The 225th anniversary of Mozart's "Don Giovanni"
October 29, 2012 5:08 AM   Subscribe

225 years ago today, in the Teatro di Praga, there premiered a new opera - conducted by the 31 year old composer, who was in demand after his success in Vienna the year before. Although he had completed the overture less than 24 hours earlier, the opera was an instant smash - with the composer being "welcomed joyously and jubilantly by the numerous gathering". In the years to come, Kierkegaard would agree with the French composer Charles Gounod that the opera was "a work without blemish, of uninterrupted perfection". Flaubert would call it one of "the three finest things God made". Today, it is the 10th most performed opera in the world. It is Mozart's Don Giovanni (spoiler).

You probably know what happened to Mozart after that. But librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte, having lost his patron in 1792 after the death of the Austrian Emperor Joseph II, moved to London where he was involved in various theatrical and publishing activities. After declaring bankruptcy in 1805, he moved to the United States where he ran a grocery store, gave Italian lessons, and opened a bookstore. Through a friend, he received an appointment as the first professor of Italian literature at Columbia College. In 1833, at the age of 84, having become a naturalized citizen a few years earlier, he founded the first opera house in the United States. He received an enormous funeral in St. Patrick's Cathedral in 1838.

Here Cecilia Bartoli performs Donna Elvira's "Ah, chi mi dice mai".
posted by Egg Shen (20 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
The other two things were Hamlet and the sea in case anyone is wondering.
posted by ersatz at 5:38 AM on October 29, 2012 [6 favorites]

Don Giovanni was the first opera I saw and I loved it! I thought I wouldn't like it but I loved it so much that I ended up buying tickets this season for Marriage Of Figaro at the La Phil. This review is not very positive but I am a neophyte so I was enthralled and cannot wait to see the next one already.
posted by viramamunivar at 5:48 AM on October 29, 2012

A friend of mine once showed me a possession in his mother's Upper West Side living room cabinet: a glass Mozart had given Da Ponte. I was a little dubious. My friend explained that his father had been an important NYC doctor whose patients sometimes paid him in kind with artworks, and he had been paid with this glass. However, when I looked up Da Ponte's life, it seemed entirely reasonable that the glass would have ended up there.
posted by acrasis at 6:00 AM on October 29, 2012

I love Don Giovanni because it has a little of everything, kind of like a Bollywood film.

Also, Leporello is the best.
posted by selfnoise at 6:04 AM on October 29, 2012

It's interesting the different emphasis in singing if Don Giovanni is played by a baritone rather than a bass-baritone. My favourite in the part is Thomas Allen, here singing Deh, vieni alla finestra.

And while the baritones and basses get most of the best music, there's a great showpiece tenor aria, famous as an example of serious breath control. John McCormack's rendering is a classic: Il mio tesoro.
posted by Azara at 6:05 AM on October 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


I lolled.
posted by mhoye at 7:04 AM on October 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

I know nothing about Opera... or Twitter, and an the risk of a derail, I would ask you consider KimKierkegaardashian, and then return to the shouty-singy discussion at hand.
posted by Mezentian at 7:37 AM on October 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

I slogged through Mozart: A Cultural Biography by Robert W. Gutman a couple years ago -- it was remaindered for a buck, so I figured what the hell? It was long & overly detailed maybe, but ended up being worth the read, as it really laid out the whole landscape of the political world he was born into & all his bizarre family adventures.
posted by Devils Rancher at 8:03 AM on October 29, 2012

Don Giovanni, in my book, is certainly in the running for "greatest opera ever." Unfortunately, it is rarely if ever cast or staged in a way that facilitates the full expression of its greatness. This is partly due to the economics of opera, partly due to fashions in casting, and partly due to the fact that the version of Don Giovanni that is performed today is an amalgamation of two different versions of the opera (the 1787 version premiered in Prague, and the 1788 rewrite composed for Vienna).

One of the things I think is so genius about Don Giovanni is the way the relationships are structured. Giovanni and Ottavio stand as the two opposites, representing "evil" and "good" respectively, and in the center are the three women who have different relationships with Giovanni: Elvira fell for him and still loves him, Zerlina fell for him but now hates him, and Anna never fell for him and hates him. Leporello falls outside of this moral framework and plays both sides while commenting freely.

The problem is that the Don Ottavio is often cast with a tenorino that makes him look like a milquetoast alongside a large-voiced Donna Anna and in comparison with the robust Giovanni. This ruins the effect of having Ottavio and Giovanni serve as opposite poles in the moral world of the opera, because this casting makes Giovanni far more potent and appealing than Ottavio. Interestingly, the singer who created the role of Don Ottavio for its Prague premiere was the same tenor who created the title role of Mozart's La clemenza di Tito, which is generally held to require a robust tenor voice. The Vienna revision replaced Ottavio's aria from the Prague version with one much more suited to the Viennese tenor's light voice, however, and modern day productions usually include both arias for Don Ottavio. In addition, performing tenors with robust voices have a few hundred years of post-Mozart repertoire available to them. This repertoire tends to feature the tenor's role much more prominently and show off the tenor's voice much more effectively. Don Ottavio is at best the fifth or sixth most prominent character in Don Giovanni, whereas there is much more glory (and money!) for a larger-voiced tenor in operas like La traviata, La bohème, Tosca, Rigoletto, etc. What this means is that most tenors who end up performing the role of Don Ottavio are light-voiced tenors whose careers center around these kinds of ensemble-based operas. Put that guy next to a big-voice Donna Anna and against a "Verdi baritone" Don Giovanni, and there is just no way to take him seriously. Yes, I am a tenor. But sometimes it really is about the tenor (even when the opera isn't about the tenor).

Combine that with the difficulty of casting a show with six singers who must have extraordinary vocal and dramatic abilities (plus two more who can't exactly be slouches), and the length of rehearsal time needed to bring this sort of show together ... it's no wonder that performances of the show rarely live up to the full genius of the score (which is not to say that they aren't still enjoyable). But when they do, it's a night you'll never forget.
posted by slkinsey at 8:55 AM on October 29, 2012 [10 favorites]

I'm an opera fan, and I approve this post.

Coincidentally, I just last night watched Amadeus again for the first time since the 80s.
posted by ladybird at 9:07 AM on October 29, 2012

I have to call B.S. on this post, Egg Shen. We all know that Kierkegaard didn't like anything.
posted by Lutoslawski at 9:26 AM on October 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

Giovanni and Ottavio stand as the two opposites, representing "evil" and "good" respectively

I can't really agree with this reading, slkinsey - I would see Ottavio as representing conventional gentlemanly behaviour rather than the kind of active goodness that could in any way balance out Don Giovanni's wickedness. As you say, he's at best the fifth or sixth most prominent character; as far as I'm concerned, he sounds like a wimp because he is a wimp.
posted by Azara at 9:27 AM on October 29, 2012

Azara, that is certainly the impression that is conveyed by the usual casting of the opera, but I think it's a fairly superficial interpretation. It is not, in my opinion, what the underlying structure of the drama says. More to the point, it's not the impression conveyed when the role of Don Ottavio is cast with a tenor of sufficient vocal weight (i.e., a tenor capable of making the right impression in a modern day production of Clemenza di Tito). Imagine Gösta Winbergh or Placido Domingo singing Don Ottavio, and the whole thing seems different.

I do think that Ottavio exemplifies gentlemanly behavior, and also honor, morality, etc. as part of his representation of his "side" of the moral compass against Giovanni's representation of cowardly behavior and libertinism as part of his representation of his "side" of the moral compass. There is nothing (other than the usual casting) that implies Ottavio wouldn't win a fair fight against Giovanni if it came to that. But Giovanni's dishonorable and amoral character mean that it will never come down to a fair fight. Remember that Giovanni has two chances to face down Don Ottavio (immediately following his murder or Anna's elderly father, and again in the finale primo) but runs away both times. Ottavio, on the other hand, doesn't hesitate to confront Giovanni with weapon drawn in either instance, and readily swears vengeance against him. The fact that he is the #5 or 6 role in the show doesn't make his character a wimp any more than Sparafucile in Rigoletto is a wimp for being a minor character.
posted by slkinsey at 9:56 AM on October 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

There is loads of evidence that Casanova assisted with the libretto.
posted by njohnson23 at 10:19 AM on October 29, 2012

Thanks, slkinsey. That's the kind of comment I love MeFi for.
posted by benito.strauss at 10:25 AM on October 29, 2012

I'll just leave this here.
posted by archagon at 6:47 PM on October 29, 2012

We all know that Kierkegaard didn't like anything.

Maybe not Kierkegaard personally, but "A", in Either/Or, certainly does have a lot to say about Don Giovanni.
posted by kenko at 8:51 PM on October 29, 2012

The other two things were Hamlet and the sea

Worst. List. Ever!!!
posted by the quidnunc kid at 7:17 AM on October 30, 2012

Ottavio, on the other hand, doesn't hesitate to confront Giovanni with weapon drawn in either instance, and readily swears vengeance against him.

Yes, he readily swears vengeance against him--but he does precisely nothing to act on that oath. I think you could have the most powerful tenor in the history of opera in the role and you'd still end up thinking of Ottavio as pretty milquetoast compared to Don Giovanni. And, after all, this is a common problem with lots of dramatic works centered around notorious rogues like Don Giovanni. Consider Shakespeare's Richard III, for example. However much we condemn the "evil" that these characters do we are, inevitably, drawn magnetically to their sprezzatura--their gleeful contempt for all social and ethical norms.

Don Ottavio represents a kind of goody-two-shoes "goodness" that Mozart wants to show us is simply useless against the kind of near sociopathic "evil" of Don Giovanni. Don Ottavio has all the conventional virtues of the hero of the novel of sensibility: compassion, empathy, benevolence etc.; but he has nothing to match the improvisational genius of a Don Giovanni. This, of course, is underscored in the opera by the respective sexual fortunes of the two characters. Don Giovanni is uber-potency personified. Poor old Don Ottavio can't even seal the deal with the woman to whom he is completely devoted.
posted by yoink at 8:27 AM on October 30, 2012

Well, the opera isn't about Ottavio, so it's not clear how important he could seem or how many opportunities he would have to demonstrate these aspects of his character. Things like a love-duet between Ottavio and Anna don't fit into an opera that is fundamentally about the villain (it's worth noting, however, that Mozart's settings of the tender moments between them, as in the finale ultimo, are exceptionally beautiful even for him). Similarly, having Ottavio somehow "win" against Giovanni wouldn't fit into an opera that is fundamentally about the villian's self destruction. The opera would be over. We don't know what Ottavio might have done or how effective he couod be, because Giovanni meets his own fate before Ottavio has much chance to get started. The one time they are face to face, Giovanni runs away.

None of these things stands in the way of the dramatic balance struck by Ottavio and Giovanni representing the opposite sides of the moral spectrum. Of course it is possible to conceive and portray the character as a kind of ineffectual Dudley Do-Right who is ultimately powerless against Giovanni. But I don't think it's as interesting that way. The notion of Giovanni as a kind of superman charismatic libertine who operates on some level above all the other male characters is what leads to all the dramatically lazy conceptions like deciding all the women in the opera are in love with him (which ruins the whole structure of the different relationships with the three women).
posted by slkinsey at 11:57 AM on October 31, 2012

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