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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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III. The radical poetry of Don Giovanni


ABSTRACT. This essay analyses the relationship of Lorenzo Da Ponte’s libretto for Mozart’s 1787 opera Don Giovanni to earlier treatments of the story of Don Juan and the stone guest, which had been adapted for the stage multiple times during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The Don Juan story, the author argues, is our culture’s myth of human sexuality, according to which promiscuity either must be punished, or carries the punishment within itself. In contrast to earlier dramatic adaptations, however (including the plays by Tirso de Molina, Molière and Carlo Goldoni), the Mozart-Da Ponte opera is a critical rewriting in the spirit of the Late Enlightenment, which enacts the myth while criticising its moral conservatism. Telling the story of Don Juan in its well-known form, Da Ponte subjects every one of its traditional narrative elements to critical scrutiny, thereby challenging the spectators to ask themselves whether the seducer’s supernatural punishment is really justified. The continued dominance of this cultural myth helps explain why later commentators have tended to take the supernatural punishment in Don Giovanni at face value.

KEYWORDS. Da Ponte, Mozart, librettos, Don Juan, Enlightenment, critical rewriting, cultural myths

In performance, and even in critical commentary, Don Giovanni does not encounter dispassionate analytical appraisal; it encounters the still-living myth of Don Juan. The ritual function of mythic thinking, no longer actualised for most of our society in religious ceremony, emerges spontaneously in unmarked, minor manifestations which escape rational evaluation. The mere name...

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