“The opera is divine, but such music is not meat for the teeth of my Viennese.” Such were the words with which Emperor Joseph II characterized Mozart’s opera “Don Giovanni” in 1877 according to the librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte. And divine it is. Mozart is said to have replied to Da Ponte: “Give them time to chew on it.” Two centuries later the Viennese, who initially reacted lukewarm to the opera, as well as the rest of the world has had time to chew on it. It is one of the most popular and most performed operas ever. So what is the magical formula behind this stunning success?
Da Ponte at his best
Da Ponte and Mozart formed for a short time a winning team as their musical and financial interests converged. Since his arrival in Vienna, Da Ponte had gained sufficient experience in writing opera plots. After all he was the court’s official poet. He took an existing libretto from another author, shortened it radically, condensed the action and the number of characters. He introduced a subtle political message, hidden behind a veil of irony: the arbitrary and immoral behaviour of a nobleman. This appealed to the general public without upsetting the Viennese Court as Da Ponte advocates respect for accepted standards, not revolution. To balance the political subject, he uses witty dialogues full of allusions to life in Vienna as well as comical elements like disguise and confusion games and dances.
Mirroring Mozart’s personality
This specific and never before tried junction of serious and comical elements were much to Mozart’s liking. Romantic love, rape, murder and vengeance, a womanizer and manipulator unwilling to repent – some of these elements, characterizing Don Giovanni can be found in Mozart’s own ambivalent personality. When he set da Ponte’s words to music, he knew exactly what he was writing about. The Master of the Word met the Master of the Melody and together they wrote the Mother of all Operas, if you allow me this belligerent allusion. It is appropriate, as the opera reflects a moral battle and is itself quite a challenge for the musicians and the singers.
I love this opera. I love it like no other opera I know. I have listened to my recording of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra led by Yannick Nézet-Séguin and Rolando Villazon as Don Giovanni countless times. I have seen it on DVD performed by the Chorus and Orchestra of the Zurich Opera House many, many times. Nikolaus Harnoncourt – he died a few weeks ago alas – leads the orchestra and the chorus, Cecilia Bartoli sings and plays the part of Donna Elvira and Laszlo Polgar as Leporello, Don Giovanni’s trouble-shooter and my secret hero of the opera, is fantastic.
A singing duel
Take for instance act I, scene 4 where Leporello enumerates Don Giovanni’s conquests in a stupendous aria directed at Donna Elvira, Don Giovanni erstwhile mistress. Sarcasm is dripping out of each of Da Ponte’s verses while Mozart’s melodious music full of empathy is softening the brutal content of the message. Brilliant! Again in act 1, this time in scene 15, Don Giovanni is singing his great aria where he ridicules ordinary folks and boasts about his exploits as a womanizer. It is short and powerful and Mozart’s fanfare transforms it into a battle cry. At the end of act 1, Don Giovanni is confronted by his victims in a dramatic singing duel. “Traditore, traditore! Tutto tutto già si sa.” (Traitor, traitor, we know it all). Wow!
Leporello has his brilliant, comical moment in act 2, scene 9. In his aria he complains about his evil master and begs for forgiveness, neglecting the fact he has been a compliant accomplice all the time. A related thought will be his last word in the opera. After Don Giovanni’s fall, all survivors declare their lessons learned. Leporello explains he will drop by at the next pub to look for a better master! In scene 10d, Donna Elvira sings a moving accompanied recitativo and aria about her fate. The music is so incredibly sad and hopeless – worth of a song from Schubert.
May I sum up? If this opera is not yet in your household – run! Go. Get. It.
© Charles Thibo