Opera North Blog

Don Giovanni in a nutshell


Everything you need to know about Don Giovanni in one place – right here!

What is the story?

Don Giovanni is based on the legend of serial seducer Don Juan. Time is running out for notorious libertine Don Giovanni, but he doesn’t know that yet. For him, it’s just another day at the office – breaking into the bedroom of noblewoman Donna Anna, assaulting her, murdering her father, and then, on stumbling across a wedding, attempting to seduce the bride Zerlina and later beating up her fiancé Masetto.

But despite his impressive track record, the Don’s misdeeds are starting to catch up with him. Wronged ex-lover Donna Elvira is on his trail, Donna Anna and her fiancé have sworn vengeance, Masetto and his friends want Zerlina back, and to cap it all, an intervention from beyond the grave comes when the statue of the man he murdered – along with several spectral victims – come to dinner…

For a full synopsis, visit the Don Giovanni webpage » The Story

Who are the characters?

Don Giovanni, nobleman and libertine (baritone)
Leporello, his servant and sidekick  (bass)
Donna Anna, a victim and noblelady (soprano)
Don Ottavio, her fiancé (tenor)
Il Commandatore, her father  (bass-baritone)
Donna Elvira, a previous victim and noblelady (soprano)
Zerlina, a peasant girl (mezzo-soprano)
Masetto, her fiancé (bass)

The Chorus also make an appearance as Masetto and Zerlina’s friends and wedding guests, and the ghostly victims who appear as the Don nears his doom…

What is the music like?

Don Giovanni is written in the ‘recitative and aria’ structure of the classical period, where arias, duets, and ensembles of soaring beauty are separated by the ‘story-telling’, in which singers adopt the rhythms of speech accompanied by a harpsichord ‘continuo’. However, this opera is unique right from the get-go – the first note of the overture is a clanging D minor chord which signals the gates of hell juddering open and Don Giovanni's impending doom. Mozart brings this key back in the opera’s darkest moments, most notably when Il Commendatore reappears, to chilling effect.

Highlights include Leporello’s Catalogue Aria, in which he reads out the list of his master’s many conquests ('in Italy, 640, in Germany, 231, 100 in France, in Turkey, 91, but in Spain already one 1003'). It’s an amusing moment in this black comedy – notice that when he sings about the ‘majestic’ (larger) women the notes and long and broad, and short, snappy notes are used for the petite ladies!

Another highlight is the Don’s Champagne Aria. At two minutes, it’s one of the shortest arias Mozart wrote, and it takes off at breakneck speed with a manic, tongue-twisting vocal line. Controversially, Don Giovanni never bears his soul to the audience (the traditional purpose of the aria), but his character is revealed through the aria's music – lust for life, rarely pausing for thought, and irrepressible energy.

What is this production like?

Director Alessandro Talevi’s lively production of Don Giovanni (new in 2012) locates the action across disparate eras and classes, with the archetypal Giovanni travelling with ease between the starched Victorian mourning dress of Donna Anna and Don Ottavio and the 1950s rock’n’roll frivolity of Zerlina and Masetto’s wedding party. 

The set provides a forum for the opera, which is, as Set and Costume Designer Madeleine Boyd says, ‘really all about people’s personalities and interaction’. Several scenes are staged Punch and Judy style within a puppet show booth, leading us to wonder who is pulling the characters’ strings, and providing much comedy. 

To see more photos, visit the Don Giovanni webpage » Gallery

Who was the composer?

Don Giovanni was written by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791), with a libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte, with whom Mozart also collaborated on his smash hits The Marriage of Figaro and Così fan tutte.

The opera was commissioned by Prague, and the legend of Don Juan was chosen as a topic with mass popular appeal (it often featured in street theatre and puppet shows of the time). In fact, a recent opera on the same subject already existed, and the time-pressed Da Ponte copied many elements of this existing libretto, rather than writing his own!

The opera was supposed to premiere for a royal visit to Prague on 14 October 1787, but wasn’t ready in time. In fact, the score was completed on 28 October for a re-scheduled 29 October premiere – Mozart having worked through the night in a race to finish the overture before the dress rehearsal! It is said that the ink was still wet on the manuscript paper as the orchestra were handed their parts (hopefully their sight-reading was up to scratch...). Mozart himself conducted the premiere, which was rapturously received with newspapers reporting that ‘Prague has never heard the like’. 

Did you know? 

  • In some Germanic and other languages, Leporello's ‘Catalogue Aria’ provided the name ‘Leporello List’ for fan-folded printed matter such as brochures, photo albums and other stationery. 
  • Towards the opera’s finale, Don Giovanni is given some musical entertainment at dinner – cue the orchestra playing popular tunes of the day, including ‘Non più andrai’ from Mozart’s own The Marriage of Figaro! Cheeky Leporello then complains that he is sick and tired of hearing the aria everywhere. Nothing like a bit of witty self-parody…   
  • Mozart and Da Ponte reportedly lived across the street from each other in Prague while working on Don Giovanni, and could be heard yelling back and forth as they worked! 
  • Mozart called his opera a ‘dramma giocoso’ (playful drama) summing up Don Giovanni’s masterful blend of laugh-out-loud comedy, horrific violence, high drama, and the supernatural.
  • The characters of Leporello and Don Giovanni are often seen as two versions of a the same person differentiated by social class – in some stagings, they are even cast as lookalikes! In our production, the two resemble a classic music hall double act with echoes of Laurel and Hardy. 

Don Giovanni is sung in Italian with English titles, and lasts approximately 3 hours. For more info, visit the Don Giovanni webpage. Join in on social media with #ONDonGiovanni and #FatalPassions.

In a nutshell is a blog series devised by Opera North.

Don Giovanni artwork © Opera North 2017
William Dazeley as Don Giovanni with the Chorus of Opera North © Robert Workman 2012
Alastair Miles as Leporello and William Dazeley as Don Giovanni © Robert Workman 2012
Playbill for the Vienna premiere of
Don Giovanni, 1788

What you say


Ruth said ago

Absolutely fabulous production. it was gripping, marvellously sung and very, very clever with most of the audience laughing out loud. I'm so pleased that I went.

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