In the Wings

Backstage glimpses with Boston Lyric Opera

Get to Know Don Giovanni

Mar 23, 2015 9:06:00 AM
By BLO Staff

Background on Don Giovanni by John Conklin, BLO Artistic Advisor


Don Juan and the statue of the Commander, Fragonard
oil on canvas, circa 1830-1835

The Archetype
“The archetypal character wants to go everywhere, and to become everyone … to explore an infinitude of possibilities. Europe has three such tireless recurrent seekers—Faust, the man of the mind who wants to know everything; Robinson Caruso … who wants to own everything; and Don Juan, the man of the senses who intends to both know and own everything, and whose mode of doing so is to make love. Since their ambitions are global, the careers of these characters last for centuries.”
—Peter Conrad, “The Libertine’s Progress”

The Sources
Perhaps the first appearance of the mythic and iconic figure of Don Juan is in a rather rough and ready street play from 1616 attributed to Tirso de Molina, El Burlador de Sevilla y Convidado de Piedra [The Trickster of Seville and the Stone Guest]. This unrepentant “mocker” burlesques religion and is duly punished by heaven. But by the time Molière wrote his Don Juan in 1664, the “jesting apostate” had become a philosopher driven by a rational curiosity, “prising [sic] open the fissure between moral presence and carnal truth.” (Conrad)

Don Giovanni Playbill Vienna Premiere 1788
Public Domain

The Title
Mozart’s title was originally Il dissoluto punito, ossia il Don Giovanni, an opera buffa in two acts, which translates literally to The Libertine Punished, or Don Giovanni. Each word (even the “or”) in this has been endlessly parsed, analyzed, debated … and, indeed, they do bear thinking about. Why did the more generalized description of “the libertine” originally come before the specific character’s name? Is “libertine” a good translation? Would “rake" be better? What does “libertine” actually mean? Is it connected to “liberty” (remember the Don's provocative toast, “Viva la Liberta”)? What is the “punishment”? And who (or what) delivers it? Is it deserved? And… “opera buffa”? Is Don Giovanni meant to be a comedy? The fact that these questions—and characters such as Don Juan—still resonate today reveals why this opera remains such an audience favorite.

The Libretto
The commission followed the triumphant premiere of Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro in Prague (December 1786). The impresario Guardasoni probably asked the librettist Da Ponte to expand Bertati's one-act opera of the same title (set to music by Gazzaniga for Venice in 1787) but, in his memoirs, Da Ponte plays down any connection. In any case, he greatly improved the text, drawing on other sources, notably Molière’s Don Juan and versions from popular theater. About half of the libretto is entirely original.

The First Performance

"Don Giovanni, Act 2, set design, Prague 1790s"
by Leopold Peuckert, designer,
the earliest known set design for the opera

Don Giovanni premiered at the Teatro di Praga (now called the Estates Theatre), on October 29, 1787. The legend that Mozart composed the overture the night before the premiere (or even on the day of) has been challenged. Was the whole piece actually composed in three weeks, as claimed by some? In any case, it was a triumphant success. Another intriguing legend (or fact?)—Casanova himself was among the opening night audience.

The Vienna Performance
That success was not repeated in Vienna at its premiere in May of 1788 at the Burgtheater, although Giovanni received more performances there than Figaro had in 1786. Mozart made several changes to the score, cutting a short aria for Leporello, and adding a wonderful additional scena for Elvira (“Mi tradi quell’alma ingrata”), a replacement aria for Ottavio, and an undistinguished buffo duet for Zerlina and Leporello, which is rarely performed today. The final ensemble may have been cut.

The Afterlife
Don Giovanni was given in Warsaw in 1789 and made rapid progress in Germany (performed in German), becoming, after The Abduction from the Seraglio, the Mozart opera most often performed during his lifetime. Amsterdam (1793) and St. Petersburg (1797) followed. It became popular in France in both French and Italian adaptations. The premiere in Italy was in 1811. In 1817 in London, it appeared at His Majesty's Theater Haymarket in Italian, and a few months later at Covent Garden in English.

The American Don
The American premiere occurred on November 7, 1817, in Philadelphia under the title The Libertine. In 1825, the famous tenor Manuel García brought his troupe (consisting in large part of his talented family—including his daughter who later, under the name of Maria Malibran, became one of the most celebrated 19th-century divas) to the Park Theater in New York. They performed Rossini (five operas), two of García’s own operas, and Don Giovanni. Da Ponte, who had emigrated to America in 1805 to escape debt and bankruptcy, and, after running first a grocery and then a bookstore, had become the first professor of Italian at King’s College (now Columbia University), was in attendance.

The Cultural Context—1787

 •  Premiere of Don Giovanni in Prague
 •  Catherine the Great of Russia visits the Crimea and tours the infamous “Potemkin Village,” ornate facades with nothing behind them
 •  Goethe’s final verse version of Iphigenie auf Tauris is published
 •  Schiller’s play Don Carlos premieres
 •  Edmund Kean, the celebrated Shakespearean actor, is born (d. 1833)
 •  Christoph Willibald Gluck dies (b. 1714)
 •  U.S. Constitution is signed in Philadelphia
 •  Settlement founded in Sierra Leone for freed slaves

The Other Giovannis
Only a few highlights from the prodigious literary and artistic life of the Don: 

1736 Carlo Goldoni’s play Don Giovanni Tenorio premieres
1761 Gluck’s ballet Don Juan debuts
1813 E.T.A. Hoffmann’s novella Don Juan is first published
1819 The first two cantos of Byron’s epic poem Don Juan are published
1830 Pushkin’s play The Stone Guest is written
1834 Prosper Mérimée’s novella Les Âmes du Purgatoire is published
1872 Alexander Dargomyzhsky’s opera The Stone Guest (based on Pushkin) premieres
1889 Richard Strauss’ symphonic tone poem Don Juan receives its first performance
1903 George Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman is written (Act 3 is often performed separately as Don Juan in Hell)
1911 Guillaume Apollinaire’s novel Les Exploits d’un Jeune Don Juan is published
1934 The Private Life of Don Juan, Douglas Fairbanks Sr.’s last film, is released
1936 Ödön von Horváth completes his play Don Juan Kommt aus dem Krieg [Don Juan comes back from the war]
1970 The Stoned Guest, a half-act opera by P.D.Q. Bach, is released by Vanguard Records
1994 Don Juan DeMarco, a film starring Johnny Depp, is released
2014 Don Juan Comes Home from Iraq, a play by Paula Vogel, premieres

Topics: Don Giovanni, Mozart, New Production

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