Tantalizing Treachery: Mozart's 'Don Giovanni'

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Don Giovanni

4 min 0 sec
 
Don Giovanni i i

Don Giovanni is the anti-hero of Mozart's tragicomic tale of romantic conquest. Michael Pohn/Wiener Staatsoper hide caption

itoggle caption Michael Pohn/Wiener Staatsoper
Don Giovanni

Don Giovanni is the anti-hero of Mozart's tragicomic tale of romantic conquest.

Michael Pohn/Wiener Staatsoper

The Hit Single

Through much of the opera, Donna Anna seems to be verging on hysterics. But in her Act Two aria "Non mi dir," Anna (soprano Sally Matthews) sets a calmer tone, assuring a faltering Don Ottavio that she still loves him.

The B Side

In the Act Two aria "Mi tradi," Donna Elvira (mezzo-soprano Roxana Constantinescu) admits that even though Giovanni's callous betrayal has left her miserable and angry, she is still irresistibly drawn to him.

There are plenty of great operas that reveal their true intentions right from the start, as with the ebullient overtures that launch the brilliant comedies of Rossini and the portentous preludes that often introduce Verdi's complex tragedies. But there are others that open with cards held closer to their vests. Mozart's enigmatic Don Giovanni takes the latter approach.

The overture to Don Giovanni begins in a dark D Minor key that seems to suggest impending tragedy. Yet the music's quick pivot to a bouncy D Major represents only the first in the opera's compelling progression of abrupt, emotional u-turns.

Actually, a close look at Mozart's own description of the opera warns us not to make any assumptions about its dramatic character. He called it a "dramma giocoso" — a "playful drama" — which at first seems to be a severe case of misdirection, as the action begins with an attempted rape, quickly followed by a cold-blooded murder.

Yet, in between the shocking opening sequence and a climactic scene that features Giovanni plunging into the fires of hell, the notorious Don leads us through exploits that often evoke high comedy. And it's Giovanni himself — with his deeply unsettling appeal — who provides the dramatically shifting core of Mozart's masterpiece.

Don Giovanni is a genuine villain. He's a serial womanizer, a rapist, a killer — and that's just touching the surface. Yet, as he laughs at his pitiable victims, the audience tends to laugh right along with him. And after his well-earned demise, the opera ends with a scene suggesting that even those victims wish Don Giovanni was still around — to keep us all uneasily entertained for as long as possible.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Don Giovanni in a production from the Vienna State Opera, featuring a top-notch ensemble cast that also packs plenty of star power. Bass-baritone Ildebrando d'Arcangelo takes the title role, with bass Alex Esposito as Leporello, soprano Sally Matthews as Donna Anna and mezzo-soprano Roxana Constantinescu as Donna Elvira. The performance is led by conductor Franz Welser-Möst.

See the previous edition of World of Opera or the full archive.

The Story of 'Don Giovanni'

Don Giovanni set i i

Don Giovanni (Ildebrando d'Arcangelo) seduces maids and noblewomen alike with the help of his trusty accomplice, Leporello (Alex Esposito). Michael Pohn/Wiener Staatsoper hide caption

itoggle caption Michael Pohn/Wiener Staatsoper
Don Giovanni set

Don Giovanni (Ildebrando d'Arcangelo) seduces maids and noblewomen alike with the help of his trusty accomplice, Leporello (Alex Esposito).

Michael Pohn/Wiener Staatsoper

Who's Who

Ildebrando d'Arcangelo .... Don Giovanni
Alex Esposito ……………….. Leporello
Sally Matthews ………….. Donna Anna
Roxana Constantinescu … Donna Elvira
Sylvia Schwartz ……………… Zerlina
Adam Plachetka ……………. Masetto
Albert Dohmen ……… Commendatore

Vienna State Opera Orchestra and Chorus
Franz Welser-Möst, conductor

As the opera's darkly colored overture subsides, ACT ONE opens with Don Giovanni's servant Leporello complaining bitterly about his master's indiscretions. The Don has just tried to seduce the young noblewoman, Donna Anna — and things have gone completely haywire.

We meet Donna Anna running from her father's house, screaming at the top of her lungs. Don Giovanni has just conned his way into her bedroom, disguised in a cloak and pretending to be her fiancé. At first, she bought the ruse. But now she has figured things out and Giovanni is on the run.

Anna's father, the Commendatore, catches up with Giovanni and proposes a duel. They draw swords, and Giovanni kills him. That's just great, Leporello says — first rape the daughter, then murder the father. Giovanni is unconcerned, and the two men leave the scene just as Donna Anna and her fiancé Don Ottavio show up. Finding her father dead, they swear revenge, though Giovanni kept his face hidden the whole time, and they don't know who the attacker was.

The next morning, Giovanni and Leporello stumble across Donna Elvira, another of Giovanni's recent conquests. She thinks she can appeal to Giovanni's better nature, at least until Leporello reads her an exhaustive list of the Don's lovers, in the well-known "Catalogue Aria." While Giovanni tries to make a clean getaway, Elvira also swears to get even.

Giovanni has now spotted a brand new temptation, the young peasant girl, Zerlina. Leporello sidetracks her fiancé Masetto, and Giovanni sweet-talks her in a tender duet. But Donna Elvira shows up, warning the naive girl to beware. She gives the same advice to Donna Anna and Don Ottavio.

Giovanni dismisses Elvira's ravings as a symptom of madness. But Anna recognizes the Don's voice, and realizes that he was the cloaked man who assaulted her, and then killed her father. She urges Ottavio to avenge the murder immediately. Instead, Ottavio is left alone to sing his famous aria 'Dalla Sua Pace.' It's beautiful, but indecisive — which might also describe Ottavio himself.

The first act finishes up at Don Giovanni's estate. He's throwing a pre-wedding party for Zerlina and Masetto — hoping to seduce Zerlina in the process. Anna, Ottavio, and Elvira arrive with masks on, plotting their collective revenge.

As the orchestra plays a few dance numbers, a scream is heard from somewhere in the palace. It's Zerlina, trying to fend off Giovanni's advances. The Don tries to blame Leporello for the attack, but everyone sees through the lies. As the act ends, they denounce Giovanni, and he makes yet another narrow escape.

As ACT TWO begins, Leporello is fed up with his philandering boss, and threatens to quit. Giovanni talks him out of it, with the help of a little extra cash.

Giovanni's next scheme is to have his way with the cute young maid who works for Donna Elvira. To accomplish this, Giovanni and Leporello switch clothes. The plan is that Giovanni can seduce the maid wearing servant's clothes, after Leporello — pretending to be Giovanni — gets Elvira out of the way with a little sweet talk. At first, the scheme works well. Elvira is entranced by the phony Giovanni's poetic words and goes off with Leporello, leaving Giovanni to serenade the maid.

But things go bad when Masetto shows up with a band of peasants, searching for Giovanni. They're out to kill him, and they've got the weapons to do it. But when they find Giovanni, he's still dressed as Leporello. Disguising his voice, he says he knows exactly where to find the villain they're looking for. He sends everyone else off in pursuit, and then gives Masetto a thorough beating.

Zerlina comforts Masetto as the scene changes to a dark courtyard at Donna Anna's house. Leporello is still in Giovanni's clothes, and that's about to get him in trouble. As he grows tired of wooing Donna Elvira, he's confronted by Anna, Ottavio, Masetto and Zerlina. They think they've finally cornered the notorious Don, and they're angry. At first, Leporello begs for his life. Then he astounds everyone by removing his Giovanni disguise, and beats a hasty retreat. Elvira gets a poignant moment to herself with a dramatic aria, saying that she's still drawn to Giovanni, despite his betrayal.

The next scene finds Giovanni and Leporello in a local graveyard. As they're discussing recent events, they get quite a start. They're sitting near the giant stone statue of the Commendatore — and the statue begins to speak. "You will have your last laugh before the next dawn," it tells Giovanni. Leporello is frightened, but Giovanni is calm, and insists that Leporello invite the statue to dinner that evening. The statue accepts the offer.

The opera's final scene is in Don Giovanni's dining room. He's feasting alone, with Leporello attending and sneaking bits of food when his boss isn't looking. A small orchestra plays popular tunes of the day, including music from Mozart's own The Marriage of Figaro. Donna Elvira arrives and tries to convince Giovanni to turn his life around. He won't listen.

As Elvira heads for the door, she lets out a scream. Leporello goes to investigate, and screams even louder when he finds the stone statue of the Commendatore knocking at the main gate. "You invited me to dinner and I have come," the statue bellows.

Giovanni takes the statue by the hand and an icy chill rushes over him. Three times, the statue demands that Giovanni repent his evil ways. Giovanni repeatedly refuses. "Your time is up!" the statue declares. Flames rise around the Don, the ground sinks beneath him, and Giovanni descends into hell.

As the opera closes, Leporello tells the others what happened, and in a large ensemble they each ponder their next moves.

Don Ottavio is anxious to put all the unpleasantness behind him, and marry Donna Anna. But Anna has had a taste of excitement amidst the turmoil, and now says she needs a year of mourning before she can marry the bland Ottavio. Donna Elvira is fed up with the perils of romance, and decides to become a nun. Masetto and Zerlina take everything in stride and head home for dinner. As for Leporello, he says he'll go to the nearest tavern to find a less troublesome master.

Finally, everyone declares that Giovanni has met a justly hellish end — the fate that awaits all evildoers. Still, their concluding ensemble leaves the impression that somehow, with Giovanni gone, the world isn't quite as interesting as it used to be.

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