Music and Innovation in Don Giovanni

Music and Innovation in Don Giovanni

Posted by Utah Opera in Don Giovanni, Online Learning, Productions 02 May 2017

From the first notes of the overture, Mozart indicates to his audience that things are not always going to proceed according to tradition with this work.  An opera overture typically was just a curtain-raiser, a way of announcing to the audience that the show was starting.  “Welcome to theater,” the overture proclaimed, “We know you’re in for a treat tonight!”  It might reflect the general mood of the drama that follows, as in the lighthearted overture to The Marriage of Figaro.  But the overture to Mozart’s earlier serious opera, Lucio Silla, for example, or Idomeneo, exhibit exactly the same kind of frothy exuberance as the Figaro overture, even though the narrative flavor of the plots of those other works is quite different.

The booming D-minor chord that opens the overture to Don Giovanni isn’t just a sign that this is a serious story—in fact, it’s not even that.  Serious operas had typically begun with upbeat overtures in the past that had little to do with the story that followed.  This overture is, rather, a musical reference taken directly from a scene near the end of Act II, when the statue of the Commendatore breaks into Don Giovanni’s dining room and gives him one last opportunity to mend his ways.  It is a foreshadowing of Don Giovanni’s own demise, even before the opera has started.  (By extension, it is also a foreshadowing of the Commendatore’s death, which will happen soon after the curtain rises.)

(Furtwangler conducts the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, 1954)

While it wasn’t unheard of for an opera composer in the 18th century to use music from the opera itself in the overture—Grétry had done it as early as 1773—it was definitely a change of tack for Mozart.  By using music from the opera, the overture is the dramatic exposition of a plot element that will come to full fruition three hours later at the opera’s climax.

But as that mysterious, threatening start to the overture reaches a dark cadence, it suddenly changes mode from major to minor, and proceeds with all the bubbliness of the Figaro overture.  Don Giovanni’s fate has already been sealed, however, and the overture has presented the opera’s entire narrative trajectory, only in reverse order.  The juxtaposition of the serious with the comic in the overture also mirrors the opera’s hybrid qualities.

In earlier operas, much of the scandalous action—the seductions, deaths, and criminal activities—happened off-stage, and was then reported via messengers.  It tended to be divided up into neat little scenes with recitatives and arias that defined the duration and importance of the events.  But once the curtain rises on Don Giovanni, the audience is thrust into a chaotic, breathless, quickly-developing scenario in which there is little opportunity for reflection.  Indeed, the opening two scenes of the opera seem to play out the story in real-time (a rare occurrence in 18th-century opera!)

Here, in the first twenty-five minutes:

  • Don Giovanni tries to seduce a woman (Donna Anna).
  • He is chased from her apartment…
  • … and kills her father (the Commendatore) in a duel.
  • She faints, and makes her fiancé (Don Ottavio) swear vengeance.
  • But Giovanni has escaped with his manservant (Leporello).
  • He immediately starts seducing another forlorn woman (Donna Elvia)…
  • … but then finds out that she is his ex-“wife.”
  • He manages to escape again.
  • Leporello is left to explain to Donna Elvira that she wasn’t Don Giovanni’s first sexual encounter, isn’t the last, and in fact all of his conquests (numbering in the thousands) are listed in a book, catalogued by nationality, age, hair color, size, shape, and whether they were virgins or not.

(0:05:47 to 0:33:09)

(Zurich production, 2001)

And all this happens right there on the opera stage without any real break in the musical flow.  It’s a breathless, frantic presentation of many important plot elements in one intense “fire-hose” rate of narrative flow.  But it is essential to Mozart’s conception of a man (and the social order that man represents) careening out of control.

In some respects, Don Giovanni is one of the final manifestations of the Sturm und Drang influence on music of the late 18th century.  As a literary style, Sturm und Drang (or “storm and stress”) focused on shock, dread, and surprise, and the violent expression of passion as a foil to the Enlightenment emphasis on reason and order.  This literary style peaked in the 1760s and early 1770s in works by Goethe and Schiller, for example, and almost simultaneously had an impact on music.

At a time when major-key music dominated in the classical style, a group of minor-key symphonies by Haydn (especially numbers 39, 44, 45, 49, and 52) emerged at the same time as Sturm und Drang literature.  And of his 41 symphonies, Mozart wrote only two in a minor key.  The first was his youthful Symphony No. 25 in G-minor, which dates from 1773—near the peak of the Sturm und Drang period.  The second is his Symphony No. 40, also in G-minor, from 1788, not many months after the initial run of Don Giovanni in Prague had concluded.  In fact, with its blend of violent passions and juxtapositions of farce and tragedy, Don Giovanni might usefully be considered as a classic Sturm und Drang opera that might have spawned a classic symphony the following year.  It’s perhaps not a coincidence, too, that the earliest musical work to be considered a Sturm und Drang composition is Gluck’s ballet on the same legendary figure, Don Juan, from 1761.  Gluck noted in his published score that at the conclusion of this ballet, the D-minor finale was meant to evoke fear in the audience, dovetailing neatly with the terrifying D-minor opening to Mozart’s opera on the same topic.

If Sturm und Drang was intended to remind readers, and audiences, that there are powerful forces beyond our control, then in Don Giovanni it does so both politically and morally.  Mozart had already questioned European class structure and political order in The Marriage of Figaro the previous year, but it was done gently, and disguised as a love story (as he promised the Emperor in the movie Amadeus).  Here the portrayal of the aristocracy—in the person of Don Giovanni—as immoral, licentious, and rapacious is not soft-pedalled at all.  The other aristocrats are ineffectual, or ridiculous, and unable to stop him.  Only the interpolation of supernatural elements—the talking statue of the Commendatore, and the chorus of hellish demons—are able to bring down Don Giovanni and restore order to society.

In this respect, the opera bears some similarities to Shakespeare’s Hamlet.  There are few sympathetic characters in the entire story, and those who appear to be completely blameless are mostly peripheral.  Paraphrasing Hamlet himself, Don Giovanni shows that there is something rotten in the state of Spain, and only a catastrophic intervention will change that.

Don Giovanni is not, however, a tragedy.  Nobody mourns his loss.  No sooner has he been drawn down into the fires of Hell after rejecting multiple invitations to mend his ways, than the remaining characters moralize to the audience, with joyful eagerness, about how much he deserves every lick of fiery punishment that’s coming his way.  It is an odd conclusion, one that Mozart was probably obliged to write as operas were still meant to deliver an ennobling moral message.  But he dropped this finale when the opera was produced in Vienna, and it was almost always cut during the 19th century (when such moralizing in opera was considered in bad taste, anyway).  It wasn’t until the 20th century that the final ensemble was usually restored to the opera. But whether the drama is more powerful if it ends with Don Giovanni’s precipitous fall, or the survivors’ (faintly hypocritical) chorus of glee, it clearly denoted the end of an era.

But what of the social and political implications of this conclusion?  At the end of feudal Europe, as depicted in both Figaro and Don Giovanni, the lower classes achieve the same level of happiness and fulfilment as the aristocracy, and without so much trouble, either, and with possibly a greater sense of freedom and self-determination.  The Count and Countess in Figaro endure much more pain, and loss of power, than do Figaro and Susanna.  In Don Giovanni, Don Ottavio and Donna Anna might find a life of love together again, but only after she’s been through a year of therapy.  Donna Elvira, completely humiliated and reduced to an even more pathetic figure than she was at the start, retreats from society to enter a convent.  But Leporello is confident he can find new employment.  And the real “happy couple” at the end of this “serious opera with jokes,” seems to be the peasant duo Masetto and Zerlina, who are perfectly content to put the whole thing behind them, go home, and have dinner.  Their pragmatic response—not the lingering angst of the aristocrats—is the most reasonable and enlightened reaction to the demise of the old world order.