Music With Ease

Music with Ease > Opera Before 1800 > Don Giovanni (Mozart) - Synopsis

Synopsis of
Don Giovanni
An Opera by W A Mozart

Opera in two acts by Mozart; text by Lorenzo da Ponte. Productions, Prague, Oct. 29, 1787; Vienna, May 17, 1788; London, April 12, 1817; New York, Park Theatre, May 23, 1826.

Original title: "Il Dissoluto Punito, ossia il Don Giovanni" (The Reprobate Punished, or Don Giovanni). The work was originally characterized as an opera buffa, or drama giocoso, but Mozart’s noble setting lifted it out of that category.


DON PEDRO, the Commandant……………………..Bass
DONNA ANNA, his daughter……………………….Soprano
DON OTTAVIO, her betrothed……………………..Tenor
DON GIOVANNI……………………………………Baritone
LEPORELLO, his servant…………………………Bass
DONNA ELVIRA…………………………………Soprano
MASETTO, betrothed to ZERLINA………………Tenor

"Don Giovanni" was presented for the first time in Prague, because Mozart, satisfied with the manner in which Bondini’s troupe had sung his "Marriage of Figaro" a little more than a year before, had agreed to write another work for the same house.

The story on which da Ponte based his libretto -- the statue of a murdered man accepting an insolent invitation to banquet with his murderer, appearing at the feast and dragging him down to hell -- is very old. It goes back to the Middle Ages, probably further. A French authority considers that da Ponte derived his libretto from "Le Festin de Pierre," Moliere’s version of the old tale. Da Ponte, however, made free use of "Il Convitato di Pietra" (The Stone-Guest), a libretto written by the Italian theatrical poet Bertati for the composer Giuseppe Gazzaniga. Whoever desires to follow up this interesting phase of the subject will find the entire libretto of Bertati’s Convitato" reprinted, with a learned commentary by Chrysander, in volume iv of the Vierteljahrheft für Musikwissenschaft (Music Science Quarterly), a copy of which is in the New York Public Library.

Mozart agreed to hand over the finished score in time for the autumn season of 1787, for the sum of one hundred ducats ($240). Richard Strauss receives for a new opera a guarantee of ten performances at a thousand dollars -- $10,000 in all -- and, of course, his royalties thereafter. There is quite a distinction in these matters between the eighteenth century and the present. And what a lot of good a few thousand dollars would have done the impecunious composer of the immortal "Don Giovanni!" Also, one is tempted to ask oneself if any modern ten thousand dollar opera will live as long as the two hundred and forty dollar one which already is 130 years old.

Luigi Bassi in Mozart's opera Don Giovanni (image)

Luigi Bassi in the title role of Mozart's Don Giovanni in the premiere production (1787)

Bondini’s company, for which Mozart wrote his masterpiece of dramatic music, furnished the following cast: Don Giovanni, Signor Bassi, twenty-two years old, a fine baritone, an excellent singer and actor; Donna Anna, Signora Teresa Saporiti; Donna Elvira, Signora Catarina Micelli, who had great talent for dramatic expression; Zerlina, Signora Teresa Bondini, wife of the manager; Don Ottavio, Signor Antonio Baglioni, with a sweet, flexible tenor voice; Leporello, Signor Felice Ponziani, an excellent basso comico; Don Pedro (the Commandant), and Masetto, Signor Giuseppe Lolli.

Mozart directed the rehearsals, had the singers come to his house to study, gave them advice how some of the difficult passages should be executed, explained the characters they represented, and exacted finish, detail, and accuracy. Sometimes he even chided the artists for an Italian impetuosity, which might be out of keeping with the charm of his melodies. At the first rehearsal, however, not being satisfied with the way in which Signora Bondini gave Zerlina’s cry of terror from behind the scenes, when the Don is supposed to attempt her ruin, Mozart left the orchestra and went upon the stage. Ordering the first act finale to be repeated from the minuet on, he concealed himself in the wings. There, in the peasant dress of Zerlina, with its short skirt, stood Signora Bondini, waiting for her cue. When it came, Mozart quickly reached out a hand from his place of concealment and pinched her leg. She gave a piercing shriek. "There! That is how I want it," he said, emerging from the wings, while the Bondini, not knowing whether to laugh or blush, did both.

One of the most striking features of the score, the warning words which the statue of the Commandant, in the plaza before the cathedral of Seville, utters within the hearing of Don Giovanni and Leporello, was originally accompanied by the trombones only. At rehearsal in Prague, Mozart not satisfied with the way the passage was played, stepped over toward the desks at which the trombonists sat.

One of them spoke up: "It can’t be played any better. Even you couldn’t teach us how."

Mozart smiled. "Heaven forbid," he said, "that I should attempt to teach you how to play the trombone. But let me have the parts."

Looking them over he immediately made up his mind what to do. With a few quick strokes of the pen, he added the wood-wind instruments as they are now found in the score.

It is well known that the overture of "Don Giovanni" was written almost on the eve of the first performance. Mozart passed a gay evening with some friends. One of them said to him: "Tomorrow the first performance of ‘Don Giovanni’ will take place, and you have not yet composed the overture!" Mozart pretended to get nervous about it and withdrew to his room, where he found music-paper, pens, and ink. He began to composed about midnight. Whenever the grew sleepy, his wife, who was by his side, entertained him with stories to keep him awake. It is said that it took him but three hours to produce this overture.

The next evening, a little before the curtain rose, the copyists finished transcribing the parts for the orchestra. Hardly had they brought the sheets, still wet, to the theatre, when Mozart, greeted by enthusiastic applause, entered the orchestra and took his seat at the piano. Although the musicians had not had time to rehearse the overture, they played it with such precision that the audience broke out into fresh applause. As the curtain rose and Leporello came forward to sing his solo, Mozart laughingly whispered to the musicians near him: "Some notes fell under the stands. But it went well."

overture consists of an introduction which reproduces the scene of the banquet at which the statue appears. It is followed by an allegro which characteristizes the impetuous, pleasure-seeking Don, oblivious to consequences. It reproduces the dominant character of the opera.

Without pause, Mozart links up the overture with the song of Leporello. The four principal personages of the opera appear early in the proceedings. The tragedy which brings them together so soon and starts the action, gives an effective touch of fore-ordained retribution to the misdeeds upon which Don Giovanni so gaily enters. This early part of the opera divides itself into four episodes. Wrapped in his cloak and seated in the garden of a house in Seville, Spain, which Don Giovanni, on amorous adventure bent, has entered secretly during the night -- it is the residence of the Commandant -- Leporello is complaining of the fate which makes him a servant to such a restless and dangerous master. "Notte e giorno faticar" (Never rest by day or night), runs his song.

Don Giovanni hurriedly issues from the house, pursued by Donna Anna. There follows a trio in which the wrath of the insulted woman, the annoyance of the libertine, and the cowardice of Leporello are expressed simultaneously and in turn in manner most admirable. The Commandant attracted by the disturbance, arrives, draws his sword, and a duel ensues. In the unequal combat between the aged Commandant and the agile Don, the Commandant receives a fatal wound. The trio which follows between Don Giovanni, the dying Commandant, and Leporello is a unique passage in the history of musical art., The genius of Mozart, tender, profound, pathetic, religious, is revealed in its entirely. Written in a solemn rhythm and in the key of F minor, so appropriate to dispose the mind to a gentle sadness, this trio, which fills only eighteen measures, contains in a restricted outline, but in master-strokes, the fundamental idea of this mysterious drama of crime and retribution. While the Commandant is breathing his last, emitting notes broken by long pauses, Donna Anna, who, during the duel between her father and Don Giovanni, has hurried off for help, returns accompanied by her servants and by Don Ottavio, her affianced. She utters a cry of terror at seeing the dead body of her father. The recitative which expresses her despair is intensely dramatic. The duet which she sings with Don Ottavio is both impassioned and solicitous, impetuous on her part, solicitous on his; for the role of Don Ottavio is stamped with the delicacy of sentiment, the respectful reserve of a well-born youth who is consoling the woman who is to be his wife. The passage, "Lascia, O cara, la rimembrenza amore!" (Through love’s devotion, dear one) is of peculiar beauty in musical expression.

After Donna Anna and Don Ottavio have left, there enters Donna Elvira. The air she sings expresses a complicated nuance of passion. Donna Elvira is another of Don Giovanni’s deserted ones. There are in the tears of this woman not only the grief of one who has been loved and now implores heaven for comfort, but also the indignation of one who has been deserted and betrayed. When she cries with emotion: "Ah! Qui mi dice mai quell barbaro dov’è?" (In memory still lingers his love’s delusive sway) one feels that, in spite of her outbursts of anger, she is ready to forgive, if only a regretful smile shall recall to her the man who was able to charm her.

Don Giovanni hears from afar the voice of a woman in tears. He approaches, saying: "Cerchiam di consolare il suo tormento" (I must seek to console her sorrow). "Ah! yes," murmurs Leporello, under his breath: "Cosi ne consolò mille e otto cento" (He has consoled fully eighteen hundred). Leporello is charged by Don Giovanni, who, recognizing Donna Elvira, hurries away, to explain to her the reasons why he deserted her. The servant fulfills his mission as a complaisant valet. For it is here that he sings the "Madamina" air, which is so famous, and in which he relates with the skill of a historian the numerous amours of his master in the different parts of the world.

The "Air of Madamina," "Madamina! il catalogo" – (Dear lady, the catalogue) is a perfect passage of its kind; an exquisite mixture of grace and finish, of irony and sentiment, of comic declamation and melody, the whole enhanced by the poetry and skill of the accessories. There is nothing too much, nothing too little; no excess of detail to mar the whole. Every word is illustrated by the com poser’s imagination without his many brilliant sallies injuring the general effect. According to Leporello’s catalogue his master’s adventures in love have numbered 2065. To these Italy has contributed 245, Germany 231, France 100, Turkey 91, and Spain, his native land, 1003. The recital enrages Donna Elvira. She vows vengeance upon her betrayer.

The scene changes to the countryside of Don Giovanni’s palace near Seville. A troop of gay peasants is seen arriving. The young and pretty Zerlina with Masetto, her affianced, and their friends are singing and dancing in honour of their approaching marriage. Don Giovanni and Leporello join this gathering of light-hearted and simple young people. Having cast covetous eyes upon Zerlina, and having aroused her vanity and her spirit of coquetry by polished words of gallantry, the Don orders Leporello to get rid of the jealous Masetto by taking the entire gathering -- excepting, of course, Zerlina -- to his chateau. Leporello grumbles, but carries out his master’s order. The latter, left alone with Zerlina, sings a duet with her which is one of the gems, not alone of this opera, but of opera in general: "Là ci darem la mano!" (Your hand in mine, my dearest). Donna Elvira appears and by her denunciation of Don Giovanni, "Ah! fuggi il traditore," makes clear to Zerlina the character of her fascinating admirer. Donna Anna and Don Ottavio come upon the stage and sing a quartette which begins: "Non ti fidar, o misera, di quel ribaldo cor" (Place not thy trust, O mourning one, in this polluted soul), at the end of which Donna Anna, as Don Giovanni departs, recognizes in his accents the voice of her father’s assassin. Her narrative of the events of that terrible night is a declamatory recitative "in style as bold and as tragic as the finest recitatives of Gluck."

Don Giovanni orders preparations for the festival in his palace. He gives his commands to Leporello in the "Champagne aria," "Fin, ch’ han dal vino" (Wine, flow a fountain), which is almost breathless with exuberance of anticipated revel. Then there is the ingratiating air of Zerlina begging Masetto’s forgiveness for having flirted with the Don, "Batti, batti, o bel Masetto" (Chide me, chide me, dear Masetto), a number of enchanting grace, followed

by a brilliantly triumphant allegro, "Pace, pace o vita mia" (Love, I see you’re now relenting).

The finale to the first act of "Don Giovanni" rightly passes for one of the masterpieces of dramatic music. Leporello, having opened a window to let the fresh evening air enter the palace hall, the violins of a small orchestra within are heard in the first measures of the graceful minuet. Leporello sees three maskers, two women and a man, outside. In accordance with custom they are bidden to enter. Don Giovanni does not know that they are Donna Anna, Donna Elvira, and Don Ottavio, bent upon seeking the murderer of the Commandant and bringing him to justice. But even had he been aware of their purpose it probably would have made no difference, for courage this dissolute character certainly had.

After a moment of hesitation, after having taken council together, and repressing a movement of horror which they feel at the sight of the man whose crimes have darkened their lives, Donna Elvira, Donna Anna, and Don Ottavio decide to carry out their undertaking at all cost and to whatever end. Before entering the chateau, they pause on the threshold and, their souls moved by a holy fear, they address Heaven in one of the most touching prayers written by the hand of man. It is the number known throughout the world of music as the "Trio of the Masks," "Protegga, il giusto cielo" -- (Just Heaven, now defend us) -- one of those rare passages which, by its clearness of form, its elegance of musical diction, and its profundity of sentiment, moves the layman and charms the connoisseur.

The festivities begin with the familiar minuet. Its graceful rhythm is prolonged indefinitely as a fundamental idea, while in succession, two small orchestras on the stage, take up, one a rustic quadrille in double time, the other a waltz. Notwithstanding the differences in rhythm, the three dances are combined with a skill that piques the ear and excites admiration. The scene would be even more natural and entertaining than it usually is, if the orchestras on the stage always followed the direction accordano (tune up) which occurs in the score eight bars before each begins to play its dance, and if the dances themselves were carried out according to directions. Only the ladies and gentlemen should engage in the minuet, the peasants in the quadrille; and before Don Giovanni leads off Zerlina into an adjoining room he should have taken part with her in this dance, while Leporello seeks to divert the jealous Masetto’s attention by seizing him in an apparent exuberance of spirits and insisting on dancing the waltz with him. Masetto’s suspicions, however, are not to allayed. He breaks away from Leporello. The latter hurries to warn his master. But just as he has passed through the door, Zerlina’s piercing chriek for help is heard from within. Don Giovanni rushes out, sword in hand, dragging out with him none other than poor Leporello, whom he has opportunely seized in the entrance, and whom, under pretence that he is the guilty party, he threatens to kill in order to turn upon him the suspicion that rests upon himself. But this ruse fails to deceive anyone. Donna Anna, Donna Elvira, and Don Ottavio unmask and accuse Don Giovanni of the murder of the Commandant; "Tutto già si sa" (Everything is known and you are recognized). Taken aback, at first, Don Giovanni soon recovers himself. Turning, at bay, he defies the enraged crowd. A storm is rising without. A storm sweeps over the orchestra. Thunder growls in the basses, lightning plays on the fiddles. Don Giovanni, cool, intrepid, cuts a passage through the crowd upon which, at the same time, he hurls his contempt. (In a performance at the Academy of Music, New York, about 1872, I saw Don Giovanni stand off the crowd with a pistol.)

second act opens with a brief duet between Don Giovanni and Leporello. The trio which follows: "Ah! taci, ingiusto core" (Ah, silence, heart rebellious), for Donna Elvira, Leporello, and Don Giovanni, is an exquisite passage. Donna Elvira, leaning sadly on a balcony, allows her melancholy regrets to wander in the pale moonlight which envelops her figure in a semi-transparent gloom. In spite of the scene which she has recently witnessed, in spite of wrongs she herself has endured, she cannot hate Don Giovanni or efface his image from her heart. Her reward is that her recreant lover in the darkness below, changes costume with his servant and while Leporello, disguised as the Don, attracts Donna Elvira into the garden, the cavalier himself addresses to Zerlina, who has been taken under Donna Elvira’s protection, the charming serenade: "Deh! vieni alla finestra" (Appear, love at thy window), which he accompanies on the mandolin, or should so accompany, for usually the accompaniment is played pizzicato by the orchestra.

As the result of complications, which I shall not attempt to follow, Masetto, who is seeking to administer physical chastisement to Don Giovanni, receives instead a drubbing from the latter.

Zerlina, while by no means indifferent to the attentions of the dashing Don, is at heart faithful to Masetto and, while I fancy she is by no means obtuse to the humorous aspect of his chastisement by Don Giovanni, she comes trippingly out of the house and consoles the poor fellow with the graceful measures of "Vedrai carino, se sei buonino" (List, and I’ll find love, if you are kind love).

Shortly after this episode comes Don Ottavio’s famous air, the solo number which makes the role worth while, "I1 mio tesoro intanti" (Fly then, my love, entreating). Upon this air praise has been exhausted. It has been called the "pietra di paragone" of tenors -- the touchstone, the supreme test of classic song.

Retribution upon Don Giovanni is not to be too long deferred. After the escapade of the serenade and the drubbing of Masetto, the Don, who has made off, chances to meet in the churchyard (or in the public square) with Leporello, who meanwhile has gotten rid of Donna Elvira. It is about two in the morning. They see the newly erected statue to the murdered Commandant. Don Giovanni bids it, through Leporello, to supper with him in his palace. Will it accept? The statue answers, "Yea!" Leporello is terrified. And Don Giovanni?

"In truth the scene is bizarre. The old boy comes to supper. Now hasten and bestir yourself to spread a royal feast."

Such is the sole reflection that the fateful miracle, to which he has just been a witness, draws from this miscreant, who, whatever else he may be, is brave.

Back in his palace, Don Giovanni seats himself at table and sings of the pleasures of life. An orchestra on the stage plays airs from Vincente Martino’s "Una Cosa Rara" (A Rare Thing); Sarti’s "Fra Due Litiganti" (Between Two Litigants) and Mozart's own "Nozze di Figaro," Leporello announcing the selections. The "Figaro" air is "Non più andrai" (Play no more, boy, the part of a lover).

Donna Elvira enters. On her knees she begs the man who has betrayed her to mend his ways. Her plea falls on deaf ears. She leaves. Her shriek is heard from the corridor. She re-enters and flees the palace by another door.

"Va, veder che cos’ è stato" (Go, and see what it is) Don Giovanni commands Leporello.

The latter returns trembling with fright. He has seen in the corridor "l’uom di sasso, l’uomo bianco" -- the man of stone, the big white man.

Seizing a candle, drawing his sword, Don Giovanni boldly goes into the corridor. A few moments later he backs into the room, receding before the statue of the Commandant. The lights go out. All is dark save or the flame of the candle in Don Giovanni’s hand. Slowly, with heavy footsteps that re-echo, the statue enters. It speaks.

"Don Giovanni, you have invited me to sit at table with you. Lo! I am here."

Well knowing the fate in store for him, yet, with unebbing courage, Don Giovanni nonchalantly commands Leporello to serve supper.

"Desist!" exclaims the statue. "He who has sat at a heavenly banquet, does not break the bread of mortals. … Don Giovanni, will you come to sup with me?"

"I will," fearlessly answers the Don.

"Give me your hand in gage thereof."

"Here it is."

Don Giovanni confronts the stone guest (image)

Don Giovanni confronts the Stone Guest
Painting: Don Juan and the statue of the Commander [Commandant] by Alexandre-Évariste Fragonard (c.a 1830-35)

Don Giovanni extends his hand. The statue’s huge hand of stone closes upon it.

"Huh! What an icy grasp!" -- "Repent! Change your course at your last hour." -- "No, far from me such a thought." -- "Repent, O miscreant!" -- "No, you old fool." -- "Repent!" -- "No!"

Nothing daunts him. A fiery pit opens. Demons seize him -- unrepentant to the end -- and drag him down.

The music of the scene is gripping, yet accomplished without an addition to the ordinary orchestra of Mozart’s day, without straining after effect, without any means save those commonly to his hand.

In the modern opera house the final curtain falls upon this scene. In the work, however, there is another scene in which the other characters moralize upon Don Giovanni’s end. There is one accusation, however, none can urge against him. He was not a coward. Therein lies the appeal of the character. His is a brilliant, impetuous figure, with a dash of philosophy, which is that, sometime, somewhere, in the course of his amours, he will discover the perfect woman from whose lips he will be able to draw the sweetness of all women. Moreover he is a villain with a keen sense of humour. Inexcusable in real life, he is a debonair, fascinating figure on the stage, whereas Donna Anna, Donna Elvira, and Don Ottavio are mere hinges in the drama and as creations purely musical. Zerlina, on the other hand, is one of Mozart’s most delectable characters. Leporello, too, is clearly drawn, dramatically and musically; a coward, yet loyal to the master who appeals to a strain of the humorous in him and whose courage he admires.

For the Vienna production Mozart wrote three new vocal numbers, which are printed in the score as additions. Caterina Cavalieri, the Elvira, had complained to Mozart, that the Viennese public did not appreciate her as did audiences of other cities and begged him for something that would give her voice full scope. The result was the fine aria: "Mi tradi quell’ alma ingrata." The Ottavio, Signor Morello, was considered unequal to "I1 mio tesoro," so Mozart wrote the less exacting "Della sua pace," for him. To amuse the public he inserted a comic duet, "Per queste tue manine," for Zerlina and Leporello. This usually is omitted. The other two inserts were interpolated in the second act of the opera before the finale. In the Metropolitan Opera House version, however, Donna Elvira sings "Mi tradi" to express her rage after the "Madamina" of Leporello; and Don Ottavio sings "Della sua pace" before the scene in Don Giovanni’s chateau.

The first performance of "Don Giovanni" in America took place in the Park Theatre, New York, on Tuesday evening, May 23, 1826. I have verified the date in the file of the New York Evening Post. "This evening for the first time in America, the semi-serious opera of ‘Il Don Giovanni,’" reads the advertisement of that date. Then follows the cast. Manuel Garcia played the title role; Manuel Garcia, Jr., afterwards inventor of the laryngoscope, who reached the age of 101, dying in London in 1906, was Leporello; Mme. Barbieri, Donna Anna; Mme. Garcia, Donna Elvira; Signorina Maria Garcia (afterwards famous under her married name of Malibran), Zerlina; Milon, whom Mr. Krehbiel identifies as a violoncellist later with the Philharmonic Society, Don Ottavio; and Carlo Angrisani, Masetto, a role he had sung at the first London performance of the work.

Da Ponte, the librettist of the work, who had become Professor of Italian at Columbia College, had induced Garcia to put on the opera. At the first performance during the finale of the first act everything went at sixes and sevens, in spite of the efforts of Garcia, in the title role, to keep things together. Finally, sword in hand, he stepped to the front of the stage, ordered the performance stopped, and exhorting the singers not to commit the crime of ruining a masterwork, started the finale over again, which now went all right.

It is related by da Ponte that "my ‘Don Giovanni,’" as he called it, made such a success that a friend of his who always fell asleep at operatic performances, not only remained awake during the whole of "Don Giovanni," but told him he couldn’t sleep a wink the rest of the night for excitement.

Pauline Viardot-Garcia, sister of Signorina Garcia (afterwards Mme. Malibran), the Zerlina of the first New York performance, owned the original autograph score of "Don Giovanni." She bequeathed it to the Paris Conservatoire.

The opera has engaged the services of famous artists. Faure and Maurel were great Don Giovannis, Jean de Reszke sang the role, while he was still a baritone; Scotti made his debut at the Metropolitan Opera House, December 27, 1899, in the role, with Nordica as Donna Anna, Suzanne Adams, as Donna Elvira, Sembrich as Zerlina, and Edouard de Reszke as Leporello. Renaud appeared as Don Giovanni at the Manhattan Opera House. Lablache was accounted the greatest of Leporellos. The role of Don Ottavio has been sung by Rubini and Mario. At the Mozart Festival, Salzburg, 1914, the opera was to be given with Lilli Lehmann, Farrar, and McCormack in the cast; but unfortunately the 1914 Salzburg Festival had to be canceled due the start of the First World War.

A curious aside in the history of the work was an "adaptation," produced by Kalkbrenner in Paris, 1805. How greatly this differed from the original may be judged from the fact that the trio of the masks was sung, not by Donna Anna, Donna Elvira, and Don Ottavio, but by three policemen!

Search this Site




See also:
Middle Ages Music
Renaissance Music
Baroque Era Music
Classical Era Music
Romantic Era Music
Nationalist Era Music
Turn of Century Music

Music With Ease | About Us | Contact Us | Privacy | Sitemap | Copyright | Terms of Use

© 2005-23 All Rights Reserved.