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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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VII. Don Giovanni and the pre-Revolutionary moment

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ABSTRACT. This essay reflects on the meaning of Mozart’s and Lorenzo Da Ponte’s opera Don Giovanni both for the 1787 audience and for us today, comparing its original political context to changing political contexts through the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Premiered less than two years before the French Revolution, Don Giovanni reflected a historical moment pregnant with social and political change, and it is permeated with the democratic thinking of the time. Like other librettos by Da Ponte, it invited its first audiences in Prague and Vienna to reflect on the philosophical implications of the progressive legislation of Emperor Joseph II: in this case, the recent introduction of severer punishments for duelling, an ancient practice among the aristocracy that Joseph fought hard to suppress. The author argues that spectators knew in 1787 that the real villain of the opera was the Commendatore, the instigator of the duel, rather than Don Giovanni, the anti-patriarchal seducer. But more conservative, post-Revolutionary times adopted the opposite viewpoint, replicating the ‘devil-fearing’ characters’ view of Don Giovanni as an enemy of society. A recurring point of reference throughout this essay is the author’s memories of German director Ruth Berghaus’ 1984 Cardiff production of the opera, in which the central scenic element was a mound, which the author, writing thirty years later, interprets as a figure of latency, pending a crisis, comparable to the cultural significance of the opera itself. With its accumulated layers of meaning, Don Giovanni remains a revolutionary work, a testing...

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