Article by Anthony Holden
Wolfgang Mozart was a struggling unknown from Salzburg, looking to make his musical mark with an Italian opera buffa, when he first met the Abbé Lorenzo Da Ponte at a party chez his Vienna landlord in 1783. A Jewish-born Catholic priest, expelled from his native Venice for political and sexual misconduct, Da Ponte had reinvented himself in Vienna as an operatic librettist, writing for such musicians of the moment as Martin y Soler and the court composer himself, Antonio Salieri. In the process, he had become a favourite of the Emperor, Joseph II. ‘We have a new poet here, Abbé Da Ponte,’ 27-year-old Mozart wrote excitedly to his father in Salzburg. ‘The best thing is when a good composer, who understands the stage enough to make sound suggestions, meets an able poet, that true phoenix.’ In the roguish Da Ponte, six years his senior, Mozart had found his ‘true phoenix’. Their first collaboration, Le nozze di Figaro, had to be written in secret, as the Emperor had banned the Beaumarchais play on which it was based. Persuaded by Da Ponte that he had removed all subversive material, and that Mozart’s music was ‘sublime’, Joseph sanctioned it for performance in 1786, when its first-night triumph in Vienna proved short-lived; six months later, it had enjoyed only nine performances before being overtaken by a now-forgotten opera called Una Cosa Rara, a Martin score to another Da Ponte text, which he playfully has Leporello quote alongside Figaro in the climactic scene of Don Giovanni.
1786 proved an annus mirabilis for Da Ponte; of the ten new Italian operas staged at Vienna’s Burgtheater that year, six were by him. The success of Cosa Rara saw Martin keen to capitalize with another collaboration, while Figaro had Salieri requesting an Italian translation of his French success Tarare, another Beaumarchais setting then wowing Paris. When Figaro’s eclipse in Vienna was followed by a triumph in the second Habsburg city of Prague, the National Theatre’s Domenico Guardasoni duly commissioned another opera from Mozart, so he too was badgering Da Ponte for a new idea. To Martin Da Ponte proposed one of his own few original libretti, L’Arbore di Diana; and to Mozart he suggested a reworking of the hoary old legend of Don Juan. When Da Ponte boasted to the Emperor that he was simultaneously writing three pieces for three different composers, Joseph laughed: ‘You won’t succeed!’ ‘Perhaps not, but I shall try,’ replied Da Ponte. ‘At night I shall write for Mozart, which will be like reading Dante’s Inferno. In the morning I shall write for Martin, which will be like reading Petrarch. And in the evening for Salieri, who will be my Tasso.’ He settled down to his three tasks with a bottle of Tokay to his right, an inkstand in front of him, and a box of Seville tobacco to his left. But his ambitious plan was further complicated by the buxom beauty of the 16-year-old serving-girl, his landlady’s daughter, briefed to supply his every need. Soon she was satisfying more needs than her mother had bargained for. ‘I should have wished to love her only as a daughter, but…’ recalled Da Ponte, who found himself ringing the bell to summon the girl in the next room with increasing frequency, ‘especially when my inspiration cooled’, as he worked 12-hour days for two months. On the first such day, if Da Ponte is to be believed, ‘between the Tokay, the Seville tobacco, the coffee, the bell and the young Muse, I wrote the first two scenes of Don Giovanni, two scenes of L’Arbore di Diana and more than half the first act of Tarar’ (whose title he changed to Axur, Re d’Ormus). ‘In the morning I took these scenes to the three composers, who could hardly believe their eyes. In sixty-three days the first two operas were quite finished, and nearly two-third of the last.’
Mozart-Da Ponte’s Don Giovanni, sub-titled Il dissoluto punito, is a re-telling of the Don Juan legend dating back to a 1630 romp by Tirso de Molina, El Burlador de Sevilla, which had since fallen out of fashion. After versions by Moliere (1665), Shadwell (1676) and Goldoni (1736), among many others, the drama of the serial seducer dragged down to hell had been reduced to mere vaudeville by the mid-eighteenth century; until not long before, it had been the subject of a pantomime in Vienna on All Soul’s Day. Even thirty years after Mozart-Da Ponte’s landmark version, Byron felt obliged to call his (unfinished) poem Don Juan an attempt to ‘strip the tinsel off the sentiment.’
Although regarded with distaste by the Viennese cognoscenti, the tragi-comic theme appealed to the darker, not to say coarser side of Mozart’s sense of humour. And, of course, he and Da Ponte were writing this for Prague, by then past its glory days, its opera audiences less sophisticated than Vienna’s. So Da Ponte made no attempt, unlike some predecessors, to ‘rationalize’ the story. The talking statue or ‘stone guest’, much derided by that time, still comes to dinner; Don Giovanni is all too literally dragged down into hell.
When Da Ponte later claimed that he had chosen the legend of Don Juan as ‘a subject especially suited to Mozart’s genius’, he omitted to mention that in February 1787, while Mozart was away in Prague, news had reached him in Vienna of the premiere in Venice of Giuseppe Gazzaniga’s opera Don Giovanni Tenorio o sia Il Convitato di Pietro, to a libretto by Giovanni Bertati. Da Ponte immediately sent for a copy. Comparison suggests that Da Ponte’s version of the Don Juan legend was not quite as original as he claimed; he leaned heavily on Bertati’s version for Gazzaniga, amid other recent reworkings of a very old theme. But Bertati’s was a one-act libretto, revolving entirely around the licentious Don; where he had been reducing a source in Figaro, Da Ponte was expanding one in Don Giovanni. By filling out the other characters, Da Ponte made an old tale very much his own. In Bertati, the peasant girl Maturina (Da Ponte’s Zerlina) is a major character, but her fiancé disappears early, as indeed does Anna. Da Ponte created the twin sets of lovers, Zerlina and Masetto, Anna and Ottavio, to pursue their own sub-plots as well as interacting with Giovanni; similarly, Elvira and Leporello have a long diversion ensuring that the action does not flag while the Don enjoys a hard-earned break offstage.
Apart from the cemetery scene and the climactic banquet, most of the Bertati material was recycled in Act One, moving some critics to criticize the static nature of Da Ponte’s second act, where each character seems to take turns to sing a solo aria amid the continuing ensemble development. The idea of Don Giovanni and his servant swapping identities – the ‘disguise’ motif – was a stock buffo device; but Da Ponte, no doubt on Mozart’s instructions, ensures that it leads to a glorious sextet. In the final scene, Bertati gave Elvira an aria about retiring to a convent after she has failed to persuade the Don to repent, then his servant (Pasquarello) another, celebrating the city in which the opera is being performed (in his case, Venice). Da Ponte wisely dispensed with both – ‘generating’, to the musicologist Andrew Steptoe, ‘the momentum and contrast that he achieved so successfully in Le nozze di Figaro’.
At the end of the first act comes but one of Mozart’s inspired innovations in this work, the musical (and mathematical) miracle of having three orchestras playing simultaneously onstage during the ball scene: a minuet in G in 3/4 time, joined by a Contredanse in G in 2/4 time, then a German dance in 3/8 time. Perhaps Mozart’s main achievement, however, was to introduce real terror to the operatic stage for the first time; by bringing trombones from the choir-loft to the pit, he turned them into the instruments of hell, as the ghost of the Commendatore arrives to demand Don Giovanni’s repentance, in vain, then drag him down below.
It was Da Ponte who insisted on a comic element to the tragedy, despite Mozart’s initial doubts. They called it a dramma giocoso, a dramatic piece with some laughs. As he had in Figaro, Da Ponte again borrowed also from his arch-rival as a librettist, Giovanni Battista Casti. The catalogue aria in Don Giovanni is closely modelled on the list of accusations read by the chief of police to the disgraced Teodoro in Casti’s recent libretto for Giovanni Paisiello’s Il re Tedoro in Venezia.
In the final scene, just before the entry of Elvira, soon followed by the ‘Stone Guest’, Da Ponte and Mozart indulge in some private jokes, suggesting that Da Ponte may well have seen himself as Leporello to Mozart’s Don Giovanni, or Boswell to his Johnson. The band entertaining the dining Don strikes up a tune from his post-Figaro hit with Martin y Soler, which Leporello salutes with ‘Bravo, Cosa Rara!’ There follows a parody of Giuseppe Sarti’s Fra i due litiganti (1782) – ‘Evvivano “i Litiganti!”’, exclaims Leporello – suggesting that the librettist of Sarti’s forgotten opera, usually credited as anonymous, may well have been Da Ponte himself. The next tune is the first line of Figaro’s celebrated aria from Le nozze, ‘Non piu andrai, farfallone amoroso’, which Leporello greets with: ‘Questa poi la conosco pur troppo’ (‘That’s a tune that is strangely familiar’, in the Holden translation for Jonathan Miller’s 1985 staging at ENO).
The death of Mozart’s father, Leopold, as he was composing Don Giovanni also appears to have informed this most theatrical of operas, as did the death of Shakespeare’s father while he was writing Hamlet. In each case, the writer appears to be as haunted by the ghost as are the characters in the work.
In October 1787, after some six months’ spasmodic work on the piece, Mozart wrote from Prague to a Viennese friend: ‘You will probably think that my opera has been performed by now. If so, you would be quite mistaken.’ Prague’s stage personnel were ‘not as smart here as those in Vienna’, with the result that it had proved ‘completely impossible’ to stage the new work on its scheduled first night, the previous day. ‘So yesterday my Figaro was performed in a fully-lighted theatre, and I myself conducted.’
On 9 October, immediately after the Vienna premiere of L’Arbore di Diana, Da Ponte arrived in Prague to join Mozart in completing Don Giovanni. He took rooms in the rear of an inn called Zum Platteis (The Flatfish), very near Mozart’s in the Kohlenmarket. By some accounts, they leaned out of their upperstorey windows to talk to each other across the narrow alley between their apartments; certainly, they were very close to the theatre where their work was to be performed. Most of the music was written by the time Da Ponte arrived; only the second act finale, the first duet for Zerlina and Masetto (‘Giovinetta che fate all’amore’) and Masetto’s protest aria (‘Ho capito’) remained to be finished. But rehearsals were still in progress, with Mozart yet to write the overture, when after only eight days in Prague Da Ponte was recalled to Vienna by the Emperor. Although we can assume the text was finished in draft before Mozart left for Prague, Da Ponte was no doubt also making inserts and amendments to the composer’s wishes.
In the final scene of Don Giovanni, to cap his famous (to some, revolutionary) ball-scene cry of ‘Viva la liberta’, the Don sings a less political mantra: ‘Vivan le femmine, / Viva il buon vino! / Sostegno e Gloria d’umanita!’ In his Cours familiar de Littérature the French poet Alphonse de Lamartine cites Da Ponte’s daily routine while writing Don Giovanni before concluding that this ‘aventurier, amant, poete, homme de plaisir… écrivait le drame de sa proper vie dans le drame de Don Juan.’
Da Ponte was writing the story of his own life? To some extent, perhaps, but also that of a friend who now came back into it. Giacomo Casanova was in Prague at the time, negotiating with the publisher Ritter Johann Ferdinand Schönfeld over his utopian novel Icosameron; recent scholarship suggests that, as Da Ponte was summoned back to Vienna, he handed over the completion of his task to his old friend from the days of his action-packed Venetian youth. In the library of his last home at Dux in Bohemia, long after his death, Casanova’s handwriting has been found on drafts of the second act ‘Escape scene’ from Don Giovanni – which could well re-enact one of his own escapades in the alleyways of Venice.
There was another postponment of the first night when one of the singers fell ill; even so, legend has it that Mozart did not get round to writing the overture until 28 October, the night before the first performance. A synthesis of several accounts has him locked in a room at one of the homes of his friends, the Duscheks – either the ‘Zu den Drei Goldenen Löwen’ in the Kohlenmarkt Court, now in Prague’s old town, or their rural seat of Bertramka, then outside the town, now its Mozart museum – while his wife Constanze alternately plied him with punch, to make him drowsy, and told him stories to keep him awake. It was finished at seven the next morning, just as the copyist arrived.
Each year to this day, on 29 October, there is a performance of Don Giovanni at the recently restored Estates Theatre in Prague (where the opera scenes in Amadeus were filmed) to commemorate the huge success of its premiere there, conducted by Mozart, on that date in 1787. ‘Connoisseurs and musicians say that Prague has never heard the like,’ reported the Prague Oberpostamtszeitung. ‘Herr Mozard [sic] conducted in person: when he entered the orchestra, he was received with threefold cheers, which erupted again when he left it. The opera is, moreover, extremely difficult to perform, and all admired the excellence of the performance in spite of this, after such a short period of study and rehearsal. Everyone on the stage, and in the orchestra, strained to thank Mozard by rewarding him with a fine rendering… The unusually large attendance applauded its unanimous approval.’ An opera ‘with no equal in the whole musical world’ had completed its first stage performance, according to one of those present, the historian Alfred Meissner. ‘The maniacal heathen who defied God and all his angels had gone into his eternal fiery grave’. A world of desire, arrogance, fear, lamentation and despair, as only Mozart could depict it, was presented to the audience and rewarded with endless applause. It was on that evening that Mozart pronounced the now famous words “My Praguers understand me”, words that will always honour that generation. Meissner also describes the buzz among the audience as the sheet music for the overture was passed out to the orchestra at the very last minute, even as Mozart was arriving to conduct it. Given no time to rehearse this decidedly potent piece of music, the orchestra sight-read it so well that Mozart is said to have whispered to the musicians near him during the introduction to the first act: ‘Some of the notes went under the music-stands, it is true, but on the whole that went brilliantly.’
That first night in Prague proved another triumph; Da Ponte again missed it, having returned to Vienna for the opening of his piece for Salieri. Italian royalty was present, as Mozart wrote the next day to Da Ponte: ‘Our opera of Don Giovanni was performed last night before a glittering audience. The Princess of Tuscany, with her entire entourage, was present. The success of our work was as complete as we could wish. Guardasoni came into my room this morning enraptured with joy. “Long live Mozart, long live Da Ponte, said he: as long as they shall exist, no manager shall know distress.” ‘Adieu! my dear friend,’ concluded Mozart’s letter to Da Ponte. ‘Prepare another opera for your friend Mozart!’ Within a year, they were collaborating on a piece with the working title of La scuola degli amanti, which they later changed to Così fan tutte.
Anthony Holden’s biography of Lorenzo Da Ponte, The Man Who Wrote Mozart, is published in paperback by Phoenix.