Libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte
Il dissoluto punito, ossia il Don Giovanni is the most talented opera in a trilogy by Mozart set to libretti by Lorenzo Da Ponte. The history of its creation is surrounded by rumours and legends: it is said that the composition of the text was not achieved without the assistance of Casanova himself, that the overture was written on the night before the premiere and, according to one bon vivant tale in Da Ponte’s memoirs, composing the libretto was accompanied by either Tokaji or Marcimino wine – it is this wine that Don Giovanni asks to be served in the final scene. After eight months of such work the opera was presented at the Ständetheater (Estates Theatre) in Prague in October 1787, and since then it has never left the stage. Audiences are attracted not just by the witty story contained within, or the surprisingly lively music by Mozart and its brilliancy of inventiveness but also by the hero himself, with his powerful and dark charisma.
Don Giovanni, a Spanish grandee, is a passer-by, a glutton and a libertine who has no principles other than the ones he has declared for himself. He is a great deal cleverer and more cunning than his entourage and, in some sense, plays at being God, but – either by crossing a certain line or by some coincidence – he falls under the power of forces that are beyond his control. These have no obviously explicit effect on him, though from the moment of the murder of the Commendatore, Donna Anna’s father, which takes place at the very start of the opera, success eludes the hero. It wears away imperceptibly, like the fragrance of a perfume; of its former extent we are to learn from the aria of his manservant Leporello, which details a list of Don Giovanni’s conquests of beautiful women, “ladies of all classes, all types, and all ages” numbering a total of more than two thousand. In the wake of Donna Anna, not one of Don Giovanni’s seductions meets with success, though success does remain with him – its effect lies in the fact that the protagonist can easily extricate himself from any situation. Exchanging costumes with his servant, the masked ball, the deceit of an infuriated fiancé, flight from prosecutors – none of this leaves even the slightest trace of despair: quite the reverse, it is presented as the latest merry trick, and even when the statue of the Commendatore begins to speak in the graveyard where Don Giovanni and Leporello meet following their latest adventure this is not enough to make Don Giovanni downcast in spirit. He greets the unexpected arrival of the Commendatore for dinner insolently – and only at the final moment before death does he sense the fear and inevitability of punishment. The sextet which concludes the opera provides the necessary morality, in terms of artistic effect it cedes much to the scene with the Commendatore and even seems superfluous, but in the age of classicism it would have been unthinkable to leave an opera’s finale on such a menacing, almost funereal note.
Johannes Schaaf’s production is minimalist, executed in gloomy tones that create the background even in the lighter sections of the music, shading the influence of Fate. Large light spots, several textured items and elaborately worked costumes – all of this forms one of the best ways to free the opera of any lush historical trappings, creating together with the music a shared emotional backdrop of what is happening and focussing our attention on the characters’ interactions. Denis Velikzhanin