Don Giovanni: Rebel Hero or Threat to Society

Simon keenleyside as Don Giovanni at the Royal Opera House, London, 2008.
Simon Keenleyside as Don Giovanni at the Royal Opera House, London, 2008.

The character of Don Giovanni in Mozart’s opera personifies two contrasting aspects of the Enlightment:

  1. The embodiment of liberty. Don Giovanni sees himself as exempt from the laws of state, society, culture and religion. In this sense he is the Enlightenment hero, an extreme example of the idea of liberty that marks the age.
  2. The embodiment of social disruption. Here he is the destroyer of liberty in others. His moral liscentiousness leads him to ignore oaths and promises, break up relationships and marriages and disrupt the distinctions in status that hold society together.

The conflict between these complementary and contrasting aspects of Don Giovanni is what drives the drama.

Don Giovanni as Rebel Hero

The comic element of the opera is drawn from the first definition described above: Don Giovanni as the emobdiment of liberty.

We delight in Don Giovanni’s trickery and play and are amused by his antics. This side of his character coincides with what the German poet Friedrich Schiller (a contemporary of Mozart) promoted as a classical aesthetic that transends the duality of the rational/formal and the material/sensual. As Nicholas Till says in his excellent book Mozart and the Enlightenment:

[Schiller] characterised aesthetic freedom, famously, as play – a self-fulfilling activity which liberates the sensual from material determination, re-admitting it to the airy dance of the ideal. For Schiller the play-drive was the ultimate expression of the ‘purposeful purposelessness’ of aesthetic freedom.

In On the Aesthetic Nature of Man, Schiller tells us how we can achieve the classical ideal of aesthetic social order:

We are likely to find it, like the pure Church and pure Republic, only in a few chosen circles, where conduct is governed, not by some soulless imitation of the manners and morals of others, but by the aesthetic nature we have made our own.

In this respect Don Giovanni represents the Enlightenment ideal of political and social liberty. The refrain of ‘Vive la libertà’ which Giovanni, Leporello, Don Ottavio, Donna Anna and Donna Elvira sing together during the finale of Act 1 highlights the ambiguity of the term within the opera, but as Julian Rushton points out in Don Giovanni (Cambridge Opera Handbook), the political implications of ‘Viva la libertà’ were taken seriously enough by the Austrian censorship in the nineteenth century for it to be changed in Italy to ‘Viva la società’.

Another element of Giovanni’s character which enhances the idea of his heroic status is his complete lack of fear. He displays a super-human courage in the two key climaxes of the work:

  • The Act 1 finale, where the five characters threaten him with the vengeance of heaven and he replies ‘My courage shall not fail me, though the powers of hell assail me.’
  • The finale of Act 2, where he says ‘no man shall call me coward’ and refuses to repent and change his life even in the face of everlasting suffering.

It is worth bearing in mind that in the final scenes of the opera Giovanni’s fate is not sealed, and that he is offered the chance to repent and go to heaven rather than hell. His steadfast refusal here is almost Nietzschian in its conception of invididuality, and in his refusal to compromise the full realisation of his own nature. One is forced to admire Giovanni here, as Nicholas Till says:

With his desperate, defiant denial he becomes a triumphant yea-sayer, prepared to plead his values of individual freedom at the bar of heaven itself. In this moment, as the scene is written by Mozart, it is almost impossible not to identify with Don Giovanni and adopt him as some sort of existential rebel: a rebel whom Camus was to describe as ‘A man who says no: but whose refusal does not imply renunciation,’ and who prefers ‘the risk of death to a denial of the rights that he defends.’

Don Giovanni as Social Threat

But of course there is a dark side to Don Giovanni. He is a ‘harbinger of chaos’. His liscentiousness, his breaking of oaths and promises, his flouting of taste, convention and manners, and his dismissal of all social conventions threaten the fabric of society itself.

The first scene alone sees him attempting the rape of an aristocratic lady betrothed to another and then murdering her father. Major crimes against society and its institutions are committed by Giovanni within the first 15 minutes of the action (and what an opening!).

Later he attempts to break up the marriage of Zerlina and Masetto before it has begun, and commits an act of violence on Masetto when he seeks revenge. It is clear that this kind of extreme individuality cannot operate within society.

Don Giovanni manifests disruption thorugh the confusion of social hierarchy that his actions bring about. We know from Leporello’s famous catalogue aria that amongst his conquests he counts country wenches, burghers’ wives, lower gentry, baronesses, princesseses and ‘every shape of female figure, every class and every age’. During the course of the opera we see him attempt to seduce a lady, a maid and a peasant, representatives of all three social classes.

This social breakdown is highlighted in one of the most extraordinary musical moments of the opera. During the Act 1 finale three dances are played together: menuetto, follia and alemanna are superimposed on top of one another, each dance representing the separate classes of aristocrat, peasant and bourgeoisie. The combination of distinct types of music, in different metres, treads a fine line between the harmonious and the grotesque, and highlights the dangers of disrupting social structures.

Don Giovanni, Act 1 Finale, performed at the New York Met, April 1990, conducted by James Levine. Note the three dance styles superimposed on each other, and the ensuing chaos, before the abrupt interruption of the three maskers 1 minute 56 seconds into this excerpt.

Don Giovanni: Hero or villain?

So which are we to take as the real Giovanni? Is he hero or villain? The answer has to be both, but this raises questions about the morality of the opera and what we should make of its ultimate meaning.

Nicholas Till makes a persuasive case for seeing Don Giovanni as a representative of the general artistic character, indeed an expression of Mozart himself, through what he calls ‘the subversive artistic spirit’.

Like Giovanni, the absolute artist remains uncommited to anything or anyone which will constrain his freedom; he breaks promises and defies threats. Like Giovanni, the artist must adopt chameleon disguises to penetrate into the world of others and assume that ‘negative capability‘ that Keats believed to be so important to the poet.

Mozart’s music is often effused with playfulness, not just in Don Giovanni but throughout his work. His Musical Joke, K.522, was written around the time he was writing Don Giovanni, and his love of dance forms is a clear indicator of the play drive in his music.

The Act 1 finale with its distorted dance themes takes on extra significance in this respect, as an expression not just of social disharmony but of Mozart’s skill as a composer. It demonstrates a virtuosic display of compositional skills to fit together three different dances, each in its own metre, and still produce music that makes sense as a whole (Mozart was later to elevate this technique to the level of the sublime with the remarkable fugal ending of his Jupiter Symphony).

Consider also this description of Mozart by Andreas Schachtner, a Salzburg trumpeter who knew Mozart and worked with him closesly (quoted in Mozart and the Enlightenment by Nicholas Till):

I think that if he had not had the advantage of good education which he enjoyed, he might have become the most wicked villain, so susceptible was he to every attraction, the goodness or badness of which he was not yet able to imagine.

As an artist Mozart expresses to us, through Giovanni, his own humanity. He thereby dramatises every human being’s desire to extend their individuality into the world and live life by their own rules.

At the same time we are made aware of the tensions between this expressive individuality and the social boundaries that help to keep these forces under control.

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