As with all of the works so far, Mozart’s Don Giovanni, is based on earlier legends, in this instance the Spanish Don Juan by Tirso de Molina.
As a subject it has been covered many times, not least by Mozart but also Lord Byron, Pushkin, Dumas, Balzac, Strauss and Bernard Shaw.
It is Mozart and Byron’s interpretations which perhaps hold the greatest interest, their “bad boy” reputations for vice and drink being in such close parallel with their subject’s own lecherous, libertarian debauchery.
It’s hard to sometimes think of opera as being controversial but the subject matter of many was often devastatingly explicit for their times.
Even La Traviata had to change its setting from Verdi’s contemporary 1850s (in which time he and his librettist, Francesco Maria Piave, wanted to set it) to the early 1700s because the subject matter of courtesans – effectively legalised high society prostitution – was a little too close to the bone.
But Verdi had nothing on Mozart and his librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte, who apparently created an opera filled with such lascivious filth that US politician George Templeton Strong still called it, “little but rampant lechery” nearly a century after it was first performed in 1787.
The whole opera is an exercise in dark farce, with “sex, wine and classical music” (to borrow a phrase) being right at its heart.
The opera begins with our (anti-) hero killing the father of, Donna Anna, a girl he has seduced while in disguise.
Following an encounter with a wronged lover, Donna Elvira, who he begins to flirt with before he realises he is the one who left her, scene two is barely over before he’s attempting to have his way with, Zerlina, a newly married woman who is on her way home with her husband Masseto.
In the event Don Giovanni is frustrated by his ex-lover Elvira who arrives and advises Zerlina to “flee from the traitor”. The various wronged lovers and their furious spouses resolve to track down the miscreant.
Undeterred Don Giovanni is soon back at his own home organising a party, during which he sings the “Champagne aria”, “Fin ch’han del vino…” which best sums up his character.
“Fin ch’han dal vino calda la testa,
una gran festa fa’ preparar.
Se trovi in piazza qualche ragazza,
teco ancor quella cerca menar.
Senza alcun ordine la danza sia:
chi ‘l minuetto, chi la follia,
chi l’alemanna farai ballar.”
“Ed io frattanto, dall’altro canto
con questa e quella vo’ amoreggiar.
Ah! la mia lista doman mattina
d’una decina devi aumentar”
Which might be simply translated as:
“Let us have wine to warm our heads
and women to warm our beds.
And while there is dancing,
minuets, folias, allemandes,
I shall be making love.
My list tomorrow morning
Shall be 10 names longer.”
At the party he arranges he attempts once more to seduce Zerlina but is interrupted by Donna Anna, her fiancée Ottavio and Elvira. Don Giovanni, though, evades capture.
Act II sees further attempts at seduction, Don Giovanni now deciding to seduce Elvira’s maid but this too is thwarted by one of his many enemies. Once again Don Giovanni escapes and jokes about it with his servant, Leporello.
There follows a strange scene where a statue of Donna Anna’s father, the commendatore, appears to speak, warning Don Giovanni that his laughter will not see another day.
Don Giovanni tells Leporello to invite the statue to dinner that evening. When Leporello proves to cowardly to do so, Don Giovanni does it himself and is surprised when the statue nods in acceptance.
The opera comes to a head that evening at Don Giovanni’s house while he is having supper. Elvira arrives and begs him to change his ways but he sings another aria in praise of wine and women (“sostegno e gloria d’umanità”).
Then the statue of the commendatore suddenly appears and tells him to repent as well but, stubborn to the end, Don Giovanni refuses and so is dragged into hell by the statue and shrouded by hellfire and a chorus of demons.
His pursuers arrive but find no trace of him, merely Leporello who tells them what happened, which leads to much relief.
The lovers, Donna Anna and Ottavio will marry, Zerlina and her husband will finally get to go home, while Elvira resolves to become a nun.
Don Giovanni’s troublesome servant meanwhile, who has been hiding under the table since his erstwhile master disappeared in a puff of sulphur, re-emerges and heads off to the nearest pub hoping to find a better master.
“Questo è il fin di chi fa mal, e de’ perfidi la morte alla vita è sempre ugual.”
Below, Bryn Terfel as Don Giovanni sings the Champagne Aria at The Metropolitan Opera.
Next time: the plot thickens against Othello
Previously: La Traviata