Don Giovanni learning pack

Photo: Bill Cooper

An opera in two acts composed by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart with libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte.

The characters

Don Giovanni – A dissolute young Spanish nobleman. Don Giovanni is a compulsive seducer of women, whom he always subsequently abandons. So far, we are told, he has seduced no fewer than, 2,065 women, 1,003 in Spain alone. His wicked behaviour is unknown to his friends and acquaintances. (Baritone)

Leporello – Don Giovanni’s servant. He is a grumbler who disapproves of his master’s antics, but nonetheless always acts as accomplice because of the lure of gold. (Bass-baritone)

Donna Anna – Daughter of the Commendatore. She is proud and noble. It remains unclear whether Don Giovanni may actually have gone as far as raping her, but she pursues her attacker and the murderer of her father with fearsome vengeance. (Soprano)

Don Ottavio – A nobleman, engaged to Donna Anna. Ottavio supports Donna Anna in her quest for revenge. (Tenor)

Donna Elvira – A lady from Burgos, abandoned by Don Giovanni. Despite his betrayal of her, and her desire for revenge, Elvira continues to love Giovanni, and in the end tries to save him from his fate. (Soprano)

Zerlina – A country girl, engaged to Masetto. Although it is her wedding day, Zerlina unwisely does not discourage Don Giovanni’s attentions. (Soprano)

Masetto – A young countryman, engaged to Zerlina. He is an angry young man, rightly suspicious of Don Giovanni’s intentions, and furious with Zerlina for encouraging him. (Bass-baritone)

The Commendatore – An elderly military commander. After his murder by Don Giovanni he returns at the end of the opera as a ghost. (Bass)

Chorus of peasants

Chorus of demons

Synopsis

Act One

A man stands alone waiting; it is Leporello, Don Giovanni’s manservant. Suddenly a scream rings out, and Donna Anna rushes on stage in pursuit of an intruder – Don Giovanni. She struggles desperately to see his face. Don Giovanni threatens her, equally desperate not to be recognised. Her father, the Commendatore, appears and challenges Don Giovanni. They fight and Giovanni kills him. Don Giovanni exits with Leporello. Anna returns with Don Ottavio, her fiancé. They discover her father’s body and she, distraught at this death, makes Ottavio swear to get revenge.

Leporello is complaining about Don Giovanni’s immorality, when Giovanni sniffs the air and says he can detect the presence of a woman. Donna Elvira, one of Giovanni’s abandoned lovers, bent on revenge, is hunting Giovanni. She rounds on him but Giovanni manages to slip away. Leporello, left alone with Elvira, elaborates suggestively on the true nature of Giovanni’s shocking sexual life – 1,003 women in Spain alone and a predilection for young women. She is indignant and swears revenge.

Zerlina and Masetto, a young couple on their wedding day are celebrating with friends. Giovanni arrives and orders Leporello to escort the party to his home for further entertainment. Masetto, guessing what the Don is after, resentfully agrees, and Zerlina is left alone with Giovanni. His seduction of the bride is smoothly underway when Elvira arrives and rescues Zerlina. Anna and Ottavio enter and are about to ask Giovanni’s help, but Elvira appears and denounces him. He attempts to smooth things over by explaining that Elvira is out of her mind; but as he takes his leave, Anna realises with horror that it was he who murdered her father. She reminds Ottavio of his vow. Leporello arrives to inform Giovanni that he has managed to ditch Elvira and that Zerlina is awaiting his pleasure. Giovanni orders him to prepare the evening’s festivities.

Masetto, mad with jealousy, calls Zerlina a whore, but she protests her innocence. Both are led to the party. Anna, Elvira and Ottavio arrive in disguise. Leporello invites them to join the celebrations and they, having called on heaven to help them in their task, willingly participate. The party is in full swing when Zerlina’s screams are heard. Giovanni’s attempts to blame Leporello fail; Anna, Elvira and Ottavio confront Giovanni and have him cornered – but he mocks them and escapes with Leporello.

Act Two

Leporello once more gives Giovanni a piece of his moral mind and threatens to leave his service, but Giovanni bribes him to stay and persuades him to exchange clothes, as part of his plan to seduce Elvira’s maid. Elvira herself appears at the balcony. Giovanni, feigning repentance and assuring her of his undying love, begs her forgiveness. She descends and, supposing the disguised Leporello to be Giovanni, goes off with him. The coast is now clear for Giovanni to take the maid, but he is interrupted by Masetto and friends, who have set out armed to kill him. Disguised as Leporello, Giovanni sends them packing – all except Masetto, who gets badly beaten up. Zerlina enters and comforts him with kisses and promises of much more.

Leporello attempts to shake off Elvira, but is trapped by Anna, Ottavio, Masetto and Zerlina. To save his skin, he is forced to reveal his true identity, and manages to escape. Ottavio, now convinced of Giovanni’s guilt, goes off to inform the authorities. Elvira admits that despite everything, she still loves Giovanni.

Giovanni and Leporello finally meet up in a graveyard and compare notes on the night’s experiences. Interrupted by a voice that seems to come from the Commendatore’s tomb, Giovanni forces Leporello to invite the Commendatore to supper. Terrified, Leporello obeys – and he accepts.

Ottavio, convinced that Giovanni will soon be punished, reaffirms his love and urges Anna to marry him. Stifled by her guilt, she temporises by assuring him of her love and asking him to understand her grief.

Giovanni, curiously entertained by a band playing tunes from popular operas (including Le nozze di Figaro) is at supper, served by Leporello. Elvira bursts in and begs him to mend his ways. He mocks her, and as she runs out, her screams announce the arrival of the Commendatore. Leporello, too horrified to greet him, tries to hide. Giovanni invites his guest in. The ghost insists that Giovanni repent, but he stubbornly refuses, and goes to his doom. The other characters enter and Leporello describes Giovanni’s death. Now that the Commendatore is avenged, Ottavio again asks for Anna’s hand but she insists on a year of mourning. Elvira seeks solace in a convent. Zerlina and Masetto return home to supper. Leporello goes off in search of new employment, and all moralise on Giovanni’s death. 

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Mozart was born is Salzburg, Austria in 1756. His father, Leopold, was a violinist, music theorist, composer and teacher. Wolfgang and his sister 'Nannerl' both showed astonishing musical talent at a very early age; Wolfgang would pick out chords at the keyboard when he was only three years old and, at the age of six, he was discovered writing notes in a mess of blots and smudges. At the same time he taught himself to play the violin and played chamber music perfectly, although his father gave him no lessons.

Leopold Mozart – realising that he was sitting on a gold mine – took his two ‘prodigies of nature’ on several gruelling tours to show them off to the nobility, and paying public, of Europe. After excursions to Munich and Vienna, the family undertook a long journey culminating in triumphant receptions in Paris and London (1763-64). Both children came down with smallpox, but, undaunted, Leopold took them off round Europe again. In 1768, Mozart wrote his first opera, La finta semplice, at the age of 12. He was also writing instrumental music: symphonies, wind ensemble pieces, and – inspired by Joseph Haydn – string quartets.

Mozart’s first real operatic masterpiece was Idomeneo in 1781. At this time he was working for the Archbishop of Salzburg but spending most of his days in Mannheim with the three daughters of his landlord, Fridolin Weber. He fell in love with the second daughter, Aloysia (a singer) but she married someone else so Mozart turned his attention to the third daughter, Constanze. This must have been useful experience for the writing of Così fan tutte, a tale of loving two sisters at once. Constanze and Wolfgang were married in 1782. In the same year, Mozart wrote another opera, Die Entführung aus dem Serail, (The Abduction from the Harem).

Mozart’s next great operatic success was in 1786 when he began his collaboration with the librettist Lorenzo da Ponte, which resulted initially in Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro). With da Ponte supplying the words for two more operas, Don Giovanni in 1787 and Così fan tutte in 1790), Mozart enjoyed great success in Vienna, under the patronage of Emperor Joseph II. Joseph’s death in 1790 brought the initial run of Così to an early conclusion and marked the end of Mozart’s prosperity.

Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute), was composed in 1791, a year of frantic activity for Mozart; as well as numerous instrumental works, he composed another opera, La clemenza di Tito, and the unfinished Requiem. The Requiem had been commissioned by an ‘unknown messenger’ on behalf of an anonymous patron, and as he worked on the piece he became increasingly ill and saw the ‘unknown messenger’s’ visits as omens of doom. Convinced that he had been poisoned (although this has never been proved), Mozart died in Vienna in December 1791, aged only 35. He was buried in an unmarked grave.

Mozart’s true stature as a composer has only been appreciated this century. Besides the operas, the best known works are the 41 symphonies, the piano concertos and the chamber music – string quartets and quintets and works for wind ensemble. Mozart’s output was prodigious – over 600 works in the space of less than 30 years of composition; and some of his works are ranked among the best-loved and most often played music ever written.

Don Juan and the rise of the libertines

Mozart’s Don Giovanni is perhaps the most famous manifestation of the character Don Juan, who has appeared in many guises throughout literature. He is characterised by his insatiable appetite for pleasure – fine food and wine, and most importantly lots of different women. Don Juan appears in several works by different authors – for example: Tirso de Molina’s El Birlador de Sevilla, the original play, upon the story of which all other versions are based; Molière’s Le festin de pierre and Gluck’s Ballet Don Juan, amongst others. In more modern times, Don Juan has appeared in films, notably depicted by Errol Flynn in the 1949 Adventures of Don Juan. Don Juan/Don Giovanni are perfect examples of what were known in the 18th Century as 'libertines'. The character of the sexual libertine reflects important developments in the religious and social attitudes of the time. The rise of rationalism during the 17th century gave way to the questioning of dominant religious beliefs. People began to look more favourably on scientific and rational enquiry, thus leaving behind many medieval superstitions, which had impacted heavily on social moral codes and behaviours. As science began to explain hitherto mysterious phenomenona such as gravity, it was argued that human beings must also be explained scientifically, as biological entities. The Materialists believed that since human desires arose from material and animal needs, these must be natural and should be satisfied without incurring moral disapproval.

Borne out of this shift in thought, there arose a small number of out and out atheists, who insisted that since there was no scientific evidence for the existence of God, there was no rational reason to believe in God at all. If there was no God, there could be no divine laws for human behaviour, and therefore no punishment in the afterlife. Don Giovanni demonstrates this kind of attitude, when he invites the ghost of the murdered Commendatore to dinner. He expects no retribution or punishment for the violent death of the Commendatore in Act One.

Art and literature of this time feature several other libertine characters. For example The Rake in William Hogarth’s paintings The Rake’s Progress (after which Stravinsky and Auden wrote the opera of the same name), The Vicomte de Valmont in Les Liaisons Dangerereuses by Choderlos de Laclos, and Tom Jones in Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones.

All these characters share a desire to be truly free, unfettered by moral obligation and able to have the pursuit of happiness as their priority. Interestingly, several of these men come to unpleasant ends – Don Giovanni’s descent to Hell and Tom Rakewell’s descent into madness and death, for example. This seems to indicate that libertine/materialist thought was viewed as flawed. Like their counterparts in Greek tragedy, our libertine heroes are doomed. The pursuit of happiness, it would seem, ultimately heralds personal destruction.

In the 19th century romantic writers such as Hoffman, Pushkin and Lenau interpreted Don Juan as a romantic hero: a progressive spirit breaking the bounds of a conventional morality; a restless lover in search of the unattainable ideal of perfect love; a Faust-like seeker after sensual experience; or a tragic hero pushing his quest for experience to the limits of life.

Today we would probably question whether a man who mistreats so many women as Don Giovanni deserves sympathy of any kind.

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