Photo by The Pirates of Penzance, 2017. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Don Giovanni Plot Outline

As was standard in all operas of the time, Don Giovanni begins with an overture, but it is one that is far more integrated with the story that any of Mozart’s other overtures. Not only do the opening chords suggests anything but a comic opera; in a move that was rare for his time (though almost expected in the works of later composers), Mozart introduces a motif that was to recur later in the opera – a series of ominous ascending and descending scales. A sudden transition, however, moves us quickly to the world of opera buffa, with a much more Mozart-like sound.

The overture never concludes; it rather segues immediately into the opera’s opening scene. The curtain rises on a garden at night, and as the music suggests, we see Leporello, Don Giovanni’s servant, pacing up and back, complaining in a brief aria about having to wait outside while his master has all the fun. Suddenly, Don Giovanni comes rushing from the house, with Donna Anna hanging onto his arm, insisting that he give her his name before he leaves. (Her reasons will be discussed later). In true opera buffa fashion, Leporello provides a rapid bass line for their argument, as he expresses his own fears. Hearing her father, the Commendatore, approach, Donna Anna releases Don Giovanni and runs back into the house. (Is she afraid that her father will see them together? This is just one point of contention about her actions.) The Commendatore, however, does see them together, and in anger he challenges Don Giovanni to a duel. At first refusing because of the disparity in their ages, Don Giovanni eventually accepts the challenge, and the orchestra describes a quick and violent battle, one which ends with the old man receiving a mortal blow. Appropriately, the music takes on a solemn tone, and the three men sing a trio in which it is clear that both Don Giovanni and Leporello are shaken by the victim’s death.

The following scene jarringly brings us back to the comic world of opera buffa. In a scene built on secco (dry) recitative – dialogue accompanied only by harpsichord – Leporello ignores the corpse still lying on the stage and begins cracking jokes, first asking his master which of the two men has died and then, in response to Giovanni’s response that the old man had it coming, inquiring as to whether Donna Anna got what she wanted as well.

The two men make their escape just ahead of Donna Anna and Don Ottavio, whom she has fetched to help rescue her father. Almost immediately she discovers the body, and the dialogue changes to recitative accompagnato (with orchestral accompaniment), allowing the orchestra to heighten the drama. Though he is supposed to be one of the “good guys” in this opera, Don Ottavio is hardly sympathetic in this scene. He orders that the “object” which is causing his beloved so much distress – the corpse – be removed immediately, and he tells her that he will be both husband and father to her – hardly the sort of thing a woman wants to hear within minutes of her father’s death. Nevertheless, in their duet Donna Anna gets him to swear that he will help her obtain vengeance on the killer.

The scene changes to a street, where Leporello tries to tell Don Giovanni that he is leading the life of a scoundrel, but he backs off when his clearly unrepentant master intimidates him into silence. Blood on his hands or not, Don Giovanni has important business to attend to, the seduction of a woman he has been following. He is delighted, however, that he senses the presence of yet another woman. Unbeknownst to Don Giovanni, the woman is Donna Elvira, a former conquest of his in search of revenge. He even offers to help console her as she sings of her desire for revenge on her former lover “Ah! Chi mi dice mai” (“Who will tell me”). Suddenly, the two recognize each other. She reminds him of the three days that they spent together and how he referred to her as his wife, though it is not clear if this marriage was ever consecrated or merely consummated. In an ironic aside, Leporello says that she talks like a novel, referring to the sentimental romantic fiction which was in vogue in that era.

Don Giovanni runs off after instructing Leporello to tell her what sort of man he really is. Leporello then sings the famous “Catalogue Aria.” He explains to her that she is neither the first nor last of his master’s lovers. In fact, there have been thousands, and Leporello carries a notebook so he can keep a running tally. With the rapid-fire delivery typical of the buffo bass singer (for example, Dulcamara’s sales pitch in The Elixir of Love) he tells her that his master will seduce anyone in a skirt, and he gives her the present count, broken down by country. Spain is in the lead, he tells her with comic precision, at 1,003. Leporello’s attitude toward Donna Elvira may be somewhat ambivalent at this point. He could be seen as mocking her or consoling her, depending upon the singer or the director. In any event, Don Giovanni is exposed here as a pathetic sex addict, less concerned with sensual pleasure than with impressive numbers. Not mollified by this explanation, Donna Elvira stalks off, swearing vengeance.

The scene shifts to the wedding party of two villagers of the lower economic class. Zerlina and Masetto, the bride and groom, enter, leading a chorus of villagers in a pleasant country song with lots of “la-la-la’s.” In contrast to the highborn ladies we have encountered earlier, Zerlina is characterized as a soubrette, usually a peasant or servant. The “ina” ending of her name suggests a woman of a lower economic class; in fact, sopranos sometimes refer to such rolls as “-ina and -etta” roles (cf. Adina, Giannetta, Despina). With Leporello at his side, Don Giovanni enters and gallantly makes the acquaintance of the wedding couple, but he is clearly motivated not by friendship but by a desire to deflower the bride before her husband has the chance. He invites the entire party to com to his castle to dine at his expense, and he instructs Leporello to keep the groom busy. Though not an explicit theme here, the custom of droit de seigneur – the master’s prerogative to have relations with the bride before her husband does – seems to be lurking in the background. (This theme was explicit in The Marriage of Figaro.) The “seduction” of Zerlina takes place in an atmosphere poisoned by the disparity in power between the classes. Despite his transparent gallantry, Don Giovanni is clearly attempting to intimidate the peasants with his power.

Realizing he has no choice in the matter, Masetto, after a brief aria, goes off to join the others, leaving Zerlina behind. Don Giovanni immediately begins his sinister seduction of Zerlina, telling her that to save her from marrying a man who does not deserve her, he will marry her himself. In the charming duet “Là ci darem la mano,” (Give me your hand”) which many consider to be the biggest “hit” number in the opera, Zerlina at first hesitates but soon gives in to Don Giovanni’s advances. Presumably, the opportunity to move up in social and economic class is too hard to resist.

Before they can run off, however, Donna Elvira, who has a remarkable knack for showing up at the most inconvenient times, enters. (In keeping with the conventions of the time, entrances and exits are not always supported by logic.) In her usual accusatory tone, she sings “A, fuggi il traditor” (“Flee the Traitor”), warning Zerlina of Don Giovanni’s duplicity and leads her away. Don Giovanni comments to himself that the devil has been thwarting all of his pleasant plans this day. (This may help settle the question that Leporello raised earlier; it implies that he was not able to consummate his seduction of Donna Anna.) Not recognizing Don Giovanni as the seducer/killer, they ask for his help. As if waiting for a cue, Donna Elvira storms in and warns them that he cannot be trusted. In the ensuing quartet, Don Giovanni tries to convince them that Donna Elvira is hysterical, but the couple suspect that she may have greater credibility. As Donna Elvira leaves, Don Giovanni follows her, presumably to keep her from doing harm to herself. Donna Anna now reveals to Don Ottavio that she recognized Don Giovanni’s voice and manner, and that she is certain that he is the man who killed her father. She describes the attempted rape. She had let the attacker enter her room because she had mistaken him for her fiancé. Several critics have noted that this explanation hardly makes sense, in that a proper gentleman of the time would not have entered the bedroom of a woman to whom he was not married, and a proper woman would not have admitted him. Nevertheless, this sets up the aria “Or sai chi l’onore,” (“Now you know who came to take my honor”) in which she asks him to seek vengeance on her behalf. The style of this aria is in the exalted opera seria form, and many listeners have heard in it an element of parody of the older style of music.

Leporello and Don Giovanni enter, and the servant provides a progress report. In a frenzied aria (often illogically referred to as the “champagne aria”), Don Giovanni tells Leporello to prepare a great feast with lots of wine and dancing, where he can add ten names to his book. The two men go off to make their preparations, and Masetto and Zerlina return. He is angry at her infidelity, and she, realizing her mistake, beg for another chance. “Batti, batti” (“Beat me”) she sings to him, telling him she will understand if he beats her, but afterwards she still wants him back. Directors and critics are somewhat divided on the question of how seriously we should take her words. Is she a coquette or a masochist? (From Mozart’s letters to his wife, we know that the couple engaged in erotic spanking as part of their love life.)

In opera buffa, each act concluded with a big ensemble. The Act I finale begins with Masetto still expressing his doubts. Don Giovanni enters and draws Zerlina to him, over her protests. Seeing Masetto, he invites the couple to join in dancing. Three masked figures show up (Don Ottavio, Donna Ana, and Donna Elvira) and are invited in. The musicians begin to play a minuet. Leporello contrives to separate Masetto and Zerlina, over their objections. Don Giovanni leads the others in a cry of “Viva la libertà,” (“Love live liberty!”) clearly not a political statement but a tribute to sexual license. He lures Zerlina into another room. Soon, the party is interrupted by her scream for help. Don Giovanni enters, with Leporello at knifepoint. He accuses Leporello of the attempted rape, and while no one really believes this, the confusion facilitates his escape as the curtain falls.

Many critics have found the plot of the second act, with the exception of the conclusion, to be less interesting than the first, but it nevertheless contains some of Mozart’s most glorious music. There is no appreciable passage of time between the two acts. Don Giovanni and Leporello enter and sing a brief duet in which Leporello, angry about being exposed to danger in the previous scene, threatens to quit, while Don Giovanni tells him he is being foolish. In the ensuing recitative, Don Giovanni gives him a cash bonus to stay on. When Leporello suggests that he should cut down on his amorous adventures, he replies that women are more necessary for him than the food he eats or the air he breathes, and he observes that if he were to be faithful to one woman he would be unfair to all the others. He informs Leporello that he is now interested in courting Elvira’s maid (a character never seen or heard in the opera). He orders Leporello to change cloaks with him, since a maid would be intimidated by a man of high degree.

Donna Elvira appears at the window. Don Giovanni sings sweetly to her, inviting her to come down to be with him. Leporello, in typical buffo fashion, punctuates their duet with his asides, at first laughing at her but then pitying her trusting heart.

Don Giovanni instructs Leporello, now disguised as his master, to make advances to Donna Elvira so he can devote his attention to the maid. Leporello carries off the deception effectively, and Don Giovanni scared them off with a feigned threat. To a pizzicato accompaniment suggesting a guitar, Don Giovanni sings a folk-style love song, “Deh vieni alla finestra” (“Come to the window), to the unseen object of his affections. He is interrupted, however, by Masetto and a group of followers, who are seeking revenge. Pretending to be the disgruntled Leporello, he sings a brief aria in which he points the men in various directions. Alone with Masetto, he tricks him into handing over his weapons, beats him up, and runs off.

Zerlina enters, in search of Masetto. When she finds him, she cajoles him for his hotheaded escapade and asks him where he is hurt. He points to a number of places on his anatomy and she replies suggestively that as long as the rest of him is all right, it’s not so bad. In the touching aria “Vedrai, carino” (“You will discover, my dear”) she tells him that she has the cure for his pains, and she tells him to put his hand on her chest so he can feel her heart beating.

One might find the implied eroticism of this scene somewhat comic, but the music suggests that her love is essentially maternal. The idea that man can find redemption through the love of a woman is one that we generally associate with Wagner, but in Zerlina’s magnificent aria, the grandeur of which rises above the light-hearted girl that Da Ponte apparently envisioned, Mozart seems to be pointing us in that direction as well. (We will see more of this theme later).

Meanwhile, Leporello, still disguised as his master, continues his courtship of Donna Elvira, and they sing a duet. Without a break in the music, Don Ottavio and Donna Anna enter, and when Masetto returns to threaten the supposed villain, the six voices blend seamlessly. Leporello sings a lengthy plea for mercy, but when he has successfully distracted them he decides that he would be better to run off than to further test their forgiveness.

In the scene that follows we are treated to a pair of Mozart’s greatest arias in quick succession, each preceded by a brief recitative. Don Ottavio declares that he is now sure of Donna Anna’s identification of Don Giovanni as her father’s killer, and in the aria “Il mio Tesoro” (“My treasure”) he asks the others to console his beloved while he goes off to seek revenge.

Oblivious of the emotions his actions have caused, Don Giovanni is now seen laughing at the chaos he has left in his wake. Encountering Leporello in a graveyard, he tells how he had made advances on a woman who mistook him for his servant. Leporello remarks that it could have been his wife (the first mention of her; perhaps a minor inconsistency). Their conversation is interrupted, however, by a ghostly voice, which we soon learn to be the spirit of the Commendatore, warning that his laughter will end before the morning. Noticing the statue of the deceased leader, Don Giovanni orders the frightened Leporello to read the inscription. It says, “Here I await heaven’s vengeance upon a vile assassin.” (Since the entire action of the opera appears to take place in the period of about a day, the speed with which this monument was erected – even if the inscription was added to an existing statue – reminds us that in opera time can be relative.) Unafraid, Don Giovanni insists that Leporello invite the statue to dinner, which Leporello does, with comic politeness and deference directed to the spirit of the deceased. The Commendatore needs only on word – “Si” – to respond.

They go home to prepare the feast, and Donna Anna and Don Ottavio reappear. Though he had appeared to grow in his understanding of her during the course of the opera, he continues tastelessly to press for an immediate marriage. Since the other two ladies have had a second-act aria, it is now Donna Anna’s turn, and Mozart obliges with the lovely “Non mi dir,” (“Do not tell me”) a perennial favorite of Mozart sopranos. She apologizes for putting her lover off, but she insists that her mourning prevents her form thinking of romance at this time.

The scene shifts to Don Giovanni’s dining room, where he has begun eating a sumptuous feast and is even willing to look the other way when Leporello sneaks some food for himself. He has hired a chamber orchestra for the occasion, and they proceed to play a number of hit songs of the day, arias from other operas. In a scene that is unusual, if not unique in the annals of opera, Don Giovanni and Leporello’s voices join the background orchestra so that each section of dialogue is sung to the tune of a different composer. There are a couple of “inside jokes” here. First, we hear an aria from Martin y Soler’s Una Cosa Rara, much to Leporello’s delight. This is a joke which Mozart allowed Da Ponte to play on him, for this opera, with a libretto by Da Ponte, had surpassed The Marriage of Figaro in popularity in Vienna – one reason that Don Giovanni premiered in Prague. Then comes “Non piu andrai” (“You won’t go”) from The Marriage of Figaro, and Leporello complains that he knows that opera too well. The joke is that the singer who played Leporello in the premiere had played the title role in Figaro the year before.

As we noted earlier, Mozart seems to have been exploring the idea of the redemptive power of women. A hint of this was heard in the final scene of The Marriage of Figaro, where the Countess’ hymn-like music suggested forgiveness far greater than that of a mortal woman forgiving her husband’s infidelities. Now Donna Elvira, who, as we noted before, keeps showing up at the strangest times, confronts Don Giovanni once more, not seeking revenge but rather offering salvation. She is giving him one more chance to redeem himself. Through loving her, he can save himself. He cruelly rejects this opportunity, and as she leaves, we hear her scream.

The reason for the scream is soon apparent. It is the statue, who in a dramatic declamation announces that he has indeed accepted the invitation to come to dinner. Don Giovanni, trying not to appear afraid, tells Leporello to bring food, but the statue replies that he no longer needs human food.

Here is the remarkable dramatic scene we alluded to earlier. No longer tied to the conventions of opera seria or opera buffa, the dialogue between the two (occasionally punctuated by Leporello’s attempts to persuade his master to retreat) reaches a dramatic intensity which we were not to hear again until Verdi’s middle period. A declamatory style has replaced the traditional melody we generally associate with Mozart. In the background, we hear the ominous ascending and descending scales we first heard in the overture, as well as a chorus of demons from below.

The statue tells him that it is time to reciprocate Don Giovanni’s invitation, and Don Giovanni must now come to dine with him in the next world. The statue takes his hand in a frozen grip. The Spanish play upon which the Don Juan legend was built was written to demonstrate that one could reach a point where repentance was no longer an option, but the Enlightenment Catholicism of Mozart’s time taught that the gates of repentance were always open. The statue offers Don Giovanni one last chance to repent, but even in the grip of a visitor from beyond the grave, he is too proud to repent. Only then does the statue drag Don Giovanni down to Hell, and we hear his anguished cry, followed by the frightened scream of Leporello.

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