Opera may have been created four centuries ago by the Florentine Camerata, but the core of the repertoire has long been firmly rooted in the 19th and early 20th centuries. When it comes to standard-issue fare in our own time, Mozart's operas are nearly alone in representing the 18th century. Indeed, except for the odd revival of an Orfeo (be it by Gluck or by Monteverdi) or some other antique novelty item, it is relatively unusual to see an opera from before 1800 by any other composer.
Even Mozart doesn't get through unscathed. His ventures into opera seria, though laden with gorgeous melodies, tend to be only occasional treats. Mozart's operatic fame is secured by his comedies and by those scores which mix the exalted and the humorous: Die Entführung aus dem Serail, Cosí fan tutte, Le nozze di Figaro, Die Zauberflöte, and Don Giovanni.
The first four of these are indubitable creatures of the 18th century. The noble Turk (who, forcibly removed from the gates of Vienna, may now safely be rendered admirable), the deceived spouse and cynical sophisticate, the burlesque of class conflict, and the spirit of the Enlightenment are all sprung from the same artistic milieu.
But Don Giovanni is different. In uncanny fashion it seems to prefigure the dominant 19th-century currents of German art and philosophy. Indeed, its success was somewhat limited during the late 18th century‹it wasn't nearly Italianate enough for the tastes of the Imperial Court of Joseph II in Vienna‹and it only gradually carved a place for itself during the beginning of the 19th.
The opera's immediate origins lie in 1630 when a Spanish monk, Gabriel Téllez, published the play El Burlador de Sevilla y Combidado de Pietra (The Mocker of Seville and the Stone Guest).
The combination of the lascivious nobleman and the statue come to life proved irresistible to other playwrights, including Molière, and the material had already been reworked numerous times before it came to the attention of Lorenzo da Ponte, Mozart's finest collaborator.
Don Giovanni (or Don Juan) is the same sort of semi-mythical character as Goethe's Faust and Heinrich Heine's Flying Dutchman, two other figures who fit well in the Romantic ethos. All of these eminently operatic personalities have roots stretching back to the 1600s and even earlier, and all of them have a timeless appeal that carries them forward to our day.
In a thematic sense, the story of Don Giovanni is a cruel inversion of the story of the Dutchman. Don Giovanni is a faithless man who torments women and is claimed by the Devil, while the Dutchman is a tormented man who seeks a faithful woman in order to be redeemed from the Devil. What could be more appealing to the overblown 19th-century Romantic sensibility?
Indeed, the most obvious concessions made by Mozart and da Ponte to the dramatic preferences of their 18th-century audiences are the broad humor of the scenes with Leporello, Zerlina, and Masetto. Leporello is a coarsened caricature of his master: As the cavalier offers his "protection" to Zerlina, his employee grabs at one of her bridesmaids. Zerlina is a clear cousin to Susanna, but without her servant-quarters smarts. And Masetto is a younger Figaro, minus the cunning.
The others‹particularly Donna Anna and Donna Elvira‹are aristocrats who might exist in other operatic universes, while Don Ottavio is, sadly, pretty much of a cipher. But Don Giovanni stands alone.
What is the continuing attraction of Don Giovanni's character? He has charm and wit; he has style and élan; he has great tunes. But beneath it all‹as with the character of Faust‹lies the unblinking, unwavering focus on Self that is, as C.S. Lewis reminds us, among the hallmarks of Hell. He's a cold-blooded rapist, a murderer, an unregenerate reprobate, qualities all amply illustrated in the opera through words, actions, and music. So why are we attracted to him?
Perhaps it is precisely because he doesn't care what anyone thinks, and because he never quails in his determined wickedness. This aspect of Giovanni's character is most attuned to the 19th-century outlook. Friedrich Nietzsche advised his readers to have the courage of their bad deeds, and Giovanni has that courage in spades. Faust wriggles out of his bargain with the Devil at the end, but not the Mocker of Seville: he defies Heaven's mercies as well as Hell's fires. When the statue addresses him in the graveyard, Don Giovanni is courteous and invites it to join him at dinner. When it arrives, he bids it welcome. When it tells him to repent, his reply is an emphatic no.
The modern failure of imagination has led to productions of Don Giovanni in which the lecherous cavalier dies of a heart attack, or of a drug overdose; the Stone Guest becomes a figment of his imagination, and the chorus of demons is banished to the lowly status of audible hallucination. This is a betrayal of the character and the story, and as such it generally falls flat. Don Giovanni has earned his devils.
But while avoiding the contemporary brand of theatrical atheism that denies even operatic fiends their supernatural powers, it is also important to avoid too romantic an approach to the opera. This is not, after all, The Flying Dutchman, and Donna Elvira, for all her misplaced love, is not about to fling herself from any cliff.
For this score is still rooted in the Age of Reason, and after the villain is dragged to perdition, the other characters return to their own concerns. Don Ottavio again begs Donna Anna to marry him; Donna Anna once more puts him off. Donna Elvira announces that she will take the veil, in a dramatic phrase that makes one wonder just how well she'll fit into the subdued world of the cloister. Zerlina and Masetto decide to go home to their supper. Leporello, equally practical, resolves to find a better master. And, after they offer up a resounding moral, the curtain comes down.
Given the often overheated atmosphere of 19th-century opera, with its Byronic passions and unhinged heroines, to say nothing of the blunt brutality sometimes encountered in works from the last hundred years, it is a relief to occasionally take an extra step back to the 1700s. However forward-looking this opera may be, we still catch the stimulating breezes of the Enlightenment in da Ponte's ironic humor and Mozart's superb score. They remain refreshing to the mind and spirit even today.
Sarah Bryan Miller is the classical music critic of The St. Louis Post-Dispatch.