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Don Giovanni: Comedy & Tragedy

Josh Borths – February 25, 2016

Audiences in Prague loved Mozart in the 1780s. Across the city, tunes from The Marriage of Figaro were arranged as dances for the most glamorous balls, arias were sung on every street corner, and the opera was a constant topic of conversation.

So it was no shock that when Mozart left Prague after visiting the city in 1787, he had a commission for a new opera. He was instructed to reunite with his librettist from The Marriage of Figaro, Lorenzo Da Ponte, and create another sparkling comedy that would delight audiences all over Europe: Don Giovanni.

The legend of Don Juan was of particular interest to audiences in the late 1700s, and several operas and prominent plays had already used the story to create a mythology— usually played for laughs—surrounding the famed philanderer. Da Ponte compiled all of these sources and, with his own poetic genius, created the comic libretto. 

Mozart was more than up to the task to set Da Ponte’s words to music: As a boy, Mozart had traveled all over Europe with his father and absorbed every musical style, language, and genre that he could. Mozart demonstrated his mastery of comic, Italian opera—called opera buffa—in his operatic output, starting with his first comic opera, written at the age of 12, on through to The Marriage of Figaro, written in 1786. This knack for comedy was also a reflection of Mozart’s own personality. Famously immature, Mozart loved games, puns, fun, and toilet humor. When combined with his German understanding of symphonic structure, no classical composer could hope to match Mozart’s comic operas. 

This silly, fun-loving side to Mozart can be heard throughout Don Giovanni: Leporello’s buffa aria outside the house of the Commendatore; Zerlina’s playful manipulation in her arias; Don Giovanni and Leporello’s antics in Act Two, wherein they swap identities to deceive the other characters. 

Yet there is another musical force at work in Don Giovanni: It is dark, foreboding and vengeful. We hear it in the overture’s opening chords; we see it in Don Ottavio and Donna Anna’s duet of revenge, and we experience it in the opera’s shocking conclusion. How is it possible for this profoundly dramatic world to coexist with the buffa also present in the opera? 

The year 1787 was a difficult one for Mozart. His father, Leopold Mozart, passed away after their relationship became increasingly frayed and tempestuous. Much was left unresolved between the two of them, but very little was left unsaid – their letters back and forth make that very clear. Leopold, who was admittedly tyrannical and controlling, had devoted his life to the cultivation and promotion of his son’s genius. Leopold felt that his son had thrown that all away. While we may never know for certain, this dark chapter of Mozart’s life surely found its way into his musical world. After all, Mozart lived for his music. 

The conflict between Da Ponte’s comedic libretto and the personal life of Mozart, however, is where the brilliance of Don Giovanni resides. While this mixture of comedy and tragedy is inherent in almost all of Mozart’s mature operas, it is most pronounced in this great opera. Through this musical and dramatic tension, the opera asks if there is a difference between comedy and tragedy. Are they one-in-the-same? Isn’t everything funny and ridiculous if you look at it without a moral compass? Isn’t the opposite true as well? Isn’t something only able to be tragic if you have a moral compass to live by? 

These profound questions don’t just exist in the text; these moral issues are found in the music itself. It is the musical debate present in the score that makes Don Giovanni not just a product of its time, but also a work for all time. It is this confluence of influences, experiences, styles, contexts, and ideas that make this opera a delight and a burden, lowbrow and highbrow, comedic and tragic.

Written by Joshua Borths
Director of Education and Don Giovanni Assistant Director