By CHRISOPHER MOSSEY
This is especially true of Don Giovanni, whose very character is defined both by an uncontrollable pursuit of women of all sizes, nationalities, and temperaments, and by the ends to which these pursuits lead. Mozart's setting of Lorenzo Da Ponte's libretto bears this point well, for the richly written musical portrayals of Don Giovanni's female characters continue to inspire fascination among admirers of opera.
Even before Don Giovanni received its first performance in Prague in 1787, Mozart had already developed considerable sensitivity to the portrayal of women, their motivations, and their aspirations. As in its immediate predecessor in Mozart's output, Le Nozze di Figaro, the women portrayed in Don Giovanni--Donna Anna, Donna Elvira, and Zerlina--represent serious, semi-serious, and comic character types. Mozart's special interest in the characters of Elvira and Zerlina prompted him to create additional arias and scenes for them (including Elvira's famous "In quali eccessi ... Mi tradi") in a 1788 Vienna production.
Each female character in Don Giovanni brings her own desires, musical language, and perspective to the story, and each stands on her own as a subject worthy of inquiry. The noblewoman Donna Anna, nearly raped by Don Giovanni at the beginning of the opera, struggles to balance her pursuits of revenge and marriage to Don Ottavio. Donna Elvira boldly travels alone to the opera's Spanish town locale to learn why Don Giovanni has abandoned her. Displaying a special insight into Giovanni's means of deception, Elvira is protective of the other women in the story, but also becomes the regular target of misogynistic insults hurled by Don Giovanni and his servant, Leporello. The peasant girl Zerlina, young and alluring, fully aware of her beauty, is a buffa character who develops perhaps more than any other woman in the opera. Her conflicted relationships to both Giovanni and Masetto, her peasant-fiancé, generate within her a newfound sense of her power over men. All three women succumb in one way or another to the allure of Don Giovanni, yet each handles her feelings differently, in ways that give immense vitality to the story.
Donna Anna desires in Don Giovanni are straightforward: to discover Don Giovanni's identity and see him punished. Of high social rank, and drawn by Mozart with a musically powerful voice, Donna Anna develops little in the course of the story. In the first scene of the opera, Don Giovanni attempts to rape Donna Anna, and minutes later kills her aging father, the Commendatore, who has answered his daughter's call for assistance. For the rest of the opera Donna Anna seeks revenge, while at the same time displaying incredible patience to consummate the love of her devoted Don Ottavio, whose proposals of marriage she rebuffs time and again. Donna Anna's quest to reveal Giovanni's identity is distilled in her very first action in the opera: she is chasing after Don Giovanni trying to see his face.
Donna Anna's major vehicles of musical expression deal directly with the pursuit of revenge at the expense of all else. Her duet with Don Ottavio, "Fuggi crudele," comes shortly after she discovers her father's dead body. Rich with tempo changes and modulations, the duet captures the rapid cascade of emotion--from Donna Anna's disbelief to Don Ottavio's intermittent pleadings that she let go of the bitter memory of death--and leads to an exuberant stretta in which they swear vengeance. Donna Anna realizes that Don Giovanni is her father's killer in the context of a quartet ("Non ti fidar, o misera") with Donna Elvira, Don Ottavio, and Don Giovanni. This discovery leads her to tell Don Ottavio the facts of her encounter with Don Giovanni, leading to her only aria of Act I, "Or sai chi l'onore." In this aria, she asks Don Ottavio once again to join in her pursuit of Don Giovanni. It would be difficult for anyone to resist the persuasive force of "Or sai chi l'onore": supported by tremolos in the strings, the upwardly transposing opening phrases of the aria and the orchestral surge supporting Donna Anna's high sustained A convey a sense of hope and determination.
Despite their twin pledges of revenge, Donna Anna and Don Ottavio remain powerless to manipulate Don Giovanni's capture. Along with Donna Elvira, they infiltrate a celebration at Don Giovanni's house (Act I finale), but fail to capture him as he attempts to dishonor Zerlina. Don Ottavio's impatience in the hunt for Don Giovanni eventually motivates Donna Anna's final aria, "Non mi dir," in which she expresses her true love for her fiancé. Affectingly opened with an accompanied recitative, this two-part aria makes use of virtuosic passages of vocal figuration touching the top of Donna Anna's vocal range. Ultimately, her aria reassures Don Ottavio, the only character Donna Anna is able to persuade in the story. Even after Don Giovanni is taken to hell in the opera's well-known infernal scene, Donna Anna asks Don Ottavio to wait another year before marriage.
Donna Elvira desires in Don Giovanni are more equivocal than those of Donna Anna. Unlike Donna Anna and Zerlina, she has no secure love interest, but rather is in search of one. Having traveled from another city by herself to find Don Giovanni, Donna Elvira clearly finds the man alluring, but even near the end of the opera has difficulty accepting Giovanni's more unsavory qualities. Elvira is horrified to learn, in Leporello's famous "Catalog Aria," of Don Giovanni's catholic tastes in women. She complains repeatedly throughout the opera that Don Giovanni has abandoned her, and turns up like a bad penny, often portrayed comically, in various efforts to foil Giovanni's attempts to exploit the innocent Zerlina. Nonetheless, when Leporello disguises himself as Don Giovanni in Act II and pretends to beg forgiveness for his past actions, Donna Elvira blindly believes him and lets her imagination run to the marriage altar. Like Donna Anna, she tries intently to manipulate actions against Don Giovanni. And while Elvira is successful in arousing the suspicions of Donna Anna with regard to Don Giovanni's identity, all of her other plans eventually lead nowhere.
Mozart distinguishes Donna Elvira from the other characters with a vivid musical voice that is at once forceful and sometimes easily undercut by its dramatic context. Awkward leaps, anxious turns of phrase, and dotted rhythms characterize her vocal line and the range in which she sings is often high. In her compelling entrance aria, "Ah chi mi dice mai," the angularity of Elvira's vocal lines and a virtuoso coda clearly convey her anger at Don Giovanni, yet her vocal determination is undermined by the asides of Don Giovanni and Leporello, who comment on Elvira in secrecy, denying her the opportunity for individual expression. Mozart continues this affect in Elvira's brief Act I aria, "Ah fuggi il traditor," as well as her other agitated confrontations with Don Giovanni in various vocal ensembles, which together draw a musical picture of a hysterical and vulnerable woman.
Elvira's famous scene in Act II, "In quali eccessi ... Mi tradi," is central to this portrayal. The only solo scene for Elvira, it is an economical summation of her entire experience in the opera. In the scene, a premonition of Giovanni's death inspires Elvira to reconsider how he has treated her, and the resulting outpouring of pity, latent throughout the opera, is deployed arrestingly without the halting quality of her earlier music. Mozart writes into the climax of the aria forceful cries of pity that are at once breathtaking to hear and depressingly revealing of Donna Elvira's inability to let go of a man who sees her only as a source of amusement.
The buffa character Zerlina is central to the plot of Don Giovanni, much in the same way as Susanna is in Le Nozze di Figaro. Her part is as substantial as Donna Anna's and Elvira's, and the role was expanded significantly by Mozart in the Vienna revision in 1788.
As opposed to Donna Anna and Donna Elvira, whom Giovanni tries to avoid at all costs throughout the opera, the young and beautiful Zerlina proves to be an irresistible magnet to Giovanni. His allure holds no less sway over Zerlina than over the other women, and is sufficiently powerful to lure Zerlina away from her own wedding festivities when we first meet her in Act I. This first of several encounters between Zerlina and Don Giovanni stimulates a cycle of jealous rage within Masetto, her kind-hearted fiancé. Throughout Don Giovanni, Zerlina's management of Don Giovanni's attraction to her and Masetto's simmering anger is the basis for notable character development reflected in Mozart's musical setting.
Zerlina's first entrance is part of a festive chorus, "Giovanette che fate all'amore," assembled to celebrate her wedding to Masetto. Here, the low social rank of Zerlina and Masetto informs the character of the music: a jovial, tarantella-like rhythm suggests folk music. Shortly thereafter comes Giovanni's wedding-day seduction, and from the outset, Zerlina is skeptical of the sweetness and promises uttered by Giovanni. In the duettino "La ci darem la mano," however, Don Giovanni unleashes his charm by speaking Zerlina's language--simple melodies within periodic phrasing. Each phrase of the duet is expanded, and the two vocal lines intertwine, as Zerlina finally admits her weakness and desire for Giovanni to "ease the ache of a chaste love." As they move into Don Giovanni's house at the end of the duet, however, Donna Elvira appears out of nowhere in order to save Zerlina from the seducer. This is the furthest Don Giovanni gets in his pursuit of Zerlina, yet she remains the target of his affections for the remainder of the opera.
From her encounter with Don Giovanni, Zerlina learns something of the perils of unchecked human attraction. Thereafter, she spends considerable time trying to reassure Masetto that her devotion to him has not been lost. Zerlina's arias, "Batti batti o bel Masetto" (Act I) and "Vedrai carino" (Act II), are both designed to persuade Masetto of this and display an increasing richness to Zerlina's music and character. In "Batti batti o bel Masetto" Zerlina hones her own, newly learned seductive powers in order to make up with her dejected fiancé. Supported by an undulating obbligato cello, her vocal lines begin simply, but gradually expand in urgency, as she offers kisses and affection to Masetto if he lets go of his jealous feelings. In "Vedrai carino," Zerlina follows through on this promise. The aria comes shortly after Don Giovanni (disguised as Leporello) beats Masetto. As a balm for her fiancé's suffering, Zerlina offers herself--"nature's cure"--to Masetto with abandon. The coda of the aria literally depicts Zerlina's heart beating with anticipation as she leads Masetto off to make love.