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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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IV. Don Giovanni’s bizarre scene


ABSTRACT. In this essay, the author contemplates the significance of the Don Juan story’s Spanish origin and setting for our understanding of Mozart’s 1787 opera Don Giovanni, starting from the title hero’s astonished reaction when he hears the statue of the Commendatore speaking in the graveyard: ‘Bizzarra è inver la scena’ (‘This scene really is bizarre’). In the eighteenth century, the word bizarre was thought to be of Spanish origin, and it was sometimes associated with ‘Spanishness’ as a literary trope, which was linked, in turn, to the perceived bigotry of the Spanish Inquisition and the irrationality of Spanish seventeenth-century drama. The Don Juan story itself, with its speaking and walking statue and its concluding hellfire spectacle, ultimately deriving from Tirso de Molina’s 1617 play, was regarded as a prime example of the survival of this unenlightened, ‘baroque’ or ‘bizarre’, worldview into the modern age. Analysing the libretto’s intertextual references to Dante and Molière while examining the changing meanings of the term ‘bizarre’ from the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries, the author shows how Da Ponte uses the ‘bizarre’ quality of the Don Juan story to highlight the unreality of Don Giovanni’s punishment. In the opera, that punishment is exposed as a collective fantasy on the part of traditionalist audiences: an intolerant and unreasonable reaction to the seducer’s lifestyle.

KEYWORDS. Da Ponte, Mozart, Molière, Dante, Don Juan, Enlightenment, critical rewriting, librettos

Don Giovanni is a work in the classical style, with clearly defined...

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