MOZART’S OPERA, DON GIOVANNI (1787)

Truth be told, I find it is easier to understand neuron science than music theory. That’s to say, you are going to read a review of classical music by a very amateur listener. My music career ended tragically short at eight years old when my piano teacher, who, I kid you not, was a pedophile, ended up in jail for drinking and beating his wife. Though handicapped with knowledge in music, I couldn’t resign to the fact that there is one kind of arts I couldn’t understand at all. Besides, a friend of mine, a classical composer himself, enthusiastically encourages me to pursue the studying of classical music. So here I am, rambling to you about music, specifically about Mozart’s opera, Don Giovanni.

Of all the genres in which Mozart worked, and he wrote in virtually all kind of genre of his day, his operas are usually celebrated as his greatest achievements. I think what makes his operas outstanding among his contemporaries’ is his psychologically complex characters, his ability to synthesize and transcend the boundaries of the comic and the serious, and the layers of meanings in his works (The only other person who was able to accomplish these in arts is of course William Shakespeare; no wonder his fame surpassed that of his more learned contemporaries such as Marlowe and Kyd). Regarding these features in Mozart’s operas, one may find Don Giovanni a good example of Mozart’s aesthetics.

Watching Don Giovanni is a well-worth three-hour of both learning and entertainment. If you have heard of the notorious libertine Don Juan or perhaps harbor the thought of becoming a lady-killer like him, the opera will give you insights. But in case you haven’t heard of Don Juan/Don Giovanni, basically he is a Casanova, and the opera is about his reckless conquest of women, including killing one old man on his way, and how the women revenge him. The legend of Don Juan and Casanova emerged in a time when Europe started casting doubts on the orderly, predetermined universe that governed the Western beliefs for centuries. The French Revolution, the Napoleonic wars, scientific discoveries—especially by Newton, the Industrial Revolutions, the rise of political liberalism, etc. all contributed to the shaking belief. A century latter in Germany, Frederick Nietzsche would announce the death of God, which is probably Nietzsche’s death as well. But any way, Don Giovanni is the product of such a tumultuous period when people wonder what happens if one just throws away all conventions and moralities and follow their passion now that the world is not predestined, and no one will be punished in the afterlife. In other words, let’s all abandon the rational dull Apollonian lifestyle (the product of the Age of Enlightenment) and seek pleasure like the wild self-indulgent god of wine, Dionysus.

Despite the lengthy context above, I guarantee you the opera is funny and captivating on its own right. Mozart constantly juxtaposes the comic and the serious; sometimes lightness and gravity coexist within one scene. At the beginning of the opera, Don Giovanni slays the father of one of his women—Donna Anna, a woman who has just fought off his sexual advances. Nevertheless, immediately following the grave music of this scene is the playful vocal of Don Giovanni and Leporello, Don Giovanni’s servant, when Don Giovanni approaches a lady lamenting the abandonment of her lover. The lady, who sings in demanding vocal line, full of large leaps and covering a wide range, turns out to be one of Don Giovanni’s women, Donna Elvira. The next scene is one of the most comic scenes when Leporello explains to Donna Elvira she is just one among the hundreds of Don Giovanni’s women, so she shouldn’t be upset and demand Don Giovanni’s loyalty. Leporello shows her the numbers of Don Giovanni’s amorous conquests by nationalities: 640 in Italy, 231 in Germany, 100 in France, 91 in Turkey, and 1003 in Spain. He will praise a fair girl for her kindness, a dark one constancy, and a white-haired one sweetness; he will call a tall one stately and the tiny one dainty. In winter he prefers plump girls, in summer slim. He courts the elderly for the sake of adding them to the list, but his most favorites are the virgins.

Mariusz Kwiecien (center) in the title role of Mozart's "Don Giovanni."   Photo: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera Taken during the rehearsal at the Metropolitan Opera on October 3, 2011.
Mariusz Kwiecien (center) in the title role of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni.”
Photo: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera
Taken during the rehearsal at the Metropolitan Opera on October 3, 2011.

Bawdy, right? It is exactly this bawdiness that Beethoven criticized Mozart, saying Mozart had wasted his talent on the naughty sex operas. Also in this scene, Leporello’s playful voice emerges out of a heroic background music perhaps to bring out the irony of the situation: the sorrow of Donna Elvira contrasts with the indifference and cheerfulness of Leporello.

If you have heard of Cervantes’s Don Quixote, then you may find the opera extra-interesting because the master-servant couple Don Giovanni and Leporello resembles Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. Leporello is clumsy, gluttonous, practical, and coward just like Sancho Panza, while Don Giovanni, in certain regards, resembles Don Quixote because both are adventurers and idealists. And it is this clashing of the opposite personalities of Don Giovanni and Leporello that adds humor to the opera. Music in Don Giovanni bubbles with energy because of sudden changes from slow to fast, from soft to loud, from major to minor within a single movement with preference for major mode. Under the influence of the Classical style, the opera’s harmony is simpler, and the melody more singable and less melismatic with more cadence breaking up the melody into segments and short phrases. And unlike the Baroque music which emphasizes the display of affectation, emotion in Don Giovanni is kept in balance; the opera unites emotion and elegance.

Youtube has several good performance of Don Giovanni in full, for example:

If you are a student of UT Dallas, the opera is also available at UTD library: DVD 213 and DVD233. So enjoy!
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