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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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II. Joseph II as the god of love: L’arbore di Diana


ABSTRACT. This essay offers a poetic reading of Lorenzo Da Ponte’s libretto L’arbore di Diana, which he wrote for the Spanish composer Vicente Martín y Soler at the same time as he wrote Don Giovanni for Mozart. Commissioned for the same Habsburg wedding, both operas premiered in October 1787, in Vienna and Prague, respectively. Exploring the sources and intertextual layers of the plot, the author argues that L’arbore di Diana must, ultimately, be understood in its political context. Though traditionally dismissed by commentators as a silly farce, it contains a critique of the Catholic cult of chastity, occasioned by the recent decision of Emperor Joseph II, Da Ponte’s patron, to abolish the convents in the Hereditary Lands. Two of the author’s points also have relevance for our understanding of Don Giovanni: on the one hand, that Da Ponte used his librettos to promote the enlightened policies of Joseph II; and on the other hand, that the poet’s celebration of sexual liberty in L’arbore di Diana makes it unlikely that he would condemn it in Don Giovanni, though the seducer’s supernatural death in that opera has traditionally been construed as representing God’s punishment of the promiscuous male.

KEYWORDS. Da Ponte, librettos, Martín y Soler, Enlightenment, 18th-century literature, Vienna, Petrarch

The significance of the 1787 libretto L’arbore di Diana, like that of all Da Ponte’s other principal writings, belongs in its Late-Enlightenment era, a time of reform and revolution. Not to seek to locate...

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