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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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V. Don Giovanni’s good nature

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ABSTRACT. This essay explores the impact of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men (1755) on Lorenzo Da Ponte’s libretto for Mozart’s 1787 opera Don Giovanni. The author examines the poet’s imaginative use of the concept of pietà as a key to the Enlightenment critique implicit in the libretto, showing how he uses the word’s two distinct meanings, which reflect two conflicting notions of morality. On the one hand, pietà translates as ‘piety’, which refers to charity and family devotion as religious duties, and the opposite of which is ‘impiety’ (empietà). While Don Ottavio may be the opera’s most ‘pious’ male, the moral characters repeatedly accuse Don Giovanni of being ‘impious’. However, pietà also translates as ‘pity’, or compassion, which in Rousseau’s definition refers to the natural reaction of human beings who see a fellow creature suffer. The moral (or pious) characters often suppress their own inner voice of pity, committed as they are to the code of honour, which Rousseau regarded as the source of all social evils. In contrast, Don Giovanni not only pities the dying Commendatore after wounding him in the duel he was forced to enter; he has also developed his own peculiar brand of Rousseauean pity, representing a blending of compassion and sexual feelings, probably drawing inspiration from the famous real-life seducer, Giacomo Casanova.

KEYWORDS. Da Ponte, Mozart, librettos, Rousseau, Enlightenment, pity, Casanova

1 Two modes of pity

The emotion of pity...

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