Revisiting Mozart in Don Giovanni

With the popularity and fame of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, almost everyone has an idea what Don Giovanni is. The place of Mozart in opera was just above the pack, and in his few years of life, he achieved what nobody less than a genius could have. This amazing two-act opera was composed by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart on an Italian libretto written by Lorenzo Da Ponte. The premiere performance was at Estates Theatre, Prague, on 29th October 1787. The legend retold in Mozart’s Don Juan, had been adopted in many works of art prior to his opera.

The final opera that is performed to date has gone through several revisions, additions and subtractions, since that premiere composition. Some of these modifications were made by Mozart himself, as he refined the opera during subsequent performances. There had been a libretto done by Giovanni Bertati for Don Juan in the beginning of 1787, which was regarded as inferior although it was performed in Venice that same year. Nevertheless, compared to Lorenzo Da Ponte’s work, Don Giovanni was by far superior. Indeed, of all operas that had been based on the same legend of Don Juan, Don Giovanni’s entry rose to an artistic acceptance and recognition that was, and is still, thought of as beyond comparison. Da Ponte’s libretto was more of a cocktail of the serious and the comic in both dramatic and music action.

After the composition was premiered in Prague, Mozart classified Don Giovanni in a catalogue of an opera buffa. Experts however vary in their analysis of the opera. It is however synonymous in most operatic discourses to classify the opera as a comic. In essence however, Don Giovanni is a refined unique blend of both comic, that is buffa, and drama, that is seria. It is this ability to blend a comedy in melodrama and then impose a variety of supernatural elements that makes the opera a distinct work of Mozart.

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A critic during the time that Don Giovanni was released, the Danish philosopher by the name Soren Kierkegaard watched three performances of the opera and wrote a very long essay to critic Mozart’s work in a book called Enten – Eller. In the essay, he said that Mozart’s Don Giovanni was “a work of art, one without blemish, and one that has imbued harmony in uninterrupted perfection.” Such were the comments from even the harshest of critics in the opera circles at that time. They concurred that Mozart had clearly stepped up opera, especially comic opera, to a higher crescendo.

The Prague audience and critics rapturously received the opera as well, as had become custom with any of Mozart’s work in Prague. Though most performers then and now regard it as extremely difficult to perform, Mozart himself conducted that premiere performance. By the second act, he was being ‘joyously and jubilantly celebrated for a splendid work’.

Again, Mozart supervised and conducted some performances himself during the Vienna premiere of Don Giovanni, on 7th May 1788. During this performance, changes were initiated into the Prague Libretto and score sheets beginning with Mozart himself, when he wrote some two new arias for the opera and their corresponding recitatives. The scripts have changed in different performances, especially the finale scene. Besides that, the staying popularity of Mozart’s Don Giovanni has consequently meant that the opera has been extensively borrowed into and from when compared to the original scores.

Another instance of variation initiated by Mozart himself during the revisions was the final ensemble. This ensemble was omitted in most performances during the mid-20th century. It actually wasn’t in the 1788’s Viennese libretto. Mozart also recomposed a shorter version of Don Giovanni’s operatic score in the Vienna performance. Nonetheless, this final ensemble reappeared in later performances and is invariably performed today.

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Of great note, and which has been the most famous part of Don Giovanni, is the operas finale. In this finale, Don Giovanni utterly refuses to repent. That alone has a very captivating philosophical meaning and is a source of artistic discussions the world over even today. Many prominent writers such as George Bernard Shaw reused the finale to hammer home his Man and Superman philosophy. He actually parodied Mozart’s Don Giovanni with an explicit mention of the finale scene where Mozart score pitted the Commendatore against Don Giovanni. Besides that, the opera became an immediate hit and today reigns as a basic staple of standard operatic repertoire. Indeed, it is placed seventh in the most performed and popular operas in America.