Don Giovanni: Synopsis, Characters & Composer

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  • 0:00 Introduction: A Dark Comedy
  • 0:42 Mozart and the Enlightenment
  • 1:46 ''Don Giovanni'':…
  • 3:22 Synopsis of ''Don Giovanni''
  • 6:34 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Emma Riggle

Emma has taught college Music courses and holds a master's degree in Music History and Literature.

In this lesson, you'll learn about the characters and story in Mozart's darkly comic opera, 'Don Giovanni'. You'll also learn how the story of philandering nobleman Don Giovanni expresses ideas connected to a philosophical movement called the Enlightenment.

Introduction: A Dark Comedy

If you've ever seen movies like Fargo or O Brother, Where Art Thou?, you'll have an idea what a dark comedy is. We call a movie a dark comedy when it deals with tragic themes, like murder or crime, in a surprisingly funny way. Mozart's opera Don Giovanni is unusual because it too is something of a dark comedy. Most operas in Mozart's time were purely comic or tragic, but Don Giovanni is a hilarious show that delves into darkness, complete with seduction, murder, and a statue from beyond the grave.

Mozart and the Enlightenment

Don Giovanni was composed in 1787 by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, a composer from music's Classical period who lived from 1756 to 1791. Classical is a label for music from the late 18th and early 19th centuries, a period roughly corresponding to a philosophical movement called the Enlightenment. During the Enlightenment, European thinkers celebrated the idea of social justice and the value of common people, as opposed to the powerful aristocrats who ruled the roost at the time.

Mozart came from a working-class background. In fact, he earned his living as a musician from the tender age of six. Like many Classical composers, Mozart wrote a lot of music designed for middle-class audiences, drawing on ideas from the Enlightenment. His compositions include symphonies, piano works, and many other pieces, as well as operas like Don Giovanni, one of several that he wrote to words by Italian author Lorenzo da Ponte.

Don Giovanni: Concept and Characters

Don Giovanni is an example of opera buffa, or comic opera, a genre that was popular during the Enlightenment. Middle-class audiences loved opera buffa, because it was entertaining, full of slapstick humor, and often poked fun at the aristocracy.

Don Giovanni retells the dubious adventures of legendary nobleman Don Giovanni, who travels throughout Spain seducing countless women. His wealth and power protect him from facing the consequences of his deeds, until one day he goes too far, committing a murder which eventually leads to his downfall.

There are eight main characters in Don Giovanni. Note that 'Don' and 'Donna' are not names, but aristocratic titles corresponding to 'Lord' and 'Lady'. Imagine a risqué Spanish version of Downton Abbey and you'll have the right idea.

  • Don Giovanni is a powerful young nobleman, and a sociopathic womanizer.
  • Leporello is the Don's sarcastic servant, a sidekick who is both entertained and troubled by his boss's philandering.
  • Donna Anna is an aristocratic lady, one of Don Giovanni's conquests.
  • Don Ottavio is Donna Anna's somewhat wimpy fiancé.
  • The Commandant is Donna Anna's father, an elderly military officer.
  • Donna Elvira is one of Don Giovanni's bitter ex-girlfriends.
  • Zerlina is a beautiful, sassy peasant girl.
  • Masetto is Zerlina's passionate but bumbling fiancé.

Synopsis of Don Giovanni

Mozart gives us some dark foreshadowing before the curtain rises. The orchestra plays two loud, terrifying chords, followed by quiet, creepy music that creates a tense atmosphere. This music will return at a climactic moment in the opera. Though cheerful music follows, the opening warns that this comic opera has tragic undertones.

In Act One, Leporello is waiting outside Donna Anna's house when a masked man rushes out, pursued by Anna. When she screams for help, her father the Commandant appears, but the masked man kills him in a saber duel. The audience learns that the masked man is Don Giovanni because he runs away with Leporello, but Anna remains unaware of her seducer's identity.

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