This Week in Music History: Don Giovanni premieres (1787)

Classical music has such a long, storied history, that it can be difficult to know where to start. Each week, we’ll be exploring an important event that left its mark. This week? The premiere of a beloved comedy that would almost certainly be classified differently today: Mozart’s Don Giovanni…


Mozart scored the commission to write Don Giovanni while on a trip to Prague in early 1787. His latest opera, Le nozze di Figaro, was proving popular there, and he capitalized on his high profile in the city by penning a “Prague” Symphony too. So when the impresario Pasquale Bondini asked him to write a new opera for the Bohemian city, to premiere in the autumn, the idea was to build on the success Mozart had already achieved there.

Can Bondini have imagined that the new opera, first performed on October 29, would be quite so dark? It’s a strange thought that the farcical Figaro would be followed up with an opera in which the protagonist—a compulsive womanizer, as well as a murderer—literally descends to hell, leaving behind a smattering of his victims to try and rebuild their shattered lives.

It doesn’t sound much like what we’d call a comedy today—neither in concept, nor, often enough, in the music. Take the stern tones of the overture, for instance, which begin the opera in a solemn D minor—compare that to the filigree semiquavers that open Figaro. Or listen to the swirling drama of the opening scene, in which Giovanni murders the Commendatore, who has tried to stop him in his pursuit of Donna Anna:

Even the ostensibly lighter moments have sinister overtones. Giovanni’s servant Leporello sings the famous “Catalog Aria,” to take one example: a ludicrously long list of his master’s sexual conquests that rubs salt into the wound inflicted on Donna Elvira, whom Giovanni has, of course, deserted. Is this comedy? And is it really a tender moment of romance when Zerlina, a peasant woman Giovanni has tried to seduce, playfully implores her fiancé to hit her? Yet her music is so beautiful and playful:

 

And then, of course, there is the finale, in which a statute of the murdered Commendatore visits Giovanni at home in order to send him to hell. To some extent, all this simply goes to show just how broad the definition of comic opera could be in the later 18th century: the opera was well received, after all, both in Prague and later in Vienna. It’s also worth noting that it wasn’t a controversial choice of subject by any means: there had been plenty of Don Giovanni operas written recently by the time of Mozart and Da Ponte’s.

But it is perhaps Don Giovanni’s startling mixture of the comic and the tragic that has made it so fascinating to later audiences—that, and the hypnotic, amoral character that is the black hole at the opera’s heart. Giovanni is serious one minute, comic the next, and though we hear plenty from him, his character remains elusive. He seems almost more like a demonic spirit than a real person—a spirit that, without a doubt, still exists today. Our definitions of comedy have changed these days, making it hard to think of Don Giovanni as a “comic” opera—but both the character and the opera are still as relevant as ever.

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