Unlike obscure Greek myths or, say, the lineage of Hungarian kings since Saint Stephen, no one has to look up the story line of the Don Juan legend.
“Once they see the name Don Juan, everyone knows the story of the seducer,” said Nicholas Muni, director and stage designer of San Diego Opera’s upcoming production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, the most universally acclaimed stage work descended from the first Don Juan play, written by the 17th-century Spanish monk Tirso da Molina (whose title translates The Trickster of Seville and the Stone Guest).
“Don Giovanni can easily become a one-joke piece: sex. But it’s not about sex, in my view. Sex is just the hook.”
The goal of Muni’s production, which he has done in both American and Canadian companies, is to move beyond the obvious and elucidate the complexities beneath the surface of an opera that has long fascinated philosophers and poets, not to mention opera audiences. Since the early 19th century, just a few decades after the work’s 1787 premiere in Prague, it has never left the active repertory of regularly performed operas.
“When Mozart and his librettist Lorenzo da Ponte came across existing operatic versions of Don Giovanni, they were just short commedia—more like farce. Mozart and da Ponte took the play’s stock characters and developed the complexity of each.”
Perceptive opera mavens have always realized the irony of the way Mozart presents his title character: the western world’s most notorious rake fails to seduce a single woman in three and one-half hours of onstage dramatic encounters.
For Muni, the opera’s real themes are love, seduction, liberation, vengeance, self-sacrifice, inner demons, and inadequacy. In order to tease out the complexities of Don Giovanni, Muni looks at every character through their own viewpoint, because he sees each player of equal importance to the title character. Musically, the opera’s ensembles leave a greater impression than do the arias, an indication that Mozart put more artistry into the music where everyone was interacting on an equal footing.
Through his research, Muni has pieced together Don Giovanni’s backstory, which significantly clarifies da Ponte’s plot and why he acts the way he does. “He is not just a nobleman, he is a Cavaliere, a Knight of the Order of Calatrava, someone who wears a cross prominently at his collar. For this reason, women are permitted to be alone with him because he is tantamount to being a priest.”
Because he was a knight, a person sworn to protect women and children, he was trusted to hear the woes of women, although his usual form of consolation, Muni quickly pointed out, was an unexpected violation of that trust.
Don Giovanni had to be young, “probably only 20 or 21,” Muni speculated, “because it was acceptable for a young nobleman to be unmarried, but an unmaried man much over that age would immediately arouse suspicion concerning his intentions towards women.”
From Leporello’s famous “Catalogue” Aria, we know that the Don has seduced women in Italy, Germany, France and Turkey, and, of course, in his native Spain—with the exception of the city of Seville.
“He needed to keep up the image of nobility in Seville, his home city, where tales of his conquests would spread quickly and ruin his social standing. His fatal mistake is seducing Donna Anna—the very beginning of Mozart’s opera—and breaking that rule starts a snowball effect that leads to his downfall.”
Da Ponte had Don Giovanni disguise himself as Anna’s betrothed, Don Ottavio, to gain entrance to her room at night, but when she realizes her nocturnal visitor is not Ottavio, she chases him into the courtyard, where he encounters her father, the Commendatore. They engage in a sword fight, and Don Giovanni kills the older man.
“The Commendatore is also a member of the Order of Calatrava, and in an earlier version of the story he is Giovanni’s godfather,” Muni observed. It is the Commendatore’s ghost—in the guise of the statue that marks his grave—who appears in the opera’s last act and drags Don Giovanni down to Hell.
“But the Commendatore does not come with the intention to take him to Hell,” Muni said, “but rather to save his soul. Mozart was a good Catholic and belived in the efficacy of confession. The Commendatore came to get Don Giovanni to admit his sins.” He does not, of course, and this is his final undoing.
For this production, Muni has designed a single set with many small trap doors that contain all the props that are required. “There are no scene changes, so all of the stage action can mirror the speed of the piece—it is really a fast-paced drama.”
Although da Ponte labelled this opera a dramma giocoso (Usually defined as a comic opera with some serious elements), although that designation was not Mozart’s. Muni defined the opera in his terms: “Yes, it is a lively drama, but it is not a comedy. The opera is a true tragedy because Don Giovanni makes the decisions which cause his own demise.”
At the end of the opera, the remaining characters sing a jaunty fugue that expresses a succinct moral to the story—the translation is typically aphoristic: “This is the end of the evil-doer: his death is as bad as his life.” But is this pat conclusion an adequate summation of Don Giovanni’s life?
“Da Ponte created an anti-hero you cannot really pin down,” Muni mused. “How could you really convict him?”
San Diego Opera opens W. A. Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” on Saturday, Feb. 14, at 7:00 p.m. at the San Diego Civic Theatre. Performances on February 17 & 20 also at 7:00 p.m.; a Sunday, February 22 matinee at 2:00 p.m. Tickets: (619) 533-7000; sdopera.com.