Of Mozart’s five last operas, four have become not only standard repertoire today but also four of the most-played operas ever worldwide. In May 1786 The Marriage of Figaro premiered in Vienna. It was very successful there. However in Prague, one of the two artistic metropoles of the Holy Roman Empire, the opera was even more of a triumph. So big, in fact, that Mozart immediately received a commission for another opera.
These were difficult years for Wolfgang. His income had diminished, as he didn’t do as many concerts as before. In Vienna, there are no recorded public appearances whatsoever for 1787. On top of that, his father died in May 1787. So, the success of his next work was crucial if he was going to save his position, and more so, his finances.
The collaboration with Antonio da Ponte had been very good for Figaro, and for his next libretto, it was obvious who was going to write it. This time the first premier was in Prague and only six months later it went up in Vienna. And in a similar way as with The Marriage of Figaro, while the audience in Prague adored it, in Vienna it was more of sober admiration. The reason could possibly have been that there was a war going on against the Turks.
Maybe because of these two achievements he was appointed Kammermusicus in November 1787. Not a big deal, but he had worked towards a position within the court for his whole life, and finally it became reality.
Premiere – October 29, 1787, Estates Theatre, Prague, the Czech Republic.
Composer – Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Librettist – Lorenzo da Ponte
Running Time – Roughly 2 hours, and 40 minutes plus Intervals
Ouverture – 7 minutes
Act 1 – Approximately 1 hour 20.
Act 2 – Approximately 1 hour 20.
The colors of the voices are not only decided from a volume and pitch point of view. The age and position of the characters are also important. With that I mean, put in a very simple way, the younger and more innocent a character is, the lighter the voice. More so for the three female voices.
Main characters (First, Mozart’s definition of voice.)
Don Giovanni – Baritone (Should have a good bite and reasonably strong low notes), a licentious young nobleman.
Leporello – Bass (Could be a bass-baritone. A little darker than Don Giovanni), Don Giovanni’s manservant.
Commendatore – Bass (It’s essential that he has volume. Better raw and strong than full and dark), Donna Anna’s father.
Masetto – Bass (if he doubles as Commendatore, which is usually not the case, he needs to be a strong dark voice. If not it can be sung by a Baritone), Zerlina’s husband-to-be.
Don Ottavio – Tenor (Lyric tenor/Light lyric tenor), Donna Anna’s fiancè.
Donna Anna – Soprano, Commendatore’s daughter and Ottavian’s fiancèe.
Donna Elvira – Soprano (Should be the darkest of the three. A Mezzo-Soprano with good height is actually better), a noble lady from Burgos. One of Don Giovanni’s past adventures.
Zerlina – Soprano (Soubrette. She could also be sung by a light Mezzo-Soprano), Masetto’s wife-to-be.
Based on the comic opera Don Giovanni, o sia Il convitato di pietra (Don Giovanni, or The Stone Guest) by Giuseppe Gazzaniga.
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The theatre culture in the late 18th century.
Dob Giovanni is divided into recitativo, which corresponds to the spoken dialogue, and arias, duets, ensembles, etc, which are there for the beauty of them. For an untrained ear, operas from the 1700s, and more so from the 1600s, can seem a bit long (boring). The story isn’t carried forward with the same intensity and vigor as later works.
There are reasons for this. And you should know that Mozart was a true genius. Many of his contemporary colleagues’ works are much more so (boring). One of the reasons is that the way people attended the theater in those days was very different from today.
In 1637, the first ever public access opera was inaugurated in Venice, Italy… The Cassiano theater. Very fast the opera became a popular entertainment not only for the court and the nobles but also for anyone who had money to pay for the ticket. And many of those who went to the opera went for other reasons than the show. Depending on the place and the situation, the opera became a sort of all-around amusement institution. As an example, Giacomo Casanova speaks about Teatro San Cassiano in late 1700:
– … Young prostitutes work in the boxes in the fourth order. So, at least their felonies aren’t exposed to others…
Not all theaters had prostitutes, but many went there to gamble, eat and drink, or just hang out with friends and business acquaintances. People often weren’t seated as they are now. Instead, you could walk in and out of the theater much as you liked. In Prague, with the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire in the Royal Box, people probably sat down and kept quiet, but not even the Kings and Queens always followed the show from the beginning to the end.
Mozart’s operas, just like the norm at the time, have some water-treading in them. You are supposed to be able to follow the action even if you walk out for ten minutes. I’m not saying you should do that, but now you know a little about the background. And you can be thankful that you’re watching an opera by Mozart and not one by Jan Křtitel Vaňhal or Antonio Salieri.
… And don’t worry if you miss a line or two. You still can understand the story without problems.
Background – The Opera Don Giovanni is set in…
The legend of Don Juan is often referred to as set in Seville. Da Ponte and Mozart avoid any such connections. It’s a plausible location just the same.
The time is not specified (and maybe not very important after all…). The legendary womanizer is approximately a 1600s character. So, let’s put him there.
Mozart doesn’t really portray women in general as very virtuous or faithful. They are often just as unbridled as men (Look at Cosi fan Tutte). But they are often smarter than their male peers …(or The Marriage of Figaro). In this opera, the women are somewhat more of victims, but that is probably more due to the argument than anything else. The main character is evil. He is a womanizer… A Don Juan, and what he does to the poor ladies must be at least somewhat against their will. Although, in that case, they risk becoming as promiscuous, just less witty. As we will see, the women are irresistibly drawn to Don Giovanni. When casting, that too needs to be taken into consideration. Giovanni needs to be good-looking.
Outside Commendatore’s (and Donna Anna’s) palace.
Right at the beginning, we hear Leporello complaining about his lot:
– Notte e giorno faticar… (…what a gentleman! You stay inside with the beautiful, and I am outside standing guard…)
Don Giovanni comes out followed by Donna Anna. She has discovered that the man who tried to have his way with her, wasn’t really Ottavio, her fiancè as she thought. So now she tries to grab hold of him while screaming. Her father, Commendatore, comes out and draws his rapier.
Don Giovanni kills him and runs away with Leporello. Duke Ottavio swears for revenge on his fiancèe. The dead Commendatore will play a significant role at the end of the story.
A street at dawn.
Leporello hasn’t even had time to digest the terrible events in Donna Anna’s garden before his master has sniffed out a new trail. But before he gets so far, he spots a beautiful abandoned lady in street. He salutes her but to his regret, this is an earlier conquest and the reunion is bitter. Donna Elvira is her name and she accuses Don Giovanni of being a perfidious scoundrel… Which he is.
Now there’s the most famous piece of the evening:
– Madamina il catalogo e questo. (The Catalogue Aria).
Don Giovanni tells Leporello to reveal everything about Don Giovanni’s life. And so he does. It’s a catalog of his master’s conquests…
– (In Italy 640, in Germany 231, in France 100, in Turkey 91… But in Spain, there are so far 1003.)
A village square nearby the castle of Don Giovanni.
The young couple Zerlina and Masetto celebrate their matrimony and there’s a short, very cute duet with the chorus:
– Giovinette che fate all’amore…
Our hero introduces himself and immediately plans the seduction of the young bride. Leporello is to take the whole party to the castle and entertain them, while Giovanni entertains Zerlina. Masetto is, of course, resistant but Don Giovanni threatens him by showing his sword and he has to agree.
It is obvious to whoever watches the scene what is about to happen. Still, Zerlina assures her husband that everything is cool and that she’s with a gentleman. The broom is either stupid or exceptionally weak, while the bride is very eager, and that on her own wedding day. It doesn’t really add up.
Now there’s another highlight. The beautiful seduction duet between Zerlina and Don Giovanni:
– Là ci darem la mano…
But just as Zerlina is about to give in, Elvira enters. And with fury she sings:
– Ah, fuggi il traditor… (Flee the traitor…)
… and saves Zerlina.
Donna Anna and Ottavio enter to ask Don Giovanni for assistance in finding the murderer of Commendatore, not knowing that it’s actually him who did it. Again Elvira enters to set things straight.
When Ottavio and Anna are alone, she tells him that she in fact has recognized the voice of her father’s assassin… Don Giovanni. Then she explains what happened in her room that night… It’s a short 18th-century Voyeurism exhibition.
Don Ottavio is left alone and sings one of his two arias:
– Dalla sua pace… (My inner peace depends on hers. If she sighs… I sigh too… And if she is not well, neither am I.)
Giovanni and Leporello return (This part contains quite a lot of entering and exiting…). Leporello is instructed to go to the castle to prepare for the marriage party. Don Giovanni sings a short but interesting aria. It is fast and has few places to take a breath, to a point where the singer could be in trouble, depending on if the conductor is helping him or not:
– Fin ch’han dal vino…
The garden of Don Giovanni’s castle.
Another erotic scene, with an SM undertone. Zerlina tries to weaken Masetto’s jealous heart:
– Batti, batti, o bel Masetto… (Beat me, Masetto, beat your poor Zerlina. I’ll stay here as a little lamb, your barrels waiting for you…).
Don Giovanni enters and invites everybody to the castle. While continuing working on Zerlina, who can’t really resist, Masetto enters. Even though practically catching them in the act, he then happily joins them for the party… Yep, he’s either stupid or exceptionally weak.
Donna Elvira, Donna Anna, and Don Ottavio attend the party dressed up in black and wearing masks.
A big and luxurious hall inside the castle.
There are two details to be aware of in the big finale.
- The chorus and all the soloists perform a big ensemble where they pronounce the word Liberty no less than nine times. Maybe an example of Wolfgang’s rebellious spirit. The French revolution started two years later.
- After that, there’s the ball. Mozart put no less than three orchestras on stage, each playing a slightly different tactus (pulse). (Many productions omit these for economical reasons.)
When Zerlina screams as she tries to defend herself against Don Giovanni’s advancements, the three disguised guests drop their masks and openly accuse Don Giovanni of the murder of Anna’s father. The criminal and Leporello flee.
A street near Donna Elvira’s house.
Leporello wants to resign. He’s tired of all his master’s mischiefs but is bribed to stay with four doubloons. He agrees to dress as Don Giovanni and serenade Elvira while his master goes after the maid. What follows is a cute little scene where Giovanni stands behind Leporello and sings while his manservant does the gesticulation.
Edmond Rostand used the same scene in his Cyrano de Bergerac a hundred years later.
Donna Elvira comes out (… and for some reason, she has already forgiven her ex-lover.). She runs away with her presumptive beloved, and Giovanni sings a short serenade accompanied by a lute and very soft strings:
– Deh, vieni alla finestra…
The mob from the previous act arrives, but they take Don Giovanni for Leporello and follow his instructions on where to search for the criminal. When he’s left alone with Masetto, he attacks him and beats him up.
But Zerlina shows up and sings her most famous aria, another erotic masterpiece:
– Vedrai, carino… (… I have a nice remedy… not even the apothecary knows how to make it… Touch me right here!)
A dark hallway inside Donna Anna’s house.
Now Leporello is forced to reveal his true identity as the mob has found him and is about to do away with him believing it’s Don Giovanni. He escapes.
Here there’s a new passage of very nice music but that does not move the action forward in any significant way. First out is Don Ottavio. He sings his second aria:
– Il mio tesoro intanto…
Leporello and Zerlina could possibly have a duet here depending on the exhibited version.
Then Donna Elvira has a long scene expressing how she’s torn between anger and bitterness on one hand… But on the other, her feelings for the scoundrel.
– In quali eccessi, o numi/Mi tradì, quell’alma ingrata…
Don Giovanni and Leporello meet again. In the churchyard, there’s a statue of the dead Commendatore… And suddenly it speaks.
– You will finish laughing before dawn.
Leporello is scared half to death, but Don Giovanni defiantly invites the statue to dinner that same evening.
At Donna Anna’s palace.
Anna lets Ottavio understand that she can only marry him if her father’s murderer is caught. He agrees.
Back in Giovanni’s palace.
Dinner is served, and the
Mozart does something interesting. He cites a few operas that were popular during the late 1700s. Among them, Leporello sings:
– Già la mensa è preparata… (The dinner is served already…)
which is the famous aria “Non più andrai farfallone amoroso” from The Marriage of Figaro.
Donna Elvira comes in. Agitated, she still tries to convert Don Giovanni and make him love her. But they just mock her and send her away. As she leaves she suddenly screams in fear. And, yes, the unthinkable has happened… The statue from the churchyard has come to dinner.
– Don Giovanni… You invited me to dinner, and I came.
This should be a thundering voice. Now you can amplify and do all kinds of things, but it’s a special feeling if the bass singing the Commendatore has that touch of metal and pure force.
Leporello, as usual, is terrified, but Don Giovanni defies the stone guest and refuses to repent…
For the premiere in Prague, Mozart composed a finale, but in Vienna, he made several cuts, and the opera finished possibly here. Although ending the opera with an ensemble that contained the moral of the story, was more or less a rule at the time. At least when it comes to tragic comedies that dealt with unethical conduct.
The last piece is a short but wonderful fugue:
– Questo e il fin di chi fa mal… (This is the end for those who do evil…)
What to lock out for.
20 minutes – Madamina il catalogo e questo. (The Catalogue Aria), Leporellos aria.
34 minutes – Là ci darem la mano… Zerlina’s and Don Giovanni’s duet.
48 minutes – Or sai chi l’onore, Donna Anna’s first aria.
52 minutes – Dalla sua patria, Don Ottavio’s first aria.
60 minutes – Fin ch’han del vino, Don Giovanni’s very uptempo aria. Are they together? The conductor and the singer?
62 minutes – Batti batti bel Masetto, Zerlina’s atonement aria.
74 minutes – Protegga il giusto cielo, Donna Anna, Don Ottavio, and Donna Elvira dressed up in black and masked. A delicate trio, slow and difficult.
76 minutes – The finale. Do they have orchestras on stage? And are there three of them?
3 minutes – Ah, taci, ingiusto core… The balcony scene with Leporello, Donna Elvira and a hidden Don Giovanni.
11 minutes – Deh! vieni alla finestra, Don Giovanni’s serenade.
27 minutes – Leporello is exposed.
33 minutes – Il mio tesoro… Don Ottavio’s second aria.
40 minutes – Mi tradì, quell’alma ingrata, Elvira’s duplexity aria.
54 minutes – Crudele? Ah! no mio bene / Non mi dir, bell’idol mio, Donna Annasì’s second aria. If it’s the right voice, this can be really beautiful.
62 minutes – Gia la mensa e preparata, The grand finale and Giovanni last hour is here…
Who is Don Giovanni really?
The first written story about him is El burlador de Sevilla y convidado de piedra (The Trickster of Seville and the Stone Guest) by Tirso de Molina from 1630. After him, there have been quite a lot of writings, screenplays, poems, and such about this character. One of the most prominent is of course Molière’s play.
Don Giovanni, or Don Juan as we should maybe prefer calling him, has also become a subject of study. Not so much the character, but the phenomenon of the insatiable seducer. The man (or could it also be a woman?) who can’t stop adding numbers to his catalog even though he is long passed any sexual or romantic desire. In fact, in Tirso de Molina’s play, Don Juan at one point says it flat out:
– My greatest pleasure is to deceive a woman and leave her without honor.
- Søren Kirkegaard compares Don Juan to Faust.
- Sigmund Freud calls him a sadistic but sexually perfectly normal man.
- Jonathan Miller, neurologist, director, actor, etc. says: “Don Juanism is caused by a basic anguish, a void that must somehow be filled… His real enemy is the fear of loneliness.”
So, yes, there’s actually a name for it… Don Juanism
Historians also see a connection to the Italian Comedia dell’Arte figures. These were many, different from country to country, even from region to region, and they changed a lot during the centuries. Still, characters like Harlequin, famous all over the world, has some similarities with Don Juan. Although a servant, he’s smart, he is persuasive, he is physically agile, and he knows how to conquer the ladies. He has been compared to the mythological Trickster… And that, ladies and gentlemen, is no other than the devil himself.
In the seventeenth century, there was also a strong religious input. The Catholic church was under attack from northern Europe and its protestant – heretic teachings, and they appreciated any artwork containing a good Trickster.
To defend its doctrine, the idea of purgatory became one of the great themes of the period. The statue comes from an afterlife from which the dead can return to the living to do good works or punish the transgressors. It was a popular topic, and it helped in passing the pedantic eyes of the Cristian censurship.
The two versions.
For the Vienna premiere, six months after Prague, Mozart made a few changes to better satisfy the Vienna audience. That was possibly a mistake, but anyway…
The differences between the Vienna version and the Prague version are several. Most evident is the finale. It was elaborated/cut for the Vienna premiere.
Some arias were added to Vienna and at the time, they possibly substituted the ones already in the score. Today, most theaters go with the Prague version. That really only means that the whole company comes on stage at the end. The four numbers that Mozart wrote for Vienna are usually added to the ones in the Prague version. They don’t substitute them.
Download this short Pdf-guide. Print it, fold it, and keep it in your pocket as a help when you’re at the Opera. Please keep your phone turned off when inside the theater.