Speaking the Unspeakable: The Perils of Don Giovanni

Make no mistake about it—a major plot point in this opera is the titular character’s attempted rape of Donna Anna, a violent sexual assault that she narrowly avoids. In his attempt to salvage her honor, Anna’s father (the Commendatore) comes to her rescue, but is killed by Giovanni. The archetype upon which librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte builds this character is widely known to be a downright scoundrel: Don Juan. Yet the original title of this opera, composed in 1787 by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, loosely translates as “The Punishment of the Libertine Don Giovanni.” 

The words we frequently use to describe Don Giovanni—scoundrel, libertine, womanizer, rake—belie the traumatic effects that such encounters can have on those he “seduces.” At the heart of this kind of characterization, of a man whose power to woo women is unmatched, is an assumption that his conquests were either willing partners or pliable objects to be claimed. Contemporary audiences understand that these assumptions should not be made about women, but they were not uncommon tropes to see on stage and in literature for centuries.  

While there were other adaptations before and after Mozart’s masterpiece, the plays upon which Don Giovanni is based are Tirso de Molina’s Burlador de Sevilla y convivado de piedra (“The Trickster of Seville and the Stone Guest,” 1630) and Carlos Goldoni’s Don Giovanni o sia Il Dissoluto (“The Dissolute,” 1736). Significantly, the first of these is a tragedy and the second a comedy penned by the Italian playwright and librettist who adapted the semi-improvisational traditions of commedia dell’arte from the stage to the page. We can see the remnants of those commedia traditions in this opera, which contains comic scenes and is variably categorized as an opera buffa (comic opera) and a drama giocoso (dark comedy, or drama with jokes).  

The fact that a story about a “ladies man” would be comic is not surprising, when we consider how frequently this trope is used in romantic comedy films. What is unusual, when considering the historical context of Don Giovanni, is that Da Ponte’s story changes the folklore of Don Juan remarkably: in this opera, Giovanni fails to seduce every woman he encounters. We hear a litany of his previous conquests, sure, but each time he attempts to have his way with (that is, rape) a woman, she fends him off. The fact that we would find such actions laughable is worthy of further consideration, as frequently comedy reveals to us our societal prejudices and assumptions. For audiences in 2017, we must at least acknowledge that what critics once called Don Giovanni’s “seduction” of Donna Anna is in fact an attempted rape, even as we recognize that in the eighteenth century definitions and understandings of sexual violence differed from our own. 

–Jane Barnette, Department of Theatre, University of Kansas (2017)

Works Consulted / Recommended Further Reading

Freeman, Daniel E. Mozart in Prague. Minneapolis: Bearclaw, 2013. 

Gordon, Bonnie. “What Don Giovanni, An Opera About a Charismatic Rapist, Can Teach Us About Don Trump.” Slate’s Culture Blog 21 Oct. 2016. http://www.slate.com/blogs/browbeat/2016/10/21/what_don_giovanni_an_opera_about_a_charismatic_rapist_can_teach_us_about.html

Hartford, Kassandra L. “Beyond the Trigger Warning: Teaching Operas that Depict Sexual Violence.” Journal of Music History Pedagogy 7.1 (2016): 19-34. 

Higgins, Charlotte. “The Rape of Mozart.” The Guardian 4 Oct. 2004. http://www.theguardian.com/music/2004/oct/04/classicalmusicandopera.mozart

Mirarchi, Stephen. “Absurdifying Don Giovanni.” Crisis Magazine 8 Oct. 2015. http://www.crisismagazine.com/2015/absurdifying-don-giovanni

“Mozart’s ‘Don Giovanni’ from Houston Grand Opera.” National Public Radio 2 Nov. 2007. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=158286356 

Romanska, Magda. “The Women of Don Giovanni,” and “The Ethics of Don Giovanni.” Opera Blog. April 2015. http://magdaromanska.com/opera-blog 

Sedwick, Frank. “El Burlador, Don Giovanni, and the Popular Concept of Don Juan.” Hispania 38.2 (1955): 173-177.

Waxman, Samuel M. “The Don Juan Legend in Literature.” The Journal of American Folklore 21.81 (1908): 184-204. 

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