May 16, 2016 | Amadeus Chen
Mozart’s Don Giovanni (1787) is one of the most frequently performed operas of our time. Based on the Spanish legend of Don Juan, it also inspires philosophical and literary discussions due to Mozart’s unique musical rendering of the antagonist. The opera opens with Giovanni’s attempt to rape a noble lady Donna Anna, whose father, the Commendatore, challenges Giovanni to a duel but is killed by the latter. The plot then revolves around Giovanni’s ceaseless attempts to seduce other different women and his efforts to evade punishment. In the graveyard scene of Act II, Giovanni confronts the statue of the Commendatore, which comes to life and predicts Giovanni’s doom. Despite the supernatural threat, Giovanni defiantly invites the statue to dine with him, and it answers with an ominous “Sì.” In the following feast scene, the statue appears and demands penitence from the antagonist. Giovanni refuses to repent and is dragged into hellish fire followed by a chorus preaching the motto “evildoers will meet their just ends” that concludes the entire opera.
It is Mozart’s musical characterization of Giovanni in the opera that invites philosophical and literary consideration. The “Song of Champagne” that Giovanni sings in Act I scene iii is a representation of European libertinism prevalent in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Its fast tempo and rap-like text raving about women, wine, food, and dance embody individualism to the extreme, and such materialist revelry defies traditional spirituality and morality centered on God. Though his contempt for social conventions and religious doctrines shares certain propensities with Romanticism, Mozart’s Giovanni is far from a typical Byronic hero. He has no secret past of guilt that afflicts his mentality (as the hero in The Giaour), nor does he harbor prohibited love for an impossible one that leads to inevitable destruction (as the incestuous love in Manfred). Utterly free from any restraint, Giovanni relentlessly pursues corporeal pleasure, regardless of other people around him, and in the end even regardless of himself. Such a characterization actually resembles more the villains in Marquis de Sade’s works than Romantic rebels.
Giovanni’s downright allegiance to pleasure is most powerfully presented when the statue of Commendatore seizes his hand and commands him to repent his crimes. Facing the devouring chasm of hell, Giovanni responds with six adamantine “No!” before falling into the flames. Mozart’s “terrifying and wonderful” orchestration (as remarked by Antonio Salieri in Miloš Forman’s 1984 filmAmadeus ) merges with Commendatore’s stern bass voice, presenting an overwhelming force that resounds with the Old Testament God who speaks in howling whirlwind and storm. Giovanni’s baritone voice is relatively weaker but persistent and without remorse, full of the human will to rebel against an immovable fate. The music here containing this potential God-human conflict generates an aesthetics that transcends morality, an aesthetics that goes “beyond good and evil,” as Nietzsche would put it. Morality becomes irrelevant in this scene, where the audience witnesses the tragic nature of humanity in restless and doomed pursuit of desire. The opera could have ended here perfectly. However, as the contemporary operatic tradition requires, Mozart adds a final didactic chorus with the words, “evildoers will meet their just ends.” This vocal ensemble brings back God-based morality and undermines the unique aesthetics that Giovanni epitomizes in his last stand.
Some revisions in modern productions of Don Giovanni have attempted to deal with the problematic ending of this opera. As Mark Berry points out in his article “Ending Don Giovanni,” Gustav Mahler’s 1906 production did omit the final chorus, echoed by Pierre Boulez’s comments that without it “the absolutely pure style of this sublime score” of Don Giovanni can be best presented.  Other different revisions can be observed. For example, in the 2002 Zürich Opera House production conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt, the final chorus was retained. But when it ended the audience saw Giovanni on a floating cloud kissing a nameless beauty, apparently continuing his revelry in afterlife rather than suffering in hell. In the 2015 production by Taipei Philharmonic Opera Studio the chorus was also kept, but there was another innovative change. The director had Giovanni fool the statue in the Commendatore scene: instead of Giovanni himself, his timid but good-natured servant Leporello was dragged into hell. In both the Zürich and Taipei productions Giovanni escaped final punishment. Such a change serves as a sharp irony against the moral of the final chorus and reflects the reality that evildoers don’t necessarily meet their just ends. However, this kind of revision considerably diminishes the tragic atmosphere of Giovanni’s downfall generated in the previous scene.
How to properly stage Don Giovanni’s ending remains a serious question for opera directors and conductors. Although the simple omission of the final chorus reinforces the aesthetics reified by the title role, it is still a breach of Mozart’s original score and against the historical norm of Classical operas. The changes included in the Zürich and Taipei productions have their defects also as mentioned above. Perhaps the Don Giovanni dilemma can never be perfectly resolved. Nevertheless, it continues to evoke critical reconsideration for Mozart’s music and the aesthetic and moral issues that it has brought forth.
I am a Taiwanese first-year PhD student in English literature at the University of Edinburgh. My doctoral project examines how certain sexual images and motifs commonly deemed “obscene” are represented as a unique aesthetic phenomenon in the works of English Romantic writers. My other research interests include religious aspects in literature, theories on eroticism and pornography, and classical music (though not in a very scholarly way).
Article edited by Ryan Edwards, Matthew Tibble, and Robyn Pritzker.
1. Amadeus. Dir. Miloš Forman. Perf. F. Murray Abraham and Tom Hulce. Orion Pictures, 1984. DVD.
2. Barry, Mark. “Ending Don Giovanni.” Boulezian. 2 Feb. 2014. Web. 8 May 2016.