Mozart’s ‘Opera of All Operas’

The Don Juan Legend

by Otto Rank, translated and edited, with an introduction by David G. Winter
Princeton University Press, 144 pp., $8.50

Don Giovanni

edited by Wolfgang Plath, edited by Wolfgang Rehm
Neue Mozart-Ausgabe, series II: Stageworks, Bärenreiter, Volume 17, 525 pp., $97.50

Music and Death
Music and Death; drawing by David Levine

E. T. A. Hoffmann’s encomium for Don Giovanni attests to a pre-eminence that has never declined. But in spite of an impregnable reputation, the “opera of all operas” is imperfect in conception, a miscarriage as drama, defective in important features. Yet because the misshapen libretto has been endowed, even overendowed, with some of Mozart’s greatest music, the opera continues to occupy its unique position.

Some of the shortcomings are accounted for by the few known facts, such as Da Ponte’s simultaneous involvement with two other operas and the necessity of preparing a bowdlerized version of his Don Giovanni libretto for the censor. Beyond this, it might be deduced either that the composer was obliged to accept what his collaborator offered, for whatever reasons, or that the subject so appealed to Mozart that he overlooked the unevenness in the treatment of it. Scholarship has unearthed no hard evidence to substantiate theories that the Don Juan theme had a special attraction for Mozart, but, by the same token, there is no justification for assuming that it did not. The fact of Don Giovanni’s existence indicates something, however, and it is not impossible that Mozart could have had a Don Juan fantasy. After all, he was strongly attracted to women, both precociously and throughout his life, and was frequently rebuffed by them. Such speculations are automatically ridiculed, owing to a deification process that forbids attempts to separate the composer’s musical genius from his humanness, the sublimity of the one being equated with a saintliness in the other. The Mozart halo outshines that of any other artist.

Whatever the reasons why Da Ponte and Mozart chose the subject, they hoped that the new work would repeat the success of Le Nozze di Figaro. Edward Dent1 long ago drew some of the parallels between the two operas, though before him Kierkegaard had recognized correspondences between them, including that of Cherubino as Don Giovanni in embryo. Yet the differences between the operas are greater than the resemblances, and the inferiority of the later libretto soon becomes apparent. Don Giovanni’s is disjointed, marred by implausible incidents, peopled mainly with one-dimensional figures, and confused in its moral position. This last gives rise to most of the other difficulties: it is because of the absence of a philosophical basis for the character of Don Giovanni that the validity of his destiny is uncertain and the sequence of events is not well ordered.

The stylistic gallimaufry of opera buffa and opera seria is due to the same morally ambiguous viewpoint. Alfred Einstein, the leading Mozart scholar of his day, argued that the inclusion of seria elements within a buffa framework is not incompatible, but though this is true as a general principle, the mixture leads to incongruities in the case of Don Giovanni. Subtitled “Dramma giocoso” (“comedy”; surely not “gay drama,” as Einstein’s translators2 render it), Mozart…

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