By 1784 Mozart had transitioned, for the most part, from virtuoso performer to composer. The following years saw the creation of many of the works upon which his posthumous reputation rests, including his last three great symphonies, several string quartets, and of course, his greatest operas. Opera seemed to offer the most likely opportunity for official recognition and the financial stability he sorely needed to support his growing family.
Despite Joseph II’s famous (and possibly apocryphal) criticism (“an extraordinary number of notes”) Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail (1782) had been the most popular work produced by the German opera company the emperor had tried to establish. The composer then tried to make inroads at the Imperial Italian opera company. His Le nozze di Figaro (1796), composed to a libretto by the new court poet Lorenzo Da Ponte, was a success (the emperor instituted policy of prohibiting encores of ensembles when the evening went on for too long.) A production later that year in Prague was such a tremendous hit that the impresario Pasquale Bondini immediately commissioned a new opera from the composer, to be premiered in that city.
Bondini gave Mozart a libretto by Giovanni Bertati which had been used by Giovanni Gazzaniga as the basis of his one-act opera Don Giovanni Tenorio. It was the impresario’s intention that Mozart set that libretto, but Mozart instead went back to Lorenzo Da Ponte, asking him to flesh out the story into a full-length opera.
By this point Da Ponte was at the high point of his brief career as court poet and opera librettist. In addition to Figaro he had a great success with composer Vicente Martín y Soler’s Un cosa rara and was writing new librettos for Martín y Soler (L’arbore di Diana) and Antonio Salieri (Axur, re d’Ormus). According to his colorful but unreliable memoirs, the poet wrote for Mozart in the evening, Martín in the morning, and Salieri in the afternoon. He writes that he “sat down at my table and did not leave it for twelve hours at a stretch – a bottle of tokai to my right, a box of Seville snuff to my left, in the middle an inkwell.” Under such pressure, and before copyright was an issue, he drew freely from Bertati’s version of Don Giovanni in composing his own libretto.
The Don Juan legend had for a long time been considered a low-class, bawdy entertainment, suitable for the unsophisticated masses and not for cultured audiences. The earliest written treatment was Tirso de Molina’s El burlador de Sevilla y convidado de piedra, followed by versions by Molière and Goldoni. In all these versions, Don Juan receives his just punishment by being either struck dead or dragged to hell for his sins, thus making the story morally acceptable. It has also been pointed out that in Mozart’s opera, none of Don Giovanni’s attempts at seduction succeed, despite the long list of conquests that Leporello enumerates in his catalogue.
The Prague audiences had taken Mozart to heart, and Don Giovanni was rapturously received. Among the first night audience was Da Ponte’s friend from his dissolute Venetian youth, the famous womanizer Giacomo Casanova (who may have contributed a line or two of his own to the libretto). News of the positive response to the opera reached the emperor, who ordered a performance in Vienna. For the Vienna performances, a few adjustments were made to suit new singers, including the addition of two new arias and a duet. Sarasota Opera will be performing the opera as the premiere audience heard it in Prague, without the additions for Vienna.
In Vienna, the opera’s success was not nearly as enthusiastic as it had been in Prague, but it did run for 15 performances. The emperor, who was on the battlefield of the Austro-Turkish War, did not attend, but after looking at the score told Lorenzo Da Ponte (according to the latter’s memoirs) “The music is divine… But such music is not meat for the teeth of my Viennese.” Upon hearing this, Mozart responded: “Give them time to chew on it.”
Chew on it they did, and Don Giovanni became one of the few operas to remain in the repertoire throughout the 19th century. Liszt, Chopin, Rossini, Beethoven, and Offenbach all quoted from it. Tchaikovsky, upon seeing the manuscript of the opera said that he was “in the presence of divinity.”
Don Giovanni reached the United States in 1825 when Da Ponte (who had fled Europe in 1804 to escape his creditors) convinced the singer and impresario Manuel García to add it to the repertoire of his touring opera company. The opera was produced during the first season of the Metropolitan Opera in 1883. It entered the repertoire of Sarasota Opera in 1977 (at the Historic Asolo Theatre) and has also been performed in 1989, 2005, and 2011.
Richard Russell is Sarasota Opera’s General Director.