The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard wrote a long essay in his book Enten – Eller (Either/Or) in which he argues, quoting Charles Gounod, that Mozart's Don Giovanni is “a work without blemish, of uninterrupted perfection.” The finale, in which Don Giovanni refuses to repent, has been a captivating philosophical and artistic topic for many writers including George Bernard Shaw, who in Man and Superman parodied the opera (with explicit mention of the Mozart score for the finale scene between the Commendatore and Don Giovanni).
As a staple of the standard operatic repertoire, it appears as number seven on Opera America's list of the 20 most-performed operas in North America.
Original playbill for the Vienna premiere of Don Giovanni
Da Ponte's claim in his Memoirs that the libretto was finished in June 1787 is untrustworthy. The score was completed on October 28 of the same year after Da Ponte was recalled to Vienna to work on another opera. Reports about the last-minute completion of the overture conflict; some say it was completed the day before the premiere, some on the very day. More likely it was completed the day before, in light of the fact that Mozart recorded the completion of the opera on 28 October. The score calls for double woodwinds, horns and trumpets, timpani, basso continuo for the recitatives, and the usual strings. The composer also specified occasional special musical effects. For the ballroom scene at the end of the first act, Mozart calls for no fewer than three onstage ensembles to play separate dance music in synchronization, each in their respective meter, accompanying the dancing of the principal characters. In Act II, Giovanni is seen to play the mandolin, accompanied by pizzicato strings. When the statue of the Commendatore speaks for the first time later in the act, Mozart adds three trombones to the accompaniment.
The opera was first performed on October 29 in Prague under its full title of Il Dissoluto Punito ossia il Don Giovanni Dramma giocoso in due atti. The work was rapturously received, as was often true of Mozart's work in Prague; see Mozart and Prague. The Prager Oberamtszeitung reported, "Connoisseurs and musicians say that Prague has never heard the like," and "the opera ... is extremely difficult to perform."Provincialnachrichten of Vienna reported, "Herr Mozart conducted in person and welcomed joyously and jubilantly by the numerous gathering."
Mozart also supervised the Vienna premiere of the work, which took place on May 7, 1788. For this production, he wrote two new arias with corresponding recitatives: Don Ottavio's aria Dalla sua pace (K.540a, composed on April 24 for the tenor Francesco Morella), Elvira's aria In quali eccessi ... Mi tradì quell'alma ingrata (K.540c, composed on April 30 for the soprano Caterina Cavalieri) and the duet between Leporello and Zerlina Per queste tue manine (K.540b, composed on April 28).
The opera's final ensemble was generally omitted until the mid-20th century, and does not appear in the Viennese libretto of 1788. Mozart also made a shortened version of the operatic score. Nonetheless, the final ensemble is almost invariably performed in full today.
Another modern approach occasionally encountered is to cut Don Ottavio's most celebrated aria, Il mio tesoro, in favour of the less demanding Dalla sua pace, which replaced it in the Viennese premiere in order to suit the tenor Francesco Morella. Most modern productions find a place for both tenor arias, however. In addition, the duet, Per queste tue manine, composed specifically for the Viennese premiere, is cut frequently from 21st century productions of the opera.
Don Giovanni, a young, arrogant, sexually prolific nobleman, abuses and outrages everyone else in the cast, until he encounters something he cannot kill, beat up, dodge, or outwit.
The garden of the Commendatore
Leporello, Don Giovanni's servant, is keeping watch outside Donna Anna's house. Don Giovanni has crept into the house in order to seduce Donna Anna. (Leporello aria: "Notte e giorno faticar – I work night and day"). Donna Anna appears, chasing Don Giovanni, who is masked. She wishes to know who he is and she cries for help. (Trio: "Non sperar, se non m'uccidi – I won't let you go, unless you kill me"). The Commendatore, Anna's father, appears and challenges Giovanni to a duel while Donna Anna flees for help. Giovanni stabs the Commendatore, kills him, and escapes unrecognized with Leporello. Anna, upon returning with her fiancé, Don Ottavio, is horrified to see her dead father lying in a pool of blood. Together, she and Don Ottavio swear vengeance against the unknown murderer. (Duet: "Ah, vendicar, se il puoi, giura quel sangue ognor! - Ah, swear to avenge this blood!").
A public square outside Don Giovanni's palace
Giovanni and Leporello arrive and hear a woman (Donna Elvira) speaking of having been recently spurned and calling for revenge (Elvira's aria: "Ah, chi mi dice mai – Ah, who could tell me"). Giovanni starts to flirt with her, but as she turns to look at him, he recognizes her as a recent conquest. At this, he shoves Leporello forward, ordering him to tell Elvira the truth, and then hurries away.
Leporello endeavours to console Elvira and unrolls a list of Don Giovanni's lovers. Comically, he rattles off their number and their country of origin: 640 in Italy, 231 in Germany, 100 in France, 91 in Turkey, and 1,003 in Spain. (Leporello aria: "Madamina, il catalogo è questo – My little lady, this is the catalogue"). In a frequently cut recitative, Elvira vows vengeance.
When she leaves, a marriage procession with Masetto and Zerlina enters. Don Giovanni and Leporello arrive soon after. Giovanni is immediately attracted to Zerlina, and he attempts to remove the jealous Masetto by offering to host a wedding celebration at his castle. On realizing that Giovanni means to remain behind with Zerlina, Masetto becomes angry (Masetto aria: "Ho capito! Signor, sì – I understand! Yes, my lord!"). Don Giovanni and Zerlina are soon alone and he immediately begins his seductive arts. (Duet: "Là ci darem la mano – There we will entwine our hands").
Elvira arrives and thwarts the seduction (Elvira's aria: "Ah, fuggi il traditor – Flee from the traitor!"). Ottavio and Anna enter, plotting vengeance on the still unknown murderer of Anna's father. Anna, unaware that she is speaking to her attacker, pleads for Giovanni's help. Giovanni, relieved that he is unrecognised, readily promises it, and asks who has disturbed her peace. Before she can answer, Elvira returns and tells Anna and Ottavio that Giovanni is a false-hearted seducer. Giovanni tries to convince Ottavio and Anna that Elvira is insane. (Quartet: "Non ti fidar, o misera – Don't trust him, oh sad one"). As Giovanni leaves, Anna suddenly recognizes him as her father's murderer. (Anna aria: "Or sai chi l'onore – He is the one who tried to rob me of my honour"). Ottavio, not convinced, resolves to keep an eye on his friend. (Ottavio aria: "Dalla sua pace – On her peace.")
Leporello informs Giovanni that all the guests of the peasant wedding are in Giovanni's house, that he distracted Masetto from his jealousy, but that Zerlina, returning with Elvira, had spoiled everything. However, Don Giovanni remains cheerful and tells Leporello to organize a party. (Giovanni's "Champagne Aria": "Fin ch'han dal vino – Finally, with the wine."). He hurries off to his palace.
Zerlina follows the jealous Masetto and tries to pacify him. (Zerlina's aria: "Batti, batti o bel Masetto – Beat me, oh lovely Masetto"), but just as she manages to persuade him of her innocence, Don Giovanni's voice from offstage startles her, making her want to flee. Masetto's trust evaporating in an instant, the jealous groom hides, resolving to see for himself what Zerlina will do when Giovanni arrives. Zerlina tries to hide from Don Giovanni, but he finds her and attempts to continue the seduction, until he stumbles upon Masetto's hiding place. Confused but quickly recovering, Giovanni reproaches Masetto for leaving Zerlina alone, and returns her temporarily to him. Giovanni then leads both to his ballroom, which has been lavishly decorated. Leporello invites three masked guests to the party (the disguised Elvira, Ottavio, and Anna) who plan to catch Giovanni red-handed, if possible.
As the merriment, featuring three separate chamber orchestras on stage, proceeds, Leporello distracts Masetto by dancing with him, while Don Giovanni leads Zerlina offstage to a private room. When Zerlina screams for help, Don Giovanni tries to fool the onlookers by dragging his servant into the room with drawn sword and accusing him of seducing Zerlina. Elvira, Ottavio and Anna unmask, claiming that they know all. The guests side with them and attack Don Giovanni, but he fights his way through the crowd and escapes.
Outside Elvira's house
Leporello threatens to leave Giovanni, but his master calms him with a peace offering of money. (Duet: "Eh via buffone – Come on, buffoon"). Wanting to seduce Elvira's maid, Giovanni persuades Leporello to exchange cloak and hat with him. Elvira comes to her window. (Trio: "Ah taci, ingiusto core – Ah, be quiet unjust heart"). Seeing an opportunity for a game, Giovanni hides and sends Leporello out in the open dressed as Giovanni. From his hiding place Giovanni sings a promise of repentance, expressing a desire to return to her, while Leporello poses as Giovanni and tries to keep from laughing. Elvira is convinced and descends to the street. She thinks that Leporello (who is wearing his master's clothes) is actually Giovanni. Leporello leads her away to keep her occupied while Giovanni attempts to seduce her maid. (Giovanni aria: "Deh vieni alla finestra – Come to the window").
Before Giovanni can complete his seduction of the maid, Masetto and his friends arrive, searching for Giovanni and intending to kill him. Giovanni (dressed as Leporello) convinces the posse that he also hates Giovanni, and joins the hunt. After cunningly dispersing Masetto's friends (Giovanni aria: "Metà di voi qua vadano – Half of you go this way"), Giovanni takes Masetto's weapons away, beats him up very badly, and runs off, laughing. Zerlina arrives and consoles the bruised and battered Masetto. (Zerlina aria: "Vedrai carino – Come dear one").
A dark courtyard
Leporello abandons Elvira. (Sextet: "Sola, sola in buio loco – Alone in this dark place"). As he tries to escape, Ottavio arrives with Anna, consoling her in her grief. Just as Leporello is about to slip through the door, which he has difficulty finding, Zerlina and Masetto open it and, seeing him dressed as Giovanni, catch him before he can escape. When Anna and Ottavio notice what is going on all move to surround Leporello, threatening him with death. Elvira tries to protect the man whom she thinks is Giovanni, claiming that he is her husband and begging for pity. The other four are resolved to punish the traitor, but Leporello removes his cloak to reveal his true identity. He begs everyone's forgiveness and, seeing an opportunity, runs off (Leporello aria: "Ah pietà signori miei – Ah, have mercy, my lords"). Given the circumstances, Ottavio is convinced that Giovanni was the murderer of Donna Anna's father (The deceased Commendatore) and swears vengeance (Ottavio aria: "Il mio tesoro – My treasure"). Elvira is still furious at Giovanni for betraying her, but she also feels sorry for him. (Elvira aria: "Mi tradì quell'alma ingrata – That ungrateful wretch betrayed me").
A graveyard with the statue of the Commendatore.
Leporello tells Don Giovanni of his brush with danger, and Giovanni taunts him, saying that he took advantage of his disguise as Leporello, by trying to seduce one of Leporello's girlfriends. But the servant is not amused, suggesting it could have been his wife, and Don Giovanni laughs aloud at his servant's protests. The voice of the statue warns Giovanni that his laughter will not last beyond sunrise. At the command of his master, Leporello reads the inscription upon the statue's base: "I'm waiting for revenge against my murderer." The servant trembles, but the unabashed Giovanni orders him to invite the statue to dinner, threatening to kill him if he does not. Leporello makes several attempts to invite the statue to dinner but for fear cannot complete the task (Duet: "Oh, statua gentilissima – Oh most noble statue"). It falls upon Don Giovanni himself to complete the invitation, thereby sealing his own doom. Much to his surprise, the statue nods its head and responds affirmatively.
Donna Anna's room.
Ottavio pressures Anna to marry him, but she thinks it inappropriate so soon after her father's death. He accuses her of being cruel, and she assures him that she loves him, and is faithful. (Anna aria: "Non mi dir – Tell me not").
Giovanni revels in the luxury of a great meal and musical entertainment (during which the orchestra plays then-contemporary late 18th century music – including a reference to the aria "Non più andrai" from Mozart's own Le Nozze di Figaro), while Leporello serves. (Finale "Già la mensa preparata – Already the meal is prepared"). Elvira appears, saying that she no longer feels resentment for Giovanni, only pity. ("L'ultima prova dell'amor mio – The final proof of my love"). Surprised by her lack of hatred, Giovanni asks what it is that she wants, and she begs him to change his life. Giovanni taunts her and then turns away, praising wine and women as the "essence and glory of humankind". Hurt and angered, Elvira gives up and leaves. A moment later, her scream is heard from outside the walls of the palace, and she returns only to flee through another door. Giovanni orders Leporello to see what has upset her; upon peering outside, the servant also cries out, and runs back into the room, stammering that the statue has appeared as promised. An ominous knocking sounds at the door. Leporello, paralyzed by fear, cannot answer it, so Giovanni opens it himself, revealing the statue of the Commendatore. ("Don Giovanni! a cenar teco m'invitasti – Don Giovanni! You invited me to your dinner"). It exhorts the careless villain to repent of his wicked lifestyle, but Giovanni adamantly refuses. The statue sinks into the earth and drags Giovanni down with him. Hellfire, and a chorus of demons, surround Don Giovanni as he is carried below.
Donna Anna, Don Ottavio, Donna Elvira, Zerlina, and Masetto arrive, searching for the villain. They find instead Leporello hiding under the table, shaken by the supernatural horror he has witnessed. Since Giovanni is dead and the conflict is over, Anna and Ottavio choose to wait until Anna's year of grieving is over before marrying; Elvira will spend the rest of her life in a convent; Zerlina and Masetto will finally go home for dinner; and Leporello will find a new master (a better one, hopefully) at a tavern.
The concluding chorus delivers the moral of the opera – "Such is the end of the evildoer: the death of a sinner always reflects his life" (Questo è il fin). In the past, the final ensemble was sometimes omitted by conductors who claimed that the opera should end when the title character dies. However, this approach has not survived, and today's conductors almost always include the finale in its entirety.
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky always held Don Giovanni in the greatest awe, and regarded Mozart as his musical god. In 1855, Mozart's original manuscript had been purchased in London by the mezzo-soprano Pauline Viardot, who was the teacher of Tchaikovsky's one-time unofficial fiancée Désirée Artôt (who Viardot may have persuaded not to go through with her plan to marry the composer). Viardot kept the manuscript in a shrine in her Paris home, where it was visited by many people. Tchaikovsky visited her when he was in Paris in June 1886, and said that when looking at the manuscript, he was "in the presence of divinity". So it is not surprising that the centenary of the opera in 1887 would inspire him to write something honouring Mozart. Instead of taking any themes from Don Giovanni, however, he took four lesser known works by Mozart and arranged them into his fourth orchestral suite, which he called Mozartiana. Curiously, the baritone who sang the title role in the centenary performance of Don Giovanni in Prague that year was Mariano Padilla y Ramos, the man Désirée Artôt married instead of Tchaikovsky.
^ It is at this point in the Vienna production of the opera that Zerlina manages to recapture a protesting Leporello, dragging him by the hair, calling for Masetto. Threatening him with a razor, she ties him to a stool as he attempts to sweet-talk her out of hurting him. (Duet: "Per queste tue manine – For these hands of yours"). Zerlina runs to find Masetto and the others, and, once more, Leporello manages to escape just before she returns. This scene, marked by low comedy, is almost never performed.
^ Alexander Poznansky, Tchaikovsky: The Quest for the Inner Man, p. 460