By S. Stasov
Photo courtesy of parodos.it at Google Images
If music were a religion, then Mozart would be the Christ figure who performed countless miracles. Or he’d at least be some high level saint, capable of healing the sick. In fact, Papa Mozart once referred to Wolfgang as the “miracle God caused to be born in Salzburg” on January 27, 1756. And this was during the skeptical, atheist-leaning Enlightenment.
Of all the endlessly gorgeous music composed by Mozart, his greatest achievement was for the stage. A dramatist at heart, Mozart wrote symphonically rich scores for his operas. He created characters so psychologically complex and believable that his stage work has been compared to Shakespeare’s.
Don Giovanni was commissioned by his appreciative music loving fans in Prague in 1787. It’s Mozart’s greatest work, and many consider it the greatest opera of all time. An example of the astonishing speed at which Mozart could compose, the overture was written the day before the premiere, the ink still wet as the parts were distributed among the orchestra.
The overture to Don Giovanni may be the first scary music audiences ever heard. At that time, music was expected to be graceful, elegant, and restrained. Inoffensive. Mozart went over the top with Don Giovanni. Beginning with the shattering first chords of the overture, the music mixes the era’s two categories of opera – serious and comic. An opera was either one of the other. Don Giovanni breaks out of all previously established modes – Mozart called it a dramma giocoso (serious/funny). It presents the aristocratic Don in various comic situations, but as a serial rapist who meets his doom in the ghostly, demonic finale. No one had seen or heard anything like Don Giovanni. It took a while to catch on. Unfortunately, Mozart was dead by then.
Mozart couldn’t resist opportunities to insult the nobility in his operas. His tendency to present aristocrats as exploitive sociopathic monsters didn’t help his career in feudal Austria. Don Giovanni was originally banned in Munich. Today it’s one of the world’s most frequently performed operas.
Compare and contrast the overture to Don Giovanni, interpreted by various great conductors:
Herbert von Karajan
The Commendatore scene in which Don Giovanni is consigned to Hell:
Furtwängler, Cesare Siepi, Deszo Ernster
Herbert von Karajan, Samuel Ramey, Kurt Moll