Don Giovanni, created by Mozart and his librettist Lorenzo da Ponte in 1787, brought an old popular legend to the stage in the most complex and modern music of its time. Commissioned for an Italian opera troupe based in Prague, the two-act opera melded elements of high tragedy with the low and frequently risqué humor of opera buffa. The role of Don Giovanni itself embodies this dichotomy, in depicting an aristocratic gentleman whose sexual adventures and open philosophy—Viva la libertà!—lead him to forsake the dignity of his class, transgress society's moral codes, and ultimately cross the line from pleasurable risk to destruction and death. The premiere of the opera took place at the Estates Theater in Prague on October 29, 1787; the following May, with some alterations and a few additional numbers as well as a new cast, it opened in Vienna.
Next week's production, created by Iván Fischer with singers, actors, and members of the Budapest Festival Orchestra, presents Mozart's original conception of the opera as it was first performed in Prague. Modern audiences, usually treated to some hybrid of the two versions, are accustomed to hearing Don Ottavio perform an aria ("Dalla sua pace") in the first act; but in Prague, Ottavio emerged in virtuous opposition to Don Giovanni only in Act II, with the eloquent coloratura of "Il mio tesoro." A scena introduced in Vienna for the celebrated singer Caterina Cavalieri as Donna Elvira ("Mi tradì quell'alma ingrata") did not appear in Prague. And Mozart's original finale extends beyond the descent of Don Giovanni to hell, bringing together the entire community of survivors for a full and lengthy reflection on their own futures, and the punishment due to those who sin.
Musicologist Kathryn L. Libin teaches music history and theory at Vassar College.