The 100th Entry: Don Giovanni

Well, I couldn’t have planned this any better. This is, quite unbelievably, my 100th entry in this blog. And what a subject to feature today.

On any given night, Don Giovanni can be the greatest opera ever written, at least in my opinion. It is hard for us, in the 21st century, to really appreciate what Mozart unleashed on his audience in 1786. This is really dark stuff—the story tells the tale of the Don, a serial rapist and murderer, who is dragged down to hell in the finale by the ghost of a man he had killed and whose daughter he had seduced. We’ve come a long way from operas about gods and Roman emperors.

Let’s start with the overture. Opening in that familiar Mozartian key of D Minor, the music turns, a third of the way in, to D Major as if to say, while some of this will be fun, don’t forget that this is really a tragedy. It’s gorgeous–Mozart at his zenith. And, yes, the legend is true: Mozart wrote the overture the night before the premiere in Prague. Must have stayed at the local Holiday Inn.

W.A. Mozart, Don Giovanni, Overture:

The Don, as we know, is a rake. His buddy Leporello has a famous aria in which his catalogues the Don’s hundreds of conquests. It’s fun and always good for a laugh when the audience knows Italian or pays attention to the subtitles. But since we have limited space, let’s go right to that great seduction scene where the Don sets his sights on Zerlina. This is their duet, “La ci darem la mano.” Yeah, I want to hold your hand indeed.

Here is the baritone Erwin Schrott, who fancies himself a bit of a Don Giovanni outside of the opera house, turning on the charm. It is as classic a Mozart duet as you will find.

W.A. Mozart, Don Giovanni, “La ci darem la mano”:

Mozart warned us from the opening notes that this opera will not end well.  Fate is coming for the Don, who gets it at the end when the Commendatore, who was murdered by the Don in Act I, returns as a statute and sends the Don to hell.  How much to I love that scene? My living room is dominated by this painting–you can just make out the Commendatore unde the arch, standing in the ruins of the Don’s castle. 

Alain Senez, Don Giovanni

Before Don Giovanni, opera had been beautiful and moving. What Mozart did here was totally new—complete with a deeper, more emotional score. I think it is fair to say that composers would not catch up to Mozart until Verdi and Wagner, 75 years later. Even Beethoven broke on the shoals of the mighty Don Giovanni, abandoning opera after one solitary (albeit glorious) attempt. And just because we are tracking this sort of thing—a lothario is seized by the ghost of the father of the woman he wronged and dragged down to hell? Let’s just put a pin in 1786 and say that this is where the first seed of the Romantic Period was planted.

Here is Mariusz Kwiecien, a singer I’ve followed closely since his Met debut, pleading for his life as the curtain comes down on his Don. Luca Pisaroni, who we heard earlier as Figaro, returns as Leporello. And, yes, I was there in the house when this was being recorded. The set leaves much to be desired, but boy was the singing great.

W.A. Mozart, Don Giovanni, The Commendatore Scene:

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