The characters

Don Giovanni

Don Giovanni

Voice type: Bass-baritone

Character traits:

  • Charismatic
  • Fearless
  • Dishonest
  • Wily

Need to know:

  • Supposedly based on 14th-century Seville nobleman, Don Juan Tenorio, who allegedly abducted the daughter of a military commander and murdered him. Franciscan monks are thought to have killed him but claimed he had been cast into hell by the commander’s memorial effigy.

  • In Don Giovanni our hero makes no conquests. On what turns out to be the last day of his life he defies natural law by committing a murder, so nothing goes right for him.

  • Arias are usually expressions of characters' deepest feelings, but neither of Don Giovanni’s arias are self-revelatory. He is revealed through his interactions with others and their reactions to him.

Leporello

Leporello

Voice type: Bass-baritone

Character traits:

  • Down-to-earth
  • Mercenary
  • Cowardly

Need to know:

  • Leporello, Don Giovanni’s servant and sidekick, is one of three lower-class characters in the opera, along with the peasant couple Zerlina and Masetto.
  • Leporello and Don Giovanni are often seen as complementary, two versions of a similar character differentiated chiefly by social class. In some productions the two are even cast as lookalikes. 
  • It’s hard to know how complicit Leporello is in Giovanni’s adventures – is he merely obeying orders or is he deriving any pleasure from them?   

Donna Anna

Donna Anna

Voice type: Soprano

Character traits: 

  • Aristocratic
  • Anxious
  • Enigmatic

Need to know:

  • Mozart and Da Ponte never tell us what actually happened between Anna and Don Giovanni. We rely on what she tells Don Ottavio about it, which may be her attempt to spare his feelings and her honour. And does her encounter with Don Giovanni affect her standoffish behaviour towards Ottavio?

  • Many of Anna's and Ottavio’s musical entrances are in the key of D major and scored for trumpet and timpani – a sort of musical code for characters of the nobility.

Don Ottavio

Don Ottavio

Voice type: Tenor

Character traits:

  • Loyal
  • Virtuous
  • Patient 

Need to know:

  • Don Ottavio functions as a character foil for Don Giovanni: both are aristocrats, but while Ottavio behaves as a good nobleman should, Giovanni flouts every principle of nobility. 

  • Ottavio is a typical pure lyric Mozartian tenor, and both his arias express his love and concern for Anna in a formal, old-fashioned way. 

Donna Elvira

Donna Elvira

Voice type: Soprano

Character traits:

  • Loyal
  • Passionate
  • Impulsive

Need to know:

  • Elvira is high-born but in a compromised social position after her seduction by Giovanni. She falls into the mezzo carattere category of dramma giocoso characters, who share musical and dramatic traits of noble and more humble characters.

  • Though serious, Elvira is sometimes positioned as a figure of fun. When she first enters, she sings 'Ah, chi mi dice mai', whose sweeping vocal line and grand orchestral gestures make it sound like an old-fashioned opera seria aria, but which becomes a comic trio when Giovanni and Leporello chime in. 

  • Elvira is the only character who knows of Giovanni’s evil deeds but can’t seem to stop loving him, voicing these conflicting feelings in her great aria, 'Mi tradi quell’alma ingrate'.

Zerlina

Zerlina

Voice type: Soprano

Character traits:

  • Flirtatious
  • Straightforward
  • Loyal

Need to know:

  • Hailing from the peasant class, along with her fiancé, Masetto, Zerlina expresses herself in simple, opera buffa-style music.

  • Though loyal to Masetto, she is susceptible to Giovanni’s charms and her own delusions of grandeur.

  • She continually incites Masetto’s jealousy, but it's clear she has him wrapped around her little finger and she is the dominant member of that couple.

The story

Act I

Seduction and a duel

Leporello waits outside the Commendatore's home as his master, Don Giovanni, is inside seducing Donna Anna, the Commendatore's daughter. The masked Giovanni flees, with Anna in pursuit.

Awakened by the commotion, the Commendatore challenges Giovanni to a duel, which ends in the old man's death. After Giovanni and Leporello flee, Anna and her fiancé, Don Ottavio, swear vengeance upon the Commendatore's mysterious killer.

An old conquest

Giovanni and Leporello overhear the lament of an abandoned woman. Giovanni approaches to seduce her but soon recognises her as Donna Elvira, a woman he has already seduced and deserted.

Giovanni orders Leporello to distract her while he escapes. Leporello informs Elvira that hers is just one name in the long catalogue of Giovanni's conquests.

Wedding party

Giovanni and Leporello happen upon villagers celebrating the wedding of Zerlina and Masetto. Giovanni directs Leporello to distract Masetto so he can be alone with Zerlina, but Elvira interrupts the seduction. 

Anna and Ottavio arrive, enlisting Giovanni's help to find the Commendatore's killer. Elvira's denunciations of Giovanni stir their suspicions, but he tells them Elvira is mad.

After Giovanni leaves, Anna tells Ottavio she recognised Giovanni's voice as that of her father's slayer.

Killer confronted

Masetto scolds Zerlina for flirting with Giovanni, but she persuades him to forgive her. Giovanni invites the couple, along with three mysterious masquers (actually Anna, Ottavio and Elvira) to a party at his home.

At the party, when Zerlina's screams interrupt the festivities, Giovanni falsely accuses Leporello of attacking her. Anna, Ottavio and Elvira unmask and confront Giovanni, who escapes.

Act II

Disguise, seduction and escape 

Leporello threatens to leave his master but Giovanni convinces him to stay. Switching clothes with Leporello, Giovanni serenades Elvira’s maid while Leporello, dressed as Giovanni, diverts Elvira.

Giovanni, still disguised as Leporello, meets Masetto, who is leading a vengeful posse in search of the Don. Giovanni tricks Masetto and escapes. Zerlina consoles her fiancé.

Ambush and lament

Leporello, disguised as Giovanni, is trying to lose Elvira when he is ambushed by Ottavio, Anna, Zerlina and Masetto, who think they've caught Giovanni. Leporello reveals his identity, begs for mercy and escapes.

Ottavio reasserts his intention to avenge Anna. Elvira, left alone, laments her betrayal by Giovanni.

A dinner invitation

Meeting up in a cemetery, Giovanni and Leporello encounter an effigy of the slain Commendatore. Giovanni demands that Leporello invite it to dinner, and, to Leporello's horror, the figure accepts.

Ottavio assures Anna her father's murder will soon be avenged, after which they may marry. But Anna is reluctant to wed so soon after her father's death.

Just deserts

Giovanni dines alone, waited upon by Leporello. Elvira arrives, urging Giovanni to reform, but he scorns her. The Commendatore arrives for dinner, demanding that Giovanni atone for his sins, but he refuses and meets his destiny.

Anna, Ottavio, Elvira, Masetto and Zerlina enter in search of Giovanni but find only the stunned Leporello, who describes his master's fate. They all agree evildoers must meet the terrible end they deserve.

The music

A stormy key

Don Giovanni is unique among comic operas – something underlined by its overture, which begins in the stormy key of D minor (like Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and Mozart’s Requiem).

This key recurs sparingly but tellingly throughout the opera: in the opening duel, in Anna and Ottavio’s Act I vengeance duet, in the Act I finale, and in the Commendatore’s ghostly reappearance in Act II. To enhance its impact, Mozart avoids using any other minor keys.  

The second part of the overture introduces the opera’s other important and most prevalent key – D major. This contrast of D minor and D major highlights the opera’s fluctuation between comedy and high drama.

Party of three

The Act I finale at Don Giovanni’s party features an ingenious passage. Three different instrumental groups play three differently metered dance tunes simultaneously, symbolising the three strata of society represented in the opera:

• A stately minuet (in triple metre) for the noble Anna, Ottavio and Elvira
• A rustic follia (in duple metre), which Giovanni uses to pander to his lower-born guests
• A boisterous allemande (in triple metre) for the lower-class Leporello and Masetto

Ensemble action

The finales of both acts are complex musical webs of solo and ensemble singing in multiple combinations. 

Mozart seamlessly adds characters to the stage, thickens the plot and raises the dramatic temperature over some 20 minutes of uninterrupted music.

By this time in his career ensembles are Mozart’s preferred way of advancing an opera’s action. They are the chief vehicle for character revelation and conflict in Don Giovanni, as in the Act II sextet 'Sola, sola in buio loco'.

Recommended links

See Don Giovanni on Tour this autumn

Read about Don Giovanni: Behind the Curtain – a special event looking at how an opera comes together 

Don Giovanni on DVD

Murashev.com – Italian-English libretto

Mozarteum.at – Digital Mozart Edition, Neue Mozart Ausgabe: Mozart’s complete works, digitised for personal use or classroom study

 

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