By Basil De Pinto
Is Mozart’s great opera about the amorous adventures of a licentious Spanish nobleman and his downfall: il dissoluto punito? Yes, but so much more as well. It is about social class and its divisions, indicated by titles (or lack thereof): Don Ottavio, Donna Elvira and Donna Anna as opposed to Masetto and Zerlina. In the very first scene Leporello complains of his servitude to a high-living employer. Mozart continues here what he elaborated so well in The Marriage of Figaro. The opera is also about important character traits like truthfulness and loyalty. Don Giovanni and Leporello are inveterate liars; Ottavio and Masetto, whatever their weaknesses, are also sincere people, committed to those they love.
But more than anything else Don Giovanni is concerned with the ambiguity in human relations, where love and death are intricately connected. The opera begins with one death and ends with another. The Commendatore is murdered by Giovanni, and at the end he returns to drag his murderer down to hell. Between those grim events we find a constant tension between love as a life force and the threat of its extinction: Anna’s love for Ottavio smothered by her lust to avenge her father’s death; Zerlina and Masetto divided by her flirting and his jealousy; Elvira half crazed by her obsession with Giovanni.
And just who is the eponymous hero, or anti-hero? He is clearly an inveterate “lover” or, more precisely, a seducer. Love, in the sense of deep personal intimacy and lasting affection, plays no part in his continuous, unending quest for another name to be added to the catalogue that Leporello displays to Elvira and to us. Is he then a personal cipher, a theatrical device or peg on which to hang a moral lesson? The fine quality of Lorenzo da Ponte’s libretto alone eliminates that idea, but the decisive factor is Mozart’s music. The composer has delineated with utmost precision every facet of the story and each of the characters in it.
Rather than begin with a character analysis of Giovanni, it will be worthwhile to consider the women in his life, since he invests so much energy in them. Each of them is interesting both in her own right and in the light they cast on Giovanni.
In the first scene Donna Anna appears in full flight from her attacker with no introduction as to her situation except that she is the victim of a would-be rapist. Her personal identity emerges gradually in the course of the opera, whereas Elvira and Zerlina are recognizable almost at once. So Anna is more of a mystery. Her grief at her father’s murder is understandable, but it is so total that she ignores, even repulses, Ottavio’s loving attempts to console her. Her immediate reaction is the desire for revenge, which she maintains unflinchingly to the end of the opera. No undue psychologizing is necessary to observe the unhealthy bond the daughter has with the father: she claims she would rather die than live without him.
As throughout the opera, Mozart’s music here does as much as the narrative to show us Anna’s plight. She is a woman at first frightened and then grief-stricken, intent on revenge; later a softer, calmer side of her is revealed. Her two big arias, “Or sai chi l’onore” in Act One and “Non mi dir” in Act Two illustrate these character traits.
In the introduction to the first, she sketches for Ottavio her encounter with her masked attacker whom, moments before this, she has recognized by his voice. She then launches into her great musical cry for vengeance. It is one of the supreme outpourings for the soprano voice. Her music depicts Anna as every inch the noblewoman, conscious of her dignity and secure in her position of command over the meek Ottavio (about whom more later). The soaring phrases with which she identifies the murderer call for a powerful upper register in the voice combined with clarity of verbal projection. This intensity hardly tapers off in the middle section of the aria, normally a place of some repose for the singer—she goes right on with her clarion call and then segues into a repetition of the opening.
Happily, this is not all there is to Anna. In her Act 2 aria we find another, softer side. The ever patient Ottavio tries to calm her incessant moaning over her loss of her father with a firm protestation of his unfailing love and devotion. She initially brushes this aside, but suddenly she realizes how callously she has used and abused him. He calls her cruel and gives her the cue for an aria of melting lyricism and regret: “Non mi dir, bel idol mio”—no, my love, do not call me cruel. She is not totally self-absorbed and insensitive; she is also capable of generosity and gratitude. The strings of the orchestra intone a melody of unparalleled sweetness and repeat it as she begins her aria. Now it is Anna’s turn to plead for calm, to console her lover and assure him of her return of his constancy and devotion. Thus we have a more rounded picture of this tormented woman; there is a light that promises to dispel the darkness that has thus far engulfed her.
A word here for the much maligned figure of Ottavio. Compared with the other men in the opera, his is a rather bland persona, always following, never leading the distracted Anna. Only towards the end does he voice some complaint at his treatment by the woman he so faithfully accompanies through all her woes, and even then he gives way to her. But Mozart treats him very well from a musical point of view. When the tenor at the premiere found “Il mio tesoro” too difficult, the composer gave him a simpler, but far more lyrical aria, the melting “Dalla sua pace.” Now the lucky singer gets two important pieces. Whatever his dramatic slimness, Ottavio has admirable musical depth.
Eroticism is plainly the subtext of Don Giovanni and it is abundantly displayed in the opera (without the removal of a single item of clothing) and Donna Elvira is its focal point. Consonant with her mental state, her entrance aria is scored for brief, halting phrases, and her complaint about betrayal is interrupted twice by Giovanni and Leporello, aside, who have not yet recognized her. The only thing certain is that she is aflame with fury. Like Anna she wants vengeance, but solely because of her personal grievance; it is clear that she is still in love with the man who has cast her off. Later she joins Anna and Ottavio in confronting Giovanni and takes part in denouncing him. It is only in the second act that Elvira has her big solo, “Mi tradì, quell’alma ingrata,” and by her own account reveals the confusion that tears her apart. She wants to despise him for his hateful behavior and at the same time the very thought of him revives her yearning for him.
This is what Giovanni does to women: he sets them on fire, then he douses the flames by his indifference and/or endless quest for still another object of his insatiable desire. His next victim comes not from the aristocratic world of Anna and Elvira, but in the form of the peasant girl Zerlina, about to be married to the oafish but lovable Masetto. She is momentarily drawn to Giovanni in the famous duet, “Là ci darem,” but her common sense and moral clarity fend off the temptation. Zerlina reminds us of Figaro’s Susanna (just barely missing the inimitable sparkle of that uniquely winsome character), a wholesome, intelligent woman whose inner calm serves to bring order out of near-chaos. Her two arias are full of down to earth warmth and charm, complimented by an uncomplicated but clear-sighted inner life.
So these are the three current lovelies in Giovanni’s life, conveniently extracted from the other thousand Spanish women that Leporello has kept track of. What do they tell us about the man who has pursued them so vigorously? First of all, they conform to the description Leporello has given in his catalogue aria: Anna, strength of character; Elvira, unflinching constancy; Zerlina, the youth that can be molded. What this actually reveals is Giovanni’s opposite qualities. He is morally weak, incapable of commitment, and deeply mired in his addiction to passionate romance.
And yet, Mozart paints him in brilliant musical colors and makes him as attractive to us as to the ladies he is courting, setting up in keen psychological fashion our understanding of his charm and at the same time the elusive quality of his relations with these women. There is an ambiguous hollow at the core of his amorous attention to them, an emptiness that his personal bravado can never mask, and this hollowness is clearly shown in the musical picture of this fascinating man.
First, the absence of an aria for Giovanni is remarkable. The lively “Champagne” song in Act One and the charming serenade in Act Two suit the particular moment in which they appear and show his socially attractive nature, but they in no way correspond to the introspective quality we find in the arias for Anna and Elvira. There is no room in Giovanni for depth of self-scrutiny; he is entirely outward oriented. But his responses to others speak volumes.
Of course Giovanni shares some crucial extended musical passages with others. In the quartet with Elvira, Anna and Ottavio in Act One, Giovanni sings in quick, fractured snatches of melody as he tries to extricate himself from a sticky situation, while Elvira denounces him and the other two express their confusion. In the graveyard, after an extended recitative, Giovanni and Leporello sing of their respective viewpoints, the servant trembling in fear, the master contemptuous even in the face of a ghostly presence.
The end of the opera sums up and illustrates the meaning of dramma giocoso. The raucous feasting at Giovanni’s party is shut down as the heavy, portentous chords of the overture return with chilling insistence to announce the appearance of the Stone Guest. No call to repentance can alter Giovanni’s ironclad resistance and demonic forces finally drag him to his doom. A chilling finale to the drama certainly, but then—the scene changes and the rest of the characters in the play come forward to comment on what has happened. This is the final stroke of genius of both librettist and composer. Don Giovanni is not a tragedy; at the end of a tragedy there is nothing more to be done or said: “The rest is silence.” But at the end of this opera, life goes on. Each of the characters has in some way been affected by contact with Giovanni and now each has to find a new way to go on with life. None of the solutions is perfect; rather each one, like the character who inhabits it, is perfectly ambiguous, in keeping with the central concept of the work as a whole. With the end must come a new beginning. And we realize that giocoso means comedy in the Dantean sense.
The totality of Mozart’s power as a composer is evident in Don Giovanni. Of his greatest operas, only The Magic Flute had as yet to appear, and of his greatest symphonies only the last, “Jupiter,” was yet to come. In the end we are simply in awe of the prodigious accomplishment of this amazing man. Throughout his work there is such keen insight into human behavior, and such mastery in expressing it by the most resourceful musical means, that every attempt at adequately explaining it falls short. It is enough to be thankful that this glorious achievement will be celebrated, enjoyed and loved as long as we have ears to hear it.
Basil De Pinto has written for the opera companies of Washington, D.C., Seattle, Atlanta and Fort Worth.