“Viva la libertà!” sings Don Giovanni as his guests arrive for a festive evening, and because the opera was composed in 1787, during the Age of Enlightenment and on the eve of the French Revolution, it is not unreasonable to ask what kind of liberty he has in mind. Is it the sort of political liberty that was set forth in the US Constitution, also written in 1787, or the social emancipation of peasants from feudal aristocratic oppression that was much discussed in Mozart’s Vienna in the 1780s? Don Giovanni has no hesitations about taking advantage of his own aristocratic privilege and power, but he also sponsors celebrations that democratically include the local peasantry—tutti quanti, anyone and everyone, he sings—especially young women he hopes to seduce. Nobles and peasants, masters and servants, meet in the gorgeous musical ensembles of the opera and forge unexpected harmonies and alliances. Don Giovanni welcomes into his palace the three masked visitors who are his enemies, and they graciously echo his toast in its six-note syncopated march rhythm—ra-tata-ta-ta-ta—and even harmonize with him, though their vision of liberty must be very different from his. One aspect of his operatic power is his ability to seduce others into singing his tune.
Don Giovanni is certainly a revolutionary figure, conceived in a revolutionary decade, and beyond the political and social dimensions of liberty he embodies an erotic dream of freedom from all restraint, from all convention, from all religion and morality. He is the operatic model of an eighteenth-century libertine, freely pursuing his own sexual pleasure whether by seduction or by force, seemingly dedicating his entire life to the serial pursuit of one woman after another—as enumerated in his servant Leporello’s showstopping “catalog aria” of sexual conquests.
The man who actually lived this life was not Mozart, a devoted husband to his wife, Constanze, but may have been his Venetian librettist, the ex-priest Lorenzo Da Ponte, who had been banished from the city for his sexual escapades (while he was still a priest).* Above all, however, it was the Venetian Giacomo Casanova who defined the erotic career of an eighteenth-century libertine, recording his conquests not in an abbreviated catalog but in twelve volumes of detailed and uninhibited memoirs. It is possible that Casanova was in Prague in October 1787 when Don Giovanni had its premiere there, and he could have discussed the opera with Mozart and Da Ponte as they applied the finishing touches to a masterpiece that he might have taken as a portrait of himself.
Don Giovanni has been a fundamental part of the operatic repertory since 1787, but it has always been morally disturbing, even though Don Giovanni is dragged down to hell at the end. Certainly it is a disturbing opera today at a time of profound concern about sexual harassment and violence. The Metropolitan Opera’s new production opened on May 5, four days before a jury found that Donald Trump had sexually abused the journalist E. Jean Carroll. It was conducted—for the first time at the Met—by a woman, Nathalie Stutzmann, who set the tempo for Don Giovanni to follow.
A fascinating new book by the musicologist Richard Will, “Don Giovanni” Captured, reviews and analyzes the history of recordings of the opera, dating back to the age of early phonograph records at the beginning of the twentieth century. While the Met’s production, with the mesmerizing six-foot-four Swedish baritone Peter Mattei in the title role, reminds us of the charismatic power that Don Giovanni can still exercise from the stage, Will’s book conjures the long history of that power as exercised in private domestic spaces through records, CDs, and videos. It further suggests that one kind of liberty with regard to Don Giovanni is an astonishing liberty of interpretation across the decades of recording, which has allowed for this work and character to be treated with the greatest variety of tempos, dynamics, rhythms, and ornamentations. Don Giovanni “captured” (in recordings) turns out to be a more elusive, amorphous figure than perhaps we imagined.
Will’s study, at the intersection of musicology, sound studies, and the history of technology, begins with the 78 rpm records of the early twentieth century, which could play for three to four and a half minutes and thus could contain at most one aria on each side; he proceeds to the advent after World War II of the 33 1/3 rpm LP, which could play for twenty-two minutes per side and made it easier to record complete operas—eventually with stereo sound—and finally to the new clarity of digital technology on even longer-playing CDs. The final section of the book turns to video recordings, which permit the home listener to appreciate not just the composer, conductor, and singers but also the directorial and theatrical experience.
Edison invented the cylinder phonograph in 1877, but the operatic recording industry was launched in 1902 with Enrico Caruso, who went on to sell a million copies of “Vesti la giubba” from Pagliacci in that decade. The early world of Don Giovanni excerpts on 78s offered profiles of individual singers and characters from the opera. The technology, however, could not convey Mozart’s innovative operatic genius: the construction of long ensembles with multiple parts, such as the palace celebration finale of act 1, in which the conspirators confront Don Giovanni, and the fatal finale of act 2, in which the statue of the murdered Commendatore comes to dinner, bringing judgment and damnation.
Recording a complete Don Giovanni on 78s was inevitably very rare, and the 1936 Glyndebourne performance, conducted by Fritz Busch, required twenty-three discs. Thus Don Giovanni, whose vocal identity is so often merged into the ensemble with his companions and victims, was known best to the early listeners of recorded music as the singer of the second-act nocturnal serenade (Deh, vieni alla finestra), the so-called champagne aria (Fin ch’han dal vino), and the duettino with Zerlina (Là ci darem la mano). That was as much of his tremendous musical personality as could fit onto a 78. Reviewing 370 early Don Giovanni recordings, Will constructs a pie chart to demonstrate that the serenade constituted almost a quarter of recorded Don Giovanni excerpts, followed by the duettino and Leporello’s catalog aria, which formed almost another quarter, then by Don Ottavio’s two arias, Zerlina’s two arias, and the champagne aria. Donna Anna’s and Donna Elvira’s arias received only the tiniest slice of the pie.
In a fascinating chapter, “Rhetorics of Seduction,” Will notes that in the serenade, as in the duettino, we both witness and experience Don Giovanni’s seductive vocal talent. While the duettino demonstrates his skill in winning over Zerlina, in the recorded serenade, taken out of its context in the opera, his voice is simply seducing the listeners.
In 1904 the French baritone Victor Maurel (Verdi’s first Iago and first Falstaff) recorded Don Giovanni’s serenade. Will notes the way that Maurel slows the tempo within individual phrases for emphasis and expression, adding ornamental notes and portamento—sliding between pitches—in accordance with the vocal practice of his nineteenth-century career. The Italian baritone Mattia Battistini recorded the serenade at around the same time, in an erotically mannered style that we would probably call crooning, and with an unwritten high note at the end sung almost falsetto; his version of the serenade was supposedly described as an “offense against public morals.” Many of these recordings can now be found on YouTube, and I found it illuminating to listen to them while reading the book and reflecting on the Met’s new production.
Antonio Scotti—almost twenty years younger than Maurel and ten years younger than Battistini—recorded the serenade during the same decade (with an aria from Falstaff on the flip side of the disc) and gave a much more evenly measured performance, elegant rather than excessively expressive. Maurel was still singing Don Giovanni in New York in the 1890s, but Scotti took over the role at the Met in 1899, and sang it later under the baton of Gustav Mahler. Will argues that by the time Ezio Pinza, the great Don Giovanni of the 1930s, recorded the serenade, it was the steady forcefulness of the voice, maintaining a regular beat, that made basso masculinity into a seductive force in its own right without expressive tricks or quirks. Will further suggests that this might be understood in relation to a new Hemingway-style modernist masculinity.
When I watch YouTube clips from the 1950s and 1960s of two of the greatest singers in the role, the Italian basso Cesare Siepi and the German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, it is clear that they conceived of the character very differently, correlating it perhaps with their respective roles in The Marriage of Figaro. Siepi, who always sang Figaro, made Don Giovanni into a charming rascal in tights, full of humorous schemes to outsmart the others. Fischer-Dieskau, who always sang Count Almaviva, made Don Giovanni into an arrogant nobleman with a short temper who fully intended to take advantage of his personal power and social privilege.
In the Flemish director Ivo van Hove’s modern-dress production at the Met (which premiered at the Paris Opera in 2019), Mattei portrayed a seducer who is also perhaps a sociopath, elegantly turned out in his public persona but perfectly capable of rape and murder. His jumpiness in the final banquet scene suggested a man who had stopped taking his medications.
Mattei first sang Don Giovanni at the Met in 2003, when he was in his thirties, seducing the young Anna Netrebko as Zerlina in a beautifully costumed and traditionally staged production by Franco Zeffirelli. Twenty years later, under the direction of Van Hove and seducing Ying Fang as Zerlina, he appeared lecherously suave as he began the duettino in honeyed tones, which made the characterization all the creepier when his hands began to stroke her body as they traded vocal lines. If Mattei was hypnotically seductive, Fang was not at all the innocent peasant soubrette and offered richly sensual coloring in her voice. “Vorrei e non vorrei,” sings Zerlina in her ambivalent response to Don Giovanni’s invitation: I would like to and I would not like to. When the coda arrives, the time shifts from 2/4 to 6/8, the voices begin to harmonize (Andiam, andiam, mio bene), and Mattei and Fang were undressing each other on stage.
The duettino was short enough to fit on a 78, and a recording from 1908 pairs the elegant Scotti with Geraldine Farrar, whom Will notes was already a modern Zerlina, frankly sensual and unintimidated, not just responding to the Don but matching him phrase for phrase. Farrar sang the role in Salzburg in 1906, for the Mozart sesquicentennial, with Mahler present, and there was some debate about whether the 6/8 coda really required an acceleration of tempo—which was not marked in Mozart’s autograph score. Over the course of the next generation the tempo of the coda, Will observes, increased less and less. By 1954 Siepi and Erna Berger barely speeded up at all, and the duet finished more as a romantic idyll than a rushed surrender. Mattei and Fang, under Stutzmann’s baton, concluded with a similarly unrushed sense of entranced absorption.
The dilemma of “vorrei e non vorrei” was self-evident and comfortably comical for Da Ponte and Mozart in 1787, but it has been dramatically troubling from the nineteenth century to the present, as it creates ambiguity around the question of sexual consent in an opera that also involves sexual assault. More generally troubling is the perverse blend of comedy and drama, of opera buffa and opera seria (the crucial eighteenth-century genres), with a character like Leporello clearly intended as comical even as he brutally recites the catalog of Don Giovanni’s conquests to Donna Elvira, one of his humiliated victims.
By contrast the characters of Donna Anna and Don Ottavio seem to move in a separate sphere, the world of opera seria, as noble people pursuing noble emotions: Donna Anna seeks revenge on Don Giovanni for attempting to rape her and then murdering her father the Commendatore, while Don Ottavio seeks to assist her in the hope that she will eventually find the peace of mind to marry him. Yet directors and critics have long wondered whether she might actually prefer the outrageous Don Giovanni to the overly devoted Don Ottavio, whose proposals of marriage she continually defers. The role of Donna Anna, sometimes performed at the Met as a model of Mozartean purity (for instance by Renée Fleming), was taken in the new production by the Italian soprano Federica Lombardi, singing with a fierce beauty, sensual vibrato, and passionate coloring. Her interpretation of the role recalled her performance of the obsessively infatuated, enraged, and vindictive Princess Electra in Mozart’s Idomeneo at the Met earlier in the season.
Don Ottavio often appears as the tenor foil to Don Giovanni’s aggressive baritone swagger: the celebrated Mozart scholar Edward Dent described Don Ottavio following Donna Anna around “like a little dog.” The American tenor Ben Bliss at the Met was unusually commanding in the role, not just sweet of tone, not just agile in ornamentation, but firmly assertive as he moved from the first to the second verse of “Il mio tesoro intanto”; he even rolled up his sleeves before launching into the aria. Certainly Bliss was no “little dog”—though the opera still belonged to his nemesis Mattei.
Donna Elvira has been seduced and abandoned by Don Giovanni before the opera begins, and she joins with Donna Anna and Don Ottavio to take down the libertine, thus participating in their opera seria world. Yet there is every reason to think that Mozart and Da Ponte regarded her as a comic character, ready to fall in love with Don Giovanni all over again at the slightest suggestion of his possible interest, and at the Met Ana María Martínez conveyed this aspect of Elvira’s infatuation.
At the opening of act 2 there is a disturbingly beautiful nocturnal trio, “Ah taci, ingiusto core,” in which Elvira on her balcony is courted deceptively by both Don Giovanni and Leporello, who raise her hopes while luring her down, merely as a distraction so that Don Giovanni can serenade and seduce her maid. In the meantime, however, the trio, marked andantino, in A major and gently rippling 6/8 time, creates something of real gorgeousness out of the malicious farce. Don Giovanni shifts into C major to rehearse the serenade (which he will sing to the maid in the next scene), and then, returning to A major, and accompanied by a wind ensemble of flute, clarinet, and bassoon, Don Giovanni and Leporello harmonize with Elvira so marvelously that the audience almost believes in the romance—as Elvira certainly does. This is already the unsettling world of Così fan tutte, Mozart and Da Ponte’s next masterpiece, in which the composer’s loveliest music is deployed in a scenario of cruel deception throughout the opera, as if to suggest that all our fantasies of romance are doomed to disillusionment but cherishable nevertheless.
Mozart seemed to think about sex in the spirit of opera buffa, judging from his erotically silly correspondence with his cousin in 1778 (“dreck, schmeck und leck!”), his canon composition “Leck mich im Arsch” (Lick My Ass) in 1782, and above all his letter to his wife about his own penis, written while he was traveling in 1789, two years after Don Giovanni:
Tidy up your lovely little nest for me as my little knave [Bübderl] certainly deserves it, he’s been behaving himself and wants only to possess your most beautiful…Just imagine the rascal [Spitzbub]: even while I’m writing, he’s creeping up on to the table and looking at me questioningly, but I won’t stand for this and give a quick slap—but the lad is simply…The rogue [Schlingel] is now even more on fire and I can hardly restrain him any longer.
Mozart’s penis in this letter would perhaps seem closer in spirit to the rascally Cherubino in Figaro than the dangerous Don Giovanni, though one might well wonder whether for Mozart and Da Ponte, Don Giovanni is some version of Cherubino all grown up. Don Giovanni, an opera that is almost entirely set at night, is certainly a dark comedy, if it is a comedy at all, and Will’s study of its exceptionally varied recording history suggests all the different shades of light and darkness that constitute the moral chiaroscuro of this elusive work.
Van Hove staged the opera on a dark set that resembled a De Chirico modernist cityscape, with arches, arcades, balconies, and windows opening into mysteriously opaque interiors. It worked best for the dark outdoors and less well when reconfigured to create the grandly sinister interior of Don Giovanni’s palace. At the end Van Hove was unwilling to conjure the frightening singing statue of the Commendatore and just sent out the booming Ukrainian basso Alexander Tsymbalyuk in his bloody nightshirt to confront the frenzied and defiant Mattei.
The director did produce an apocalyptic projection of the flames of hell as Don Giovanni was damned, and in a lovely concluding stage picture the shadowy De Chirico city suddenly became a bright place of new and normal life, with window boxes of flowers and hanging laundry, as the survivors sang triumphantly, and perhaps a little smugly, “Questo è il fin di chi fa mal” (Such is the end of whoever does evil). This happy ending with its simple moral has sometimes invited more perverse stagings: in 2015 at the Vienna Volksoper, Achim Freyer had the surviving characters cannibalize the dead body of Don Giovanni, as if to ingest rather than repress his libertine vitality.
This is an opera about all kinds of ambivalence—“vorrei e non vorrei”—and perhaps provokes in the audience some corresponding ambivalence about the opera itself, even as we are seduced by the astonishing richness of Mozart’s musical genius. Though Don Giovanni is condemned to death and damnation at the end of every performance, he returns to the stage (as well as the recording industry) decade after decade. He hasn’t finished with us yet.
Da Ponte wrote vividly about his long life (he died in New York in 1838), including his collaboration with Mozart, in his Memoirs, translated by Elisabeth Abbott (1823; New York Review Books, 2000). ↩