There are plenty of great operas that reveal their true intentions right from the start -- think of the ebullient overtures that launch the brilliant comedies of Rossini and the portentous preludes introducing Verdi's complex tragedies. There are others that open with cards held closer to their vests, and Mozart's enigmatic Don Giovanni takes the latter approach.
The overture to Don Giovanni begins in a dark D Minor key that seems to suggest impending tragedy. Yet the music's quick pivot to a bouncy D Major represents only the first in the opera's compelling progression of abrupt, emotional u-turns.
Actually, a close look at Mozart's own description of the opera warns us not to make any assumptions about its dramatic character. He called it a "dramma giocoso" -- a "playful drama" -- which at first seems to be a severe case of misdirection; the action begins with an attempted rape, quickly followed by a cold-blooded murder.
Yet, in between the shocking opening sequence and a climactic scene that finds Giovanni plunging into the fires of hell, the notorious Don leads us through exploits that make the character hard to resist. And it's Giovanni himself, with his deeply unsettling appeal, who provides the dramatically shifting core of Mozart's masterpiece.
Make no mistake: Don Giovanni is a genuine villain. He's a serial womanizer, a rapist, a killer -- and that's just touching the surface. Yet, the opera also has a strong comic element, driven by Giovanni's devious schemes and high jinx. As he heaps scorn on his pitiable victims, laughing at them all the while, audiences tend to laugh right along with him. Still, Lorenzo da Ponte's libretto and Mozart's matchless music ensure that the dire consequences of those schemes are as evident as their humor.
The result is a unique and often disturbing ambiguity that's at the core of Mozart's masterpiece. The Don's personality is so beguiling that it's easy to root for him even as his dark side becomes more and more obvious. Yet, when he eventually receives a personal invitation to hell, and his enemies rejoice, it's hard to blame them.
Don Giovanni is routinely listed among the finest operas ever composed. Some have even called it the greatest of them all. That's a pretty bold statement, but however you rank it, Mozart's opera is a brilliant combination of stark human tragedy and touching comedy, set to music of limitless genius.
On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Don Giovanni from London's Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. Baritone Christopher Maltman sings the title role, with sopranos Albina Shagimuratova and Dorothea Röschmenn as Donna Anna and Donna Elvira, and baritone Alex Esposito as Leporello, in a production led by conductor Alain Altinoglu.