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Don Giovanni’s Reasons: Thoughts on a masterpiece

Felicity Baker and Magnus Tessing Schneider

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.

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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...

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