricks on people and wearing disguises, and is always hiding his identity musically. So we in the audience never really get to know who he is. Which of his two arias shows us the reality of Don Giovanni as lover? He serenades a girl beneath her balcony with the lovely but inconsequential “Deh, vieni alla finestra”, accompanying himself on the mandolin. But then he explains to Leporello his plans for an orgy in the well-known “Champagne Aria,” a wildly obscene piece of music that characterizes Don Giovanni as a little Energizer bunny. Mozart elegantly says with music what you can only say with four-letter words.

Marius Kwiecien sings the “Champagne Aria” from Seattle Opera’s 2007 Don Giovanni

Recommended Recordings
London, 1955 (Josef Krips, with Cesare Siepi, Lisa della Casa, Fernando Corena, Anton Dermota, and Hilde Gueden)

EMI, 1961 (Carlo Maria Giulini, with Eberhard Wächter, Joan Sutherland, Giuseppe Taddei, Luigi Alva, and Graziella Sciutti)

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