Don Giovanni’s Reasons: Thoughts on a masterpiece

by Felicity Baker (Author) Magnus Tessing Schneider (Author)
©2021 Monographs 218 Pages


Although Mozart’s Don Giovanni (1787) is the most analysed of all operas, Lorenzo Da Ponte’s libretto has rarely been studied as a work of poetry in its own right. The author argues that the libretto, rather than perpetuating the conservative religious morality implicit in the story of Don Juan, subjects our culture’s myth of human sexuality to a critical rewriting. Combining poetic close reading with approaches drawn from linguistics, psychoanalysis, anthropology, political theory, legal history, intellectual history, literary history, art history and theatrical performance analysis, she studies the Don Giovanni libretto as a radical political text of the Late Enlightenment, which has lost none of its ability to provoke. The questions it raises concerning the nature of compassion, seduction and violence, and the autonomy and responsibility of the individual, are still highly relevant for us today.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Dedication
  • Table of Contents
  • Introduction
  • 1 The libretto as poetry
  • 2 Da Ponte’s Don Giovanni
  • 3 Da Ponte and The Stone Guest
  • 4 Da Ponte and Dante
  • 5 Da Ponte and Rousseau
  • I. Lorenzo Da Ponte’s witticisms: The implication of Jewish identity in the Memorie
  • 1 A twentieth-century fantasy
  • 2 The untold conversion
  • 3 Venice and Jerusalem
  • 4 Assimilation and prejudice
  • 5 The implied reader
  • 6 ‘That poetic joke’: The condemnation of 1776
  • 7 Andrea Tron
  • 8 The Restoration of the Status of the Jews and Da Ponte’s banishment
  • 9 A joke is not a lie
  • II. Joseph II as the god of love: L’arbore di Diana
  • 1 Crises of authority
  • 2 L’arbore di Diana: The story and its provenance
  • 3 From the surface plot to the subtext
  • 4 Revolution from above
  • 5 Petrarch and the first moment of love
  • III. The radical poetry of Don Giovanni
  • IV. Don Giovanni’s bizarre scene
  • V. Don Giovanni’s good nature
  • 1 Two modes of pity
  • 2 The traditional mode of pity as piety
  • 3 The opposite of traditional pity-as-piety: Impiety
  • 4 The code of honour and the absence of pity
  • 5 The relationship of Zerlina and Masetto
  • 6 Da Ponte’s playful uses of Rousseau’s opposition of pity and honour
  • 7 The spectacle of pity
  • 8 Pity and sexual feelings
  • 9 The Enlightenment critique implicit in the libretto’s representation of love
  • 10 The context of today’s productions of Don Giovanni
  • VI. Donna Elvira
  • 1 The social codes of patriarchy
  • 2 The differendum
  • 3 Libertinism
  • 4 Donna Elvira’s predicament
  • 5 Donna Elvira’s secret thoughts
  • VII. Don Giovanni and the pre-Revolutionary moment
  • 1 Visualising the pre-Revolutionary moment today
  • 2 The image of the mound
  • 3 Enlightenment subjectivity in operatic arias
  • 4 1787–89: The founding principles of democracy
  • 5 The mound as a figure of latency, pending a crisis
  • 6 Destroyed mounds
  • 7 The Don Giovanni libretto in its historical moment — and today
  • 8 The characters
  • 9 The witch-fearing community
  • 10 The immediate cultural context of the Mozart-Da Ponte opera
  • 11 The Emperor Joseph’s interest in the opera’s composition: His law against duels?
  • 12 The ambiguous situation of the women
  • 13 Real and fictive punishment in the Late Enlightenment context
  • 14 The death of Don Giovanni
  • List of illustrations
  • Publications by Felicity Baker
  • General bibliography
  • Index


ABSTRACT. For centuries a reviled literary genre, it is only in the last decades that the opera libretto has begun to receive serious scholarly attention. In the case of Lorenzo Da Ponte’s librettos for Mozart, the traditional unwillingness to read them as works of poetry, and thereby to recognise the depth of Da Ponte’s contribution to opera as an art form, can be traced back to the end of the eighteenth century, when the rise of German nationalism coincided with a rise in anti-Habsburg and anti-Italian sentiments. The early vilification of Da Ponte thus accompanied the early glorification of Mozart, which inspired the Romantic opera aesthetic that, ultimately, provided the basis for opera studies as an academic field. Therefore, many of the old prejudices have slipped into today’s scholarly discourse on opera. Felicity Baker’s writings on Da Ponte, dating from the 1980s onwards, represent an effort to vindicate not only Da Ponte as a poet but also the opera libretto as a genre. After tracing the beginnings of her interest in Da Ponte, this introduction to her collected essays on the subject expands on three literary contexts that are central to her essays on the Don Giovanni libretto. First, the dramatic context, where she focuses on the traditional Stone Guest plays and the story of Don Juan as a cultural myth subject to a critical rewriting; secondly, the poetic context, where she focuses on Dante Alighieri as an important intertext; and thirdly, the philosophical context, where she focuses on Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s political thinking as an inspiration for the delineation of the characters. The introduction examines, more broadly, the significance of Dante and Rousseau for Da Ponte as a poet.

KEYWORDS. Da Ponte, Mozart, Don Giovanni, librettos, Rousseau, Dante, critical rewriting

1 The libretto as poetry

In 1819, when compelled to defend the librettos he had written for Mozart thirty years earlier, Lorenzo Da Ponte (1749–1838) insisted that ‘poetry is the door to music, which can be very handsome and much admired for its exterior, but no body can see its internal beauties, if the door is wanting.’1

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This view has not found many advocates during the following two centuries, which, on the contrary, have seen a persistent unwillingness to read and study Da Ponte’s librettos as works of art. We can trace that tendency back to the last decade of the eighteenth century. Mozart’s premature death in 1791 gave rise to a cult of the composer throughout the German-speaking world that coincided both with a rise in German nationalism, inimical to all things French and Italian, and with a rise in the self-confidence of the bourgeois class, hostile to aristocratic and courtly culture. Le nozze di Figaro (1786), Il dissoluto punito o sia Il Don Giovanni (1787) and Così fan tutte o sia La scuola degli amanti (1790) — Mozart’s three operas on librettos by Da Ponte — posed a problem in that polarised atmosphere. On the one hand, they were undisputed masterpieces by one of the greatest German composers. On the other hand, they were Italian operas, set to texts by the imperial theatre poet himself and hence sullied by the cosmopolitanism and supposed moral laxity of the Habsburg court. At the end of the eighteenth century, the widespread solution to this problem was to reimagine these works as German operas, by downplaying or ignoring Da Ponte’s contribution. This was to have a momentous impact on the later reception of Mozart and Da Ponte and their joint operas.

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The earliest monument to this reimagining of the Mozart-Da Ponte operas was the first biography of Mozart, published in 1798 by the Prague grammarschool teacher Franz Xaver Niemetschek. A fierce proponent of Bohemian (that is, at that point, German) nationalism, he never tired of insisting that the Bohemians were the first to recognise the composer’s genius, while the Viennese, corrupted as they were by their Italianate tastes, had shamefully failed to do so. Da Ponte is nowhere mentioned in the book. Niemetschek only alludes to his librettos once, when discussing Così fan tutte, and only in order to point out that people ‘generally wonder how [Mozart] could have stooped to squandering his divine melodies on such a miserable piece of trash.’ The biographer came up with a convenient explanation to this delicate problem, which lacked any basis in historical fact, but which served to absolve the revered master from blame. ‘It was not within his power to refuse the commission,’ Niemetschek maintained, ‘and the text was expressly assigned to him.’2 The ideological framework within which that myth was founded is significant: it was Niemetschek’s Mozart biography that introduced the concept of classical music, by which he understood musical works that, like the immortal works of poetry inherited from classical Antiquity, transcend their immediate context and require continued study in order to reveal their subtle beauties. ‘The masterpieces of the Romans and the Greeks please as one’s reading advances, and more and more so as one’s taste acquires maturity — and the same occurs with connoisseurs and non-connoisseurs as they listen to Mozart’s music, especially to his dramatic works.’3 Right from the start, however, the Italian librettos were denied a share in the operatic work concept; they were not a part of what made operas classical, and they did not require studied reading.

Da Ponte, who emigrated to the United States in 1805, witnessed this tendency from afar and reacted against it. Incensed by a review in the Edinburgh Magazine of the London premiere of Don Giovanni, which failed to mention his name, he published his lengthy response to the editor in 1819, emphasising that it was Mozart himself who had asked him to write the three librettos. ‘Mozart knew very well that the success of an opera depends, first of all on the poet’, he insisted; ‘that without a good poem an entertainment cannot be perfectly dramatic, just as a picture cannot be good without possessing the merit of invention, design, and a just proportion of the parts: that a composer, who is, in regard to a drama, what a painter is in regard to the colours, can never do that with effect, unless excited and animated by the words of a poet’.4 He returned to the topic four years later, in the first volume of his memoirs, complaining that the crucial role he had played in Mozart’s career was being consistently downplayed. ‘The unfairness and envy of journalists, of hacks and especially of Mozart’s biographers did not allow them to bestow such glory on an Italian’.5

It was a losing battle, however. The Romantic opera aesthetic, the principles of which were established by German writers such as Niemetschek, E. T. A. Hoffmann and Richard Wagner, consistently minimised the significance of the librettos in Mozart’s operas; and twentieth-century opera studies, especially as cultivated by German and Anglo-American musicologists, were developed on the basis of that aesthetic. Therefore, we should not be surprised to read, in a book written two hundred years after Mozart’s death, that ‘lyric text in opera arias must be denatured by fragmentation and nonsensical repetition, and it is calculated precisely to bear such distortions, to be expanded or compressed as needed to fill up aria’s musical volume. Few of us care how often the Queen of the Night says, “So sei sie dann auf ewig dein,” or how often she mangles the words and their syntax. As she sings, we are listening for musical sense and structure, and though her avowal is passionate, it enunciates no critical dramatic action, no important clue to understanding.’6 According to Carolyn Abbate, in other words, the libretto merely constitutes the frame of the painting, not its design, as Da Ponte insisted.

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While Abbate’s assertion that operagoers focus entirely on ‘musical sense and structure’ when listening to an aria is indebted, ultimately, to German nineteenthcentury ideas about the word-tone relationship, this conviction received further support in the second half of the twentieth century, with the growing influence of sound recordings on operatic culture. Naturally, for commentators who access the operatic works primarily by listening to recordings and by reading the scores with those recordings in mind, rather than by going to the theatre, the verbal signification tends to recede into the background, as it is detached from its dramatic, gestural and interpersonal context. This development within media history helps explain the momentous impact on late twentieth-century opera studies of Joseph Kerman’s well-known dictum, first formulated in his 1956 book Opera as Drama, that ‘in opera the dramatist is the composer.’7 The historical situatedness of that bold — and questionable — statement still needs to be fully acknowledged. The same is the case with Roland Barthes’s 1972 essay ‘The Grain of the Voice’, which has also influenced conceptions of opera within the academy. Though the essay draws its examples from German and French art song, it verbalised widespread attitudes towards operatic singing in the late twentieth century, which we still encounter today. At the expense of what he calls ‘pheno-song’, which covers ‘everything in the performance which is in the service of communication, representation, expression’, Barthes favours what he calls ‘geno-song’, which is ‘that apex (or that depth) of production where the melody really works at the language — not at what it says, but the voluptuousness of its sounds-signifiers, of its letters — where melody explores how the language works and identifies with that work.’8 Just as in Kerman’s and Abbate’s books, verbal signification — and, by implication, the poetic integrity of the libretto — is considered inessential to the aesthetic experience.

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Felicity Baker’s essays on Lorenzo Da Ponte, and above all on his Don Giovanni libretto, offer a thought-provoking and timely antithesis to that still-dominant trend. In fact, coming from the field of French studies, one of her earliest articles on opera, published in 1983, was a response to Barthes’s essay. Here she criticised his ‘theory of singing as non-signification’, arguing that ‘the singing-acting of Maria Callas marked an end of a conventional neglect of discursive signification’ in operatic performance.9 Callas’ singing ‘does not only envelop the listener in sensuous pleasures, but also requires to be attended to as separate, external — as discourse’; hence, whereas Barthes depicts ‘the representational and the erotic’ as ‘violently opposed’, Baker posits that ‘the erotic is the representational’.10 When listening to an opera, in other words, part of our pleasure derives from engaging with the vocal expression, with the poetic meanings, with the characters. Instead of simply denouncing the discursive aspect of singing, we should ask what happens to language when it is sung:

Ambiguity, unreliability, enigma are the inescapable consequence of the tension in language of materiality and reference. So libretto-language accedes, at last, to a perfect equality with poetic or, for that matter, learned discourse. It requires an absolutely serious reading, which makes all the space necessary both for the operatic representation, and for its frank unauthoritativeness. Its sensual and passionate dimension must not be flattened out to make it appear nothing but a system of signs susceptible of semiological classification.11

2 Da Ponte’s Don Giovanni

This brings us finally to the Don Giovanni libretto, since Baker recognised that ‘frank unauthoritativeness’ above all in Da Ponte’s writing as brought to life by another great singer-actor, Ruggero Raimondi. Her two earliest essays on Don Giovanni (not included in this volume) were devoted to Joseph Losey’s famous film version of the opera from 1979, in which she recognised a contrast between Raimondi’s coolly detached screen acting in the title role and the intense passion of his singing. ‘Raimondi’s characterisation of Don Giovanni is new, in that it is positive — human, passionate, highly self-preferring of course, but neither daemonic nor morbid’, she wrote in 1982, arguing that his vocal portrayal disproved current views of the seducer as being inhuman or even characterless: ‘the public’s love of this opera is undeniably a fascination with the character of the hero. Such a fascination cannot be due to a hole in the text, as it were, so large as to require the spectator’s fantasy to do all the work of inventing the hero’s character.’12 Taking Raimondi’s portrayal as her point of departure, Baker took on the two traditional conceptions of Don Giovanni, which have dominated stage productions and the critical literature since the turn of the nineteenth century:13

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Don Giovanni is a hero both loved and hated; a similar ambivalence marks the public’s reaction to Raimondi’s film performance. Interpretations of this hero have traditionally been daemonic; he is either diabolically immoral, in accordance with the seventeenthcentury morality reflected in the Christian symbolism of his final encounter with divine authority (the stone guest) and his punishment; or else a pagan amoral figure unrestrainable by ordinary mortals and finally quelled by another supernatural figure (the stone guest) more powerful than himself. The first of these two versions is closer to the libretto than the second, although it overlooks the fact that da Ponte’s text strips the myth of its religious morality. The second version correctly observes that fact, but what it elaborates instead has precious little to do with the libretto or with the mentality of which the text is a product. In recent years, Don Giovanni’s sexuality has been interpreted in terms of psychopathology (compulsive womaniser, unconscious homosexual): he is sick, perverse. This version also has to overlook as many items in the text as it accentuates. A behaviour pattern formerly seen as evil is now seen as symptomatic of mental disturbance. Both views, in relation to a work of art, are ways of holding the character at a safe distance; that is an essential part of the myth, and it is worthy of reflection, considering how much the public cares about this hero.14

In a follow-up article from 1984, which revolves around Raimondi’s Don Giovanni as an example of ‘the operatic character-effect, the mimesis, which is completed in the spectator’, she discussed the way the singer ‘takes the seducer over into excess in the mode of the passionate singlemindedness of his own way of life. The passion itself is exactly the site of his inner space. That space lies between the extremism of his passion and the extreme transitoriness of his wish for any woman.’15 Passion is at the heart of Don Giovanni’s character, in short; and that is what seduces the operagoer.

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Raimondi’s portrayal of Don Giovanni in the Losey film can be said to have opened the door for Baker’s reading of Da Ponte’s libretto as a radical work of the Late Enlightenment. And it is the results of that reading which make up the contents of this book, consisting partly of previously published articles and partly of essays based on conference papers or other unpublished manuscripts, covering a period of thirty years. As her meticulous and wide-ranging close readings show, Da Ponte portrays Don Giovanni as no more and no less than a human being: a modern seducer whose unconventional but essentially nonviolent mode of behaviour challenges some of our culture’s most entrenched notions of sexuality, gender and power. He never takes the time to set forth his principles — or his ‘reasons’, as he calls them, which have given this book its title. But Baker derives a philosophy from the poetic depiction of his life, which centres on the integrity and autonomy of the individual, on the right to selfexpression, on the revolutionary potential of both the aesthetic and the sexual experience, on the defence of liberty and equality.

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Such a radical reassessment of the character of Don Giovanni inevitably entails a reassessment of the poet who created him; and unlike earlier scholars, Baker situates her interpretation of the libretto in the context of other writings by Da Ponte: his autobiography, published in New York in the 1820s, and a libretto he wrote for the Spanish composer Vicente Martín y Soler at the same time as he wrote Don Giovanni for Mozart. In the first essay in the volume, ‘Lorenzo Da Ponte’s witticisms: The implication of Jewish identity in the Memorie’, Baker argues that the poet’s youthful experience of antisemitic and totalitarian persecution in his native Venice fuelled the call for tolerance and equality in his later writings, his commitment to the ideals of the Enlightenment. In the second essay, ‘Joseph II as the god of love: L’arbore di Diana’, she shows how Da Ponte’s non-judgmental depiction of the libertine seducer is part of a larger pattern within his oeuvre. While Don Giovanni was premiered at the National Theatre in Prague on 29 October 1787, L’arbore di Diana was premiered at the Burgtheater in Vienna earlier the same month. Both operas were commissioned to celebrate the future wedding of Archduchess Maria Theresa (princess of Tuscany and niece of Emperor Joseph II) to Prince Anthony of Saxony; hence they were both linked to the representational culture of the imperial court.16 In the Memorie, Da Ponte describes how he wrote L’arbore di Diana as a comic allegory of Joseph II’s recent abolition of the convents in the Hereditary Lands; and Baker shows how that allegory can be interpreted, more broadly, as a rejection of the Catholic cult of chastity and the church’s oppressive attitude towards human sexuality. Don Giovanni, with its non-condemnatory representation of the archetypal seducer of women, inviting the audience to reflect critically on the fairness of his traditional infernal punishment, essentially deals with the same theme. To interpret the opera as a celebration of the sanctity of marriage and Catholic orthodoxy — as some critics have done — is to ignore its immediate political context, in other words. But the opera’s connection to Josephine politics goes beyond that. In the last essay, ‘Don Giovanni and the pre-Revolutionary moment’, Baker argues that it also reflects another of the emperor’s liberalising policies: his ban on the aristocratic practice of duelling, which the Commendatore violates when challenging the seducer to single combat.

The last five essays of the book all deal with different aspects of the Don Giovanni libretto. The first of these, ‘The radical poetry of Don Giovanni’, is the earliest piece included in the collection, first published in 1986, while the remaining four are based on previously unpublished manuscripts written between 2001 and 2014. Together, these essays complement Baker’s ground-breaking essay from 2005, ‘The figures of hell in the Don Giovanni libretto’.

As we read her studies in chronological order, it is possible to distinguish between three distinct literary contexts in relation to which she examines Da Ponte’s libretto: one dramatic, one poetic and one philosophical. In the following, I would like to elaborate on these contexts with reference to the poet’s oeuvre.

3 Da Ponte and The Stone Guest


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2021 (May)
Da Ponte Mozart opera librettos Don Juan antisemitism Enlightenment
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2021. 218 pp., 3 fig. col.

Biographical notes

Felicity Baker (Author) Magnus Tessing Schneider (Author)

Felicity Baker is a Reader Emeritus in French, University College London, who has published and lectured internationally on eighteenth-century literature since the 1960s. Her main research areas are Lorenzo Da Ponte, Mozart’s librettist, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s philosophy of freedom and equality, his contractual thinking in the Late Enlightenment and its significance today. Magnus Tessing Schneider holds a PhD from Aarhus University, Denmark, and works as a researcher in theatre studies at Stockholm University. His research centres on the dramaturgy of Italian opera, including the operas of Monteverdi, Gluck, Mozart and Verdi.


Title: Don Giovanni’s Reasons: Thoughts on a masterpiece
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220 pages