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Mozart's Don Giovanni

By Gabriela Ramírez-Carr

April 2010

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Don Giovanni Opera by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte,
Virginia Opera at George Mason University
Conductor: Joseph Walsh
February 2010

The Virginia Opera Company at George Mason University in Northern Virginia recruited very high caliber vocal talent for their February 2010 production of “Don Giovanni,” which, together with the power of Mozart’s genius, succeeded in packing the house for each performance. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s opera, “Don Giovanni,” his second major collaboration with librettist Lorenzo da Ponte, exposed the European (Venetian) oligarchical system and its degraded concept of man, in this highly political musical masterpiece. For a successful rendering of this work, the performance requires at least two elements: first, excellent musicians--singers, orchestra, and conductor, who can render the beautiful musical ironies and jokes; and second, a director with a concept of the thinking and actual intention of the composer.

On the first count, the singing was excellent. The most memorable singer was Daniel Mobbs (bass-baritone) as the servant Leporello, who, although he did all the dirty work for his evil master, was loved by the audience for his great voice and insightful buffo acting. With each appearance on stage, Leporello commanded one's attention, and was especially enjoyable in his devilishly beautiful “catalogue” aria in Act I. The young baritone, Matthew Worth, played a very convincing role as the pathological Don Giovanni. What he lacked in years, he more than compensated for with his deep, rich voice, and his ability to make his character come alive. Soprano Cristina Nassif (Donna Elvira) used the full compass of her voice and her convincing dramatic skills to make a great foil for Don Giovanni. The lighter soprano voice of Nicolle Foland as Donna Anna contrasted well to that of Nassif in the trio of the finale of Act I. Her light voice was still able to convey great urgency with her demands for justice (and plenty of revenge) in the murder of her father in the opening act. Chad Johnson, a light tenor, performed his role of Don Ottavio with great energy, and worked well with Donna Anna. Soprano Sarah Jane McMahon as a coquettish Zerlina, and Virginia native, baritone David Krohn, as Masetto, complement each other in character and voice as the peasant couple, tested on their wedding day by the arrogant Giovanni.

Nathan Stark, bass, passionately sang the role of the Commendatore, with his deep bass voice delivering great gravitas, especially when he was resurrected at the end of the opera. He provided a voice of reason in the opera, proving that natural law cannot be violated, even when the perpetrator has great power and influence. It was disappointing only that his part was so small.

Anne M. Peterson for the Virginia Opera.

From left to right are Daniel Mobbs as Leporello, Matthew Worth as Don Giovanni, Nicolle Foland as Donna Anna, and Cristina Nassif as Donna Elvira.

But on the second count, a mastery of the poetic and historical idea governing the composition was lacking, and without a comprehension of Mozart’s and Da Ponte’s own conception, the opera was weakened. Stage director, Lillian Groag, wanted to engage the audience, as exemplified in the clever directing of the aria “Deh vieni alla finestra” by Don Giovanni in Act II. Here Don Giovanni comes to the edge of the stage, as the lights were directed out into the audience, so Giovanni serenaded not just the girl in the window, but also the women in the audience. But the real subject is not just about sex and personal morality; the threat that Don Giovanni represents is not that he is a simply a “hormone-driven party animal” as described by Stephen Willier in the program booklet's “Historical Background.” Ms. Groag starts and ends the production with a young woman in the rear of the stage, behind a sheer curtain, beginning to untie her corset, when a mysterious Don Giovanni type man comes and envelops her with his large cape.

While it is clear that Mozart and his librettist, Da Ponte, address the issues of sex, lust, and revenge, the simplest reading of this libretto reveals a deeper political battle, and not a mere lecture on personal conduct. At the end of the opera Giovanni is swallowed by the flames of Hell, but in the Groag production another monster will soon take his place and Giovanni's spirit will continue to thrive.

Mozart & Da Ponte's Political Fight

For Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791), “a night at the opera” was not an excuse to escape from the problems of the world, but rather a great opportunity to intervene into that troubled world. In 1782 Mozart helped to stop the war drive (at least temporarily) against Turkey by a cabal inside the Court of Austria with his opera, “The Abduction from the Seraglio.” “The Marriage of Figaro” was Mozart's 1786 work to reinforce the reforms of the Emperor Joseph II (1741-1790) who worked to modernize society; abolishing serfdom, promoting public education, public health, economic progress, and scientific development, but was being increasingly surrounded by reactionary forces who wanted to turn back the clock. Even Mozart's 1791 opera, “The Magic Flute,” where truth and beauty overlap the magical, was designed to challenge agents who were subverting the faltering republican movement of the day. Perhaps the most strategically important opera of all was Mozart's “Don Giovanni.”

As historian and author David Shavin has documented, there was in Europe a movement to bring the ideals of the American revolution onto European soil. The Emperor Joseph II clearly showed sympathies to this new outlook, and it is for this reason that Joseph II was targeted for destruction (or at least to be neutralized with some form of corruption). Sebastiano Foscarini, the Venetian Ambassador to Vienna , brought in the Venetian spy, Giacomo Casanova (1725-1798) to subvert and change the pro-American outlook of Joseph II. Casanova was able to convince the German speaking Joseph to give French lessons to two young women from Casanova's entourage. Mozart's librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte (1749-1838) understood the danger of Casanova's efforts to gain control over the emperor, and approached Mozart with an idea for the opera “Don Giovanni.” While it is clear that Da Ponte used many elements from the Spanish legend of the mythical Don Juan, to reduce this opera to a fairy tale, or a “morality play” would be an insult to both Mozart and Da Ponte.

Mozart used his operas to take direct aim at Europe 's aristocracy, and his treatment became increasingly harsh. In the Abduction of the Seraglio (1782), the (barbarian) Pasha is wise and fair. The character of Count Almaviva in Mozart’s 1786 “Marriage of Figaro” is shown to have a potential good soul, but constantly needs vigilance from all around him to keep him on the straight and narrow path. Don Giovanni, the main oligarchic character in this 1787 masterpiece, is a degenerate murderer, who has lost his humanity. Any competent production must transmit at least a flavor of Mozart's political intention.

The Ballroom Scene

In Act I, Scene V Mozart’s genius elaborates a musical and political polemic. In this “ballroom scene,” three orchestras play three different styles of music, to three different classes of people—all at the same time. The first orchestra starts a minuet for the nobility, the second orchestra plays a country dance for the peasants, and the third a waltz for the growing middle class. There is much social awkwardness, and each class of people has no idea how to dance to the music of the other classes. This can be very difficult to stage but musically, Mozart is able to pull off a “Dissonant Quartet” style maneuver, breaking all the rules of music, not merely bringing harmony out of what would appear to be chaos, but actually showing a higher beauty.

Using this scene, Mozart attacked the class system of social apartheid, and personally designed the opening night performance to have maximum impact on the Emperor. Unfortunately, Casanova's Venetian circle acted quickly to sabotage Mozart's efforts by having Joseph II called out of town on the very day of the premier. Today, a musically literate population will enjoy the beauty of the above example, and an uninformed audience will get the clear message about the nature and battle against the oligarchy, if the presentation is truthful, artistic, and presented with the passion with which it is written.

The Last Act?

As the financial collapse and economic breakdown accelerate, often the arts are first on the list to be cut from municipal and state budgets. A Virginia Opera Company representative prefaced the performance with an urgent request that each audience member contact their State Representative to prevent the elimination of the Virginia Arts Commission, since the legislature plans to eliminate all funding for the arts. This may be a noble effort, but will fail if not accompanied by a dramatic shift in the thinking of the population- as people respond to the idea of being real “citizens”, as Mozart insisted they do in his time. Classical culture and especially classical music is essential in this process of developing our society, and beautiful singing is not enough. The profound ideas and ironies in Don Giovanni, (and in other great classical operas) must be faithful to the composer, and made accessible to the general public.

Related pages:

Schiller Institute Art, Music and Book Reviews

Mozart's 1782-1786 Revolution in Music. Fidelio (1992)

Mozart and The American Revolutionary Upsurge. Fidelio (1992)

Lorenzo Da Ponte, Mozart's Librettist and Friend of the American Revolution

Mozart's 'Ave Verum'. Fidelio (1996)

Mozart's 250th Birthday

A Surprise in Dresden -- Review of Mozart's Clemenza di Tito

Beauty and Pathos Of Mozart Undermined By Director's Conceit

Bach, Mozart, and the Musical Midwife

Schiller Institute Listing of Online Music Articles