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The Story Behind the Opera "Don Giovanni" by Mozart

“Don Giovanni” is a two-act opera composed by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Lorenzo Da Ponte crafted the Italian libretto. The opera is based on a legendary fictional character called “Don Juan,” who is a seducer and libertine. Tirso de Molina, a Spanish poet, and dramatist of the Baroque era, created this famous personality. 


Don Giovanni's original poster

“Don Giovanni” premiered at the “Estates Theatre,” previously known as the “National Theater of Bohemia” on the 29th of October, 1787. The libretto was duly promoted as a “Dramma giocoso,” a genre that denoted a mixture of comedy and serious action. Mozart famously recorded it as an “opera buffa.”

“Don Giovanni” was commissioned right after Mozart's highly successful trip to Prague in 1787. Da Ponte based the libretto on Giovanni Bertati’s version for a former opera titled “Don Giovanni Tenorio.” He was also highly influenced by Bertati’s idea of opening the Opera with the assassination of the Commendatore. Also, earlier prototypes of the opera were all set in Villena, Spain. Da Ponte only describes a city in Spain.

History & Performances 

Don Giovanni's role (painting)

The opera was originally scheduled to be performed for royal dignitaries on the 14th of October, 1787. However, the organizers failed to prepare the production in time. Mozart finally completed the score on the 28th of October, 1787. In the premiere, the opera was titled as “Don Giovanni, a Dramma giocoso in two acts.” What followed can only be termed as rapturous admiration, which was pretty commonly reserved for Mozart in Prague. The critical acclaim was overflowing, some even claiming that Mozart has even exceeded himself with this composition.

The final ensemble narrating the moral of the opera was generally excluded in all versions up until the early parts of the 20th century. However, modern productions have embraced this original tradition wholeheartedly. In the original versions, the Commendatore and Masetto were played by the same individual, while modern productions utilize different singers for the role. The Vienna production also had a separate scene where Leporello and Zerlina perform the Duet “For these hands of yours,” and Donna Elvira has an additional aria titled “That ungrateful wretch betrayed me.”

Mozart has also utilized some of the popular opera music of the late 18th century in “Don Giovanni.” He used “O quanto un sì bel giubilo” from the opera “Una cosa rara” crafted by Vicente Martín y Soler and “Come un agnello” from the opera “Fra i due litiganti il terzo gode” by Giuseppe Sarti. He also used “Non più andrai” from the “The Marriage of Figaro,” his own creation.

The Play

Don Giovanni plays mandolin

Act I

The prelude begins with a massive tempo in “D minor,” accompanied by a brief “misterioso” sequence, which subsequently ends with a light allegro in “D major.” In the first scene at the Commendatore’s garden, Don Giovanni’s servant Leporello is grumbling about the demanding attitude of his master. He daydreams about being independent one day through the aria “Night and day I slave away.” He is supposed to be keeping an eye out as Don Giovanni tries to seduce/force Donna Anna, the Commendatore’s daughter. Soon, Donna Anna enters the garden chasing after Giovanni as she shouts for help through the trio “Do not hope, unless you kill me, that I shall ever let you run away!” However, Giovanni successfully escapes only to find his way blocked by the Commendatore. Giovanni finishes him off in a sword duel and runs away with Leporello. A horrified Donna Anna and Don Ottavio, her fiancé, find the Commendatore dead in a pool of blood. They swear vengeance against the assailant through the duet, “Ah, swear to avenge that blood if you can!”

In the next scene, Don Giovanni admonishes Leporello for questioning his life choices. They hear a woman singing the aria “Ah, who could ever tell me,” seeking vengeance on her lover, who abandoned her. Don Giovanni tries to flirt with this woman, Donna Elvira, but it turns out that he is the lover in question. As Donna Elvira rebukes him bitterly, he instructs Leporello to tell her the truth and runs away. Subsequently, Leporello describes how Don Giovanni really is unfaithful. His list of conquests includes 1003 women in Spain, 91 (Turkey), 100 (France), 231 (Germany), and 640 in Italy. He states this by singing the aria, “My dear lady, this is the catalog.”

The next scene depicts a peasant wedding procession, as Zerlina and Masetto arrive. Don Giovanni is also at the scene and becomes immediately enchanted by Zerlina. He tries to trick Masetto by offering to host the ceremony at his castle but fails. An angry Masetto sees right through it but is forced to agree as he sings the aria, “I understand! Yes, my lord!” Don Giovanni starts seducing Zerlina as the duet “There we will entwine our hands” is performed. However, Donna Elvira thwarts his attempts with the aria “Flee from the traitor!” and convinces Zerlina to leave with her. Donna Anna and Don Ottavio enter the scene, still looking for the unknown assailant. They seek Don Giovanni’s help, unaware of his true identity. Don Giovanni pledges to help them as inquires about the incident when Donna Elvira suddenly returns to warn the couple about Don Giovanni’s true colors. Don Giovanni tries to convince them that Donna Elvira is deranged as the quarter “Don’t trust him, oh sad one” plays in the background.

Don Giovanni leaves them, but Donna Anna soon recognizes him as the intruder who murdered her father. He shares the whole story with Don Ottavio through a recitative exchange and reminds him of his vow of vengeance through the aria, “Now you know who wanted to rob me of my honor.” However, Don Ottavio is not fully convinced but promises to keep an eye out as he sings, “On her peace, my peace depends.” Next, Leporello informs his master that he had successfully distracted Masetto and the guests at the wedding ceremony, but Donna Elvira and Zerlina had spoiled everything. Don Giovanni, however, isn’t perturbed. He instructs Leporello to invite every woman he can find and organize a party thereafter. He sings the aria, “Till they are tipsy” as they return to his palace.

Meanwhile, Zerlina tries to pacify a jealous Masetto through the song “Beat, O beat me, handsome Masetto.” However, Don Giovanni soon arrives and continues his attempts to entice her. He even scolds Masetto for leaving his fiancee alone in the garden and leads them towards his ballroom. Donna Elvira, Donna Anna, and Don Ottavio enter the party under disguise. Before entering, they pray for vengeance and protection through the trio “May the just heavens protect us.”

As the guests enjoy in the ballroom, Leporello successfully distracts Masetto so that his master can take Zerlina somewhere private. However, Zerlina screams when Don Giovanni tries to assault her. Don Giovanni transfers the blame on Leporello instead, threatening to kill him for assaulting his guest. However, his ploy fails to convince anyone. The three masked guests confront Don Giovanni, but he manages to escape.

Act II

Don Giovanni Act-2 stage setting

Leporello revolts, threatening to leave but is appeased by Don Giovanni with money as the Duet "Go on, fool" is sung. Don Giovanni further exchanges his clothes with his servant, hoping to allure Donna Elvira's maid. As they reach Donna Elvira's house, she appears at her window as the trio "Ah, be quiet unjust heart" is performed. Don Giovanni hides, sending Leporello instead. He laments his misgivings from his hideout and promises to make amends. He further threatens to commit suicide if Donna Elvira doesn't accept him. Donna Elvira is convinced and subsequently led away by a disguised Leporello. Don Giovanni uses this opportunity to entice her maid, singing "Ah, come to the window" using his mandolin. However, Masetto arrives at the scene with his gang to kill him. Don Giovanni joins them, pretending to be Leporello, and deceits them to go separate ways through the aria, "Half of you go this way, the others, go that way." He then pounces on Masetto, takes his weapons, and leaves. Zerlina arrives at the scene to console the bruised peasant, singing, "You'll see, dear one."

On the other hand, Leporello abandons a distraught Donna Elvira as the song "All alone in this dark place" is performed. However, he is confronted by Donna Anna and Don Ottavio, as Masetto and Zerlina also join in. Leporello reveals his true identity and begs for mercy. He finally manages to run away while singing the aria, "Ah, have mercy, my lords." All this convinces Don Ottavio that Don Giovanni indeed is guilty. He again swears revenge through the song "My treasure."

Don Giovanni and Leporello reunite at a graveyard, which also houses a statue of the Commendatore. As Don Giovanni taunts his servant, a voice from the statue warns him that he will face the consequences. The statue also has an inscription stating, "Here am I waiting for revenge against the scoundrel who killed me." Don Giovanni orders Leporello to offer a dinner invitation to the statue. Leporello is too afraid and trembles as the duet "Oh most noble statue" is sung. Subsequently, Don Giovanni himself invites it as the statue offers a nod of approval.

Next, Don Ottavio proposes marriage to Donna Anna, almost pressuring her. When she refuses, he accuses her of being unfaithful. Donna Anna belts out the aria, "Tell me not," professing her feelings towards him. In the following scene, Don Giovanni is seen reveling at his castle, with luxurious food and music. Leporello is exasperated and complains to his master as the finale "Already the table is prepared" is performed. Donna Elvira appears at the scene, claiming she only feels compassion for Don Giovanni and profuses her feeling by singing, "The final proof of my love." She pleads him to change but is mocked and taunted instead. Don Giovanni states that women and wine are the real glories of life, compelling her to leave. However, she is heard screaming in fear from the door. Leporello is sent to manage the situation, but he returns equally frightened. Don Giovanni himself opens the door and finds the statue of the Commendatore. The statue offers him a final chance to rue his misdeeds, which he refuses. The statue duly disappears, as demons appear out of nowhere and drag Don Giovanni to hell.

Masetto, Zerlina, Donna Elvira, Don Ottavio, and Donna Anna all arrive at the castle and discover a terrified Leporello hiding under Don Giovanni's table. He narrates the whole incident and assures that Don Giovanni is gone for good. The mood changes instantly, as Don Ottavio and Donna Anna announce their future marriage. Donna Elvira decides to lead a secluded life as Masetto leaves for his home. Finally, Leporello leaves for the tavern in search of a better overlord.

All the characters narrate the moral of the opera "The end of an evildoer is such; the death of a sinner is always reflected in his life" as part of the curtain call.

Don Giovanni: Painting of Act-2

Musical Overview 

The composition of “Don Giovanni” utilizes a timpani, three different trombones (bass, tenor, alto), two each of trumpets, horns, and double woodwinds. The recitatives utilize continuous bass lines, equipped with improvised harmonies and also a familiar string section. Mozart also opted for the occasional musical effects. The ballroom scene in the first act uses two different onstage ensembles performing distinct dance music, albeit, synchronized with the orchestra. All group music is accompanied by dances of principal characters.

In act II, he further uses a mandolin, partnered with pizzicato strings. In the later stage of the second act, the Commendatore's interventions are accompanied by a chorale of trombones, bassoons, clarinets, and oboes. The string section is also prominent here, with basses and cellos. The opera concludes with a return to “D major,’ with an added flavor of simplicity.

The opera is widely regarded as a part of Mozart's best creations, apart from being called one of the greatest operas of all time. “Don Giovanni” has aptly become a constructive subject for philosophers and writers. It is now a staple of the Customary “operatic repertoire.” It also ranks 9th in the list of most-performed operas, according to Operabase.

Usage In Popular Culture 

The finale of the Opera has always been a captivating artistic and philosophical subject in the musical and literary world.

  • In 1903, George Bernard Shaw created a parody of the iconic character “Don Giovanni” in his drama “Man and Superman.” 
  • E. T. A. Hoffmann created a short story heavily influenced by Mozart’s work and Don Juan. However, he portrayed the character as an anti-hero, rebelling against society. 
  • Peter Shaffer used Don Giovanni in the play “Amadeus,” a fictional biography of Mozart. 
  • Franz Liszt used the music of the original opera in “Réminiscences de Don Juan,” his operatic fantasy.    
  • Frédéric Chopin created a variation of “There we will entwine our hands” for orchestra and piano.  
  • Franz Danzi and Ludwig van Beethoven also crafted their own variation of the same theme.  
  • In 1981, Michael Nyman created a short musical piece titled “Re Don Giovanni.”
  • The opera “The Tales of Hoffmann” by Jacques Offenbach is equipped with a rendition of “Night and day I slave away.”

In “Don Giovanni,” Mozart offers a palette of warmth, drama, and elegance, even settling on some insightful yet unusual choice of tempo. The deviation and insight of emotions are perfectly balanced with elan. He successfully retains the simmering class tensions throughout the opera. He emphasizes drama over comedy, exuding the darker side of his protagonist. The philandering aristocratic clout is seamlessly captured in the overture, accompanied by some threatening chords.

His music often sneers at the prevalent social structure, albeit, continuing to be utterly delightful. However, there is ample evidence that the composer wasn’t entirely comfortable with the storyline. The duets, arias, and the presence of the final ensemble mark his attempts at a somewhat apparent shot at vindication. However, not once did he sacrifice the musical line, ascending into a world of dynamic melodious contrasts. “Don Giovanni” remains a work of uninterrupted perfection, devoid of blemish - a work of art.


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