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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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VI. Donna Elvira


ABSTRACT. This essay deals with the character Donna Elvira in Lorenzo Da Ponte’s and Mozart’s 1787 opera Don Giovanni. Pursuing Don Giovanni in the hope of finally marrying him, she has traditionally been seen as either a comical figure who is hopelessly gullible, or as a heroic figure who represents the unrealised possibility of love and redemption in the seducer’s life. The author argues, however, that Donna Elvira is a relatively educated young woman who has attained a certain degree of enlightenment and independence, but who is still too influenced by the belief system of patriarchal society to comprehend and appreciate the true nature of her illicit sexual affair with Don Giovanni. Familiar only with the religious notion of the sanctity of marriage, she cannot recognise the libertine for what he is: the epitome of the non-patriarchal lover.

KEYWORDS. Da Ponte, Mozart, Don Giovanni, Enlightenment, libertinism, patriarchy, Don Juan

1 The social codes of patriarchy

Let me argue first that Donna Elvira is neither hysterical nor mad, but rather the effective leader of the collective assault on Don Giovanni that leads to his death. After her first brief meeting with Donna Anna and Don Ottavio, she loses no time winning their confidence (in the space of seven scenes) to join forces with her as they make their way, masked, with stealthy music, to the seducer’s house, bent on exposure and revenge:

Bisogna aver coraggio

o cari amici miei,...

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