'Don Giovanni': from romance to hell

Mozart was forward-thinking as an opera composer. His “Magic Flute” was crafted as a German-language singspiel with Masonic mystique to be performed in a Viennese venue equivalent to a London music hall.

“The Marriage of Figaro” is a social exposé of servants getting the better of their aristocrat master.

Then there is “Don Giovanni,” the story of the notorious philanderer.

If Don Giovanni were doing his womanizing in real-life 21st century, he probably would be in trouble with the law for sexual assault. He certainly would have to answer for the assassination of the Commendatore, Donna Anna’s father, who tried to protect her honor.

In the opera, Giovanni’s sins are remedied by the ghost of his victim, dragging him off to a fiery hell.

Mozart’s operas were about ordinary or fantasy people doing everyday activities. By removing gods, kings and historic characters -- which were so popular in the 18th century -- from the opera stage, Mozart crafted his magic by creating real people doing real things.

Fashioned after Giacomo Casanova, the famous seducer of women, Don Giovanni is a lover obsessed with the chase of a beautiful woman whom he immediately abandons after his conquest.

In this opera, there are three victims of his passionate escapades, Donna Elvira, Donna Anna and a naïve peasant girl, Zerlina, on her wedding day.

Donna Elvira still loves the libertine after she is discarded and returns to try to reform her lover. Donna Anna is not as forgiving, and seeks revenge for the death of her father trying to protect his daughter from the clutches of Giovanni.

It is that link that defined the original play by Spanish playwright Tirso de Molina, “The Trickster of Seville and the Stone Guest” that premiered in 1630. The story depicts the statue of the assassinated Commendatore coming to life to join a smug Don Giovanni for dinner before his fiery exit.

The Don Juan legend has inspired many films as showcases for such cinema lovers as John Barrymore, Errol Flynn, Johnny Depp and Heath Ledger.

Richard Strauss used the subject for his tone poem “Don Juan.”

It is believed that Casanova, who knew Mozart, was in the audience for the 1787 Prague premiere of the opera. The production was so popular it inspired Molière, Lord Byron, E.T.A. Hoffmann, Alexander Pushkin and George Bernard Shaw to create their versions of the universal lover.

The life of Mozart’s librettist, Lorenzo Da Ponte, would make a subject for an opera. Born Emanuele Conegliano, a Jew in the Republic of Venice, he converted to Catholicism under the patronage of the bishop, his patron and Christian namesake.

After he was ordained a priest, Lorenzo was banished from Venice for his association with a brothel where he organized entertainments and kept a mistress. Moving to Vienna, he began writing libretti for the composer Antonio Salieri (best known as Mozart’s antagonist in the film “Amadeus”).

This was the connection to Mozart, for whom he wrote the libretti for the composer’s most popular operas, “The Marriage of Figaro,” “Don Giovanni” and “Cosi Fan Tutte.”

After Lorenzo lost the patronage of the Emperor Leopold and could not return to Venice, he moved to London to become the librettist at the King’s Theatre. Eventually, debt and bankruptcy caused him to flee to America in 1805 with his mistress and four children.

After brief careers as a bookstore dealer and grocery clerk, Lorenzo ended up as a professor of Italian literature at Columbia College. During that period he introduced “Don Giovanni” and Rossini’s music to New York audiences with a company that was the predecessor of the New York Academy of Music and the Metropolitan Opera. What a life.

The title role in the San Diego Opera production is sung by Ildebrando D’Arcangelo making his debut with the company. The bass-baritone sings regularly with the Deutsche Oper Berlin, Vienna Staatsoper and La Scala Milan. He has also appeared with the Los Angeles Opera. Don Giovanni’s sidekick, Leporello, is sung by Ashraf Sewailam, who is making his fifth appearance with SDO.

Ellie Dehn, singing Donna Anna, made her local debut as Mimi in 2010. Greek soprano Myrtò Papatanasui has the role of Elvira. The conductor is Daniele Callegari, who made his company debut in 2013 with “Aida.” The director, Nicholas Muni, also designed the sets for this production for Cincinnati Opera.

“Don Giovanni” is sung in Italian with English text projected over the stage. Performances at the Civic Theatre are: 7 p.m. Feb. 14, Feb. 17 and Feb. 20; and 2 p.m. Feb. 22.

For ticket information, call 619-533-7000 or visit

Ford is a past president of San Diego Opera and supports the opera archive at San Diego State University.

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