Four seminal literary characters have arisen since the Renaissance‹Don Quixote, Hamlet, Faust, and Don Juan, also known as Don Giovanni. All of them challenged accepted truths, but arguably the libidinous Spanish grandee has proven the most magnetic and alluring. Much of that attraction can be attributed to the extraordinary rendering of the story by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and librettist Lorenzo da Ponte. Their opera has been accorded a reverence exceptional even amidst the universal acclaim accorded the composer. When Charles Gounod called Don Giovanni an "incarnation of dramatic and musical infallibility," he expressed an opinion echoed by virtually every musician since 1800. Furthermore, it has inspired a veritable library of literary and critical writing, by authors varying from Pushkin to Shaw, Schopenhauer to Kierkegaard. Mozart transfigured a simplistic morality tale into a powerful work peppered with mystery.
Don Giovanni is labeled a "dramma giocosa," neither "buffa," ("comic,") nor "seria," but rather a dark work leavened with laughter. Perhaps this opera is so potent precisely because it defies categorizing, with few easy solutions to its many enigmas. It is no accident that the ancient theatrical device of masks and disguises is here a constant presence. From the arrival of the masked Don in Donna Anna's bedroom, deceit runs deep.
The first depiction of Don Juan was in El Burlador de Sevilla, written in 1630 by the monk Tirso De Molina. "Burlador" can be translated as "seducer" but also "trickster" or, worse, "mocker," and Tirso was mostly concerned with the righteous punishment of such a person. He established the linchpins of the story, the licentious nobleman and the statue of a murdered father coming to life seeking justice.
In 1665 Molière produced his comedy Dom Juan, ou Le Festin De Pierre. He foreshadowed Leporello in the character of the Don's servant Sganarelle, who makes pithy comments along the way: "You see in Don Juan, my master, one of the greatest scoundrels that ever trod the earth." By the end of the 18th century the story, typically played for laughs, had been presented so widely in so many forms‹even puppet shows‹that its gags were common currency.
In 1787 Giovanni Bertati used many of these in his libretto for a one-act opera by Giuseppe Gazzaniga, which became the foundation for Da Ponte's libretto. Indeed, Da Ponte lifted whole sections outright. But Mozart's commission from Prague was for a full evening, so much new material had to be invented, and a masterpiece was born.
There are common thematic threads among the three Mozart/Da Ponte operas, Le Nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Così fan tutte. In all of them, the danger of illicit sex, perhaps even rape, is a pervasive threat. All three smell of the Enlightenment, particularly in the clear demarcation between classes and the stewing resentment in the lower ranks, members of which play key roles. Le Nozze di Figaro revolves around the scheming of an ex-barber-turned-valet and his betrothed, a lady's maid, to reform their philandering lord. In Così, the machinations of a chambermaid, Despina, initiated by the iconoclastic Don Alfonso, drive the substitute-lover ruse. Don Giovanni uses his high status as leverage for seduction; the anger of powerlessness seethes in the proletarian Masetto.
But oh, the differences! In Don Giovanni alone, amidst Da Ponte's characteristic naturalism, Mozart invokes the supernatural. Only here is sexual license examined from so many different viewpoints, especially those of three different women. Only here does violence actually erupt; the story opens with a rape followed by a killing. Only in Don Giovanni does the possibility of armed rebellion seem tangible. Masetto, carrying both pistol and musket, is quite willing‹in the dark at least‹to kill the aristocrat.
Mozart even does some surprising things musically. In the climactic banquet scene, the stage band plays numbers from operas immediately recognizable to audiences at the time, including "Non più andrai" from his own Le Nozze di Figaro. To emphasize the point, he has Leporello identify the first two and poke fun at the third. This is more than simply a witty moment; Mozart deliberately breaks the "fourth wall" smack in the middle of the action, not in a postscript epilogue. He pulls the moment out of stage time and into actual time, telling us that the horror we are about to witness is real, not happening in some imaginary place. Dramaturgically, it is an unusual and powerful stroke, raising the stakes for the audience.
Throughout Don Giovanni Mozart generates shifting perspectives, open ends, and uncertainties. The most basic problem, of course, is, Why does the Don flit from one sexual conquest to the next, rejecting any emotional involvement? Leporello lists one thousand and three seductions, representing all types of women. Why do they acquiesce? Is his lechery frustrated during the course of the opera, as many pundits have asserted, or not? To that end, what is the real relationship between Giovanni and the three key women, Anna, Elvira and Zerlina, two of whom he may have bedded? And most of all, why does this quintessential realist, this dissembling trickster always looking for a way out, refuse even to say he will repent‹truthfully or not‹and so save himself from perdition?
That central difficulty, Don Giovanni's utter amorality, has engendered reams of commentary. At one extreme lie the psychiatrists and psychoanalysts, at the other, the moral theologians. Somewhere in the middle are the 19th-century logical theorists like Søren Kierkegaard who tried to fit Giovanni's conduct into a philosophical pattern, and Romantics like E.T.A. Hoffmann, who allegorized him into a kind of Superman for whom Donna Anna was predestined, until their relational failure led him to rape and send her to desperation. The dream sequence "Don Juan in Hell" from G. B. Shaw's Man and Superman made this premise more satirical, but still portrays the hero as an übermensch, an intellectual fighting off the procreative Force of Woman (here Donna Anna).
The psychological community has tended to interpret the Don as clinically psychopathic. In The Mask of Sanity, psychiatrist and neurologist Hervey Cleckley described a psychopath as often charming, able to fake remorse if retribution looms, but one who "shows almost no sense of shame. His career is always full of exploits, any one of which would wither even the more callous. ... Yet he does not … show the slightest evidence of major humiliation or regret." It is not necessary to tack on Otto Rank's psychoanalytic addendum of an explanatory mother fixation to agree that this could easily describe Don Giovanni.
Theologians see him as fundamentally evil. The churchly Tirso de Molina refused to allow his Don Juan confession and absolution. More recently, Samuel Terrien, formerly of Union Theological Seminary, wrote, "Far more than a merely vulgar seducer, Mozart's Don Giovanni is The Blasphemer. He challenges life at the risk of his eternal destiny." Without question, Giovanni rejects that most basic commandment, to love one's neighbor as oneself.
Twentieth-century opinion generally tended toward more cynicism. In 1950 the Epilogue to the Stravinsky-Auden-Kallman opera The Rake's Progress, about the inevitable doom of all libertines, echoed the moralizing final pages of the Mozart work, but with manifest irony. Philosopher Albert Camus viewed the Don as an existentialist hero: "This life gratifies his every wish. … Why should he give himself a problem in morality? He achieves a knowledge without illusions which negates everything the [men of God] profess." A recent film, Don Juan de Marco, starring Johnny Depp and Marlon Brando, brought Romantic and analytic images into conflict, pitting an attractive, possibly reborn, Don against a psychiatrist who begins distrusting his own realistic doubts.
This character clearly means different things to different people. That is true even to the three women within Mozart's opera. Each of them poses a separate conundrum; together they form a mosaic that partly illuminates some aspects of Don Giovanni.
Why does Donna Elvira remain so devoted to the Don despite his despicable actions? Even in the final scene she again begs him to reform, even if he does not return to her. One clue may lie in the word she uses in her first appearance, "sposa," indicating that Giovanni had actually married her. Certainly he did remain with her for three whole days, far longer than his customary hour or so. As for Zerlina, no matter how charming this rich nobleman may be, her almost immediate compliance argues for more sophistication than her simple peasant attire would indicate. So does her rather masochistic "Batti, batti," urging Masetto to inflict physical pain. Regarding Donna Anna, was the sex act in her bedroom at curtain-rise consummated? It is entirely plausible to believe so, especially if one defines her word "poi," when she describes the event, as "afterwards." She keens dutifully over her father's body, but for the rest of the opera mostly seems intent on vengeance for post-coital desertion. And why would the Don, eager for any new conquest, ignore her later if he had not already succeeded once?
In the end, when Don Giovanni is facing the dire consequences of his behavior, his actions defy logic. He deliberately tempts fate in the graveyard, personally precipitating the denouement by his unsolicited dinner invitation to the Statue. Does he refuse to believe in the immanence of Divine Retribution even when facing incontrovertible proof? At his banquet he again initiates the encounter, this time final and fatal, by voluntarily seizing the Statue's cold hand. Trapped by his choice, he still, four times, refuses the thunderous trombone-enshrouded call "Pentiti!" ("Repent") answering the Commendatore's "Si!" with his equally unyielding "No!" He could easily lie, as he had before in escaping risky situations. Duplicity was a standard part of his weaponry. Yet here he stands pointlessly firm even at the jaws of hell. Why?
Mozart was a Freemason, sympathetic to, if not a part of, the Illuminati, a faction later proscribed, which preached rationality as the sole path to salvation. Giovanni's refusal to surrender to the supernatural could be the ultimate extension of the Illuminati way. Or possibly, as Peter Shaffer had it in Amadeus, the avenging Statue replicates Mozart's father, whom he both loved and feared, but to whom he could not willingly submit. Some religious thinkers see the Don, the denier of the Divine commandment, doomed to deny even at the cost of damnation.
And all this simply may be a good professional's theatrical way to end his terrific opera.
There is no one simple answer to all the riddles in Don Giovanni. It is too complex and rich a work to yield its secrets easily. Therein lies this opera's unique magic. Prism-like, it yields different colors of meaning to different observers, forever the occasion for speculation‹and wonder.