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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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I. Lorenzo Da Ponte’s witticisms: The implication of Jewish identity in the Memorie

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ABSTRACT. This essay re-examines aspects of the early biography of Lorenzo Da Ponte (1749–1838), drawing on original archival studies in the Venetian State Archive. It starts with a critical examination of the reception of his Memorie (1823–27) through the twentieth century: the recurring description of the poet as a ‘libertine’ and a ‘liar’, even in recent biographies, can be traced back to the first editor of his autobiography, Fausto Nicolini, whose views were informed by early twentieth-century antisemitism. This led him to a skewed interpretation of the historical documents. In reality, the Jewish-born Da Ponte was forced to convert to Christianity at the age of fourteen; he later attracted the negative attention of the state authorities, notably the authoritarian senator Andrea Tron, for a collection of poems inspired by the egalitarian thinking of Jean-Jacques Rousseau; and he was finally forced to flee from Venice due to his opposition to Tron following a trial on trumped-up charges in which he was accused of leading a dissolute life. The author argues that the poet’s personal experience of persecution instilled in him a keen awareness of political and social injustices, and that it made him identify with the Italian poetic tradition rather than with any specific national or religious group. An admirer of Rousseau’s writings from an early age, Da Ponte should rightly be regarded as a poet of the radical Late Enlightenment; throughout his writings, he used the poetic witticism to encourage readers and spectators to reflect...

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