The legendary Don Juan, upon whom the character Don Giovanni is based,
is a figure whose exploits have provided inspiration for authors and
artists for more than three centuries.
The story of this free-thinking nobleman, who seduced women recklessly
and dared to insult the dead before finally being condemned to hell,
seems to find its origin in Spain. His archetype is believed to be a
medieval man named Don Juan Tenorio who, after seducing the daughter
of the commandant of Ulloa, killed the commandant and then was killed
by avengers who claimed that he was carried off to hell by the statue
of the commandant.
The story of Don Juan received its first full dramatic setting on stage
in the 1630 moralistic play El Burlador de Sevilla y convidado de
piedra (The Prankster of Seville and His Stone Guest) written by
a Spanish monk who published under the pseudonym Tirso de Molina (1571-1641).
El Burlador was brought to Italy, probably via strolling actors,
and by 1652 was translated into Italian.
An Italian troupe brought the story to France where it also found success.
In 1665, the great French dramatist Molière wrote his own version
of the Don Juan story in a play Don Juan, ou Le Festin de Pierre
(Don Juan, or the Feast of Stone). The Don Juan story was soon rewritten
in many languages. It even found its way into the hands of puppeteers.
Musical versions soon followed. The first seems to have been a Parisian
comic opera, also with the title Le Festin de Pierre, composed
in 1713 by Le Tellier. A Don Juan ballet by German composer Christoph
W. Gluck was presented in Vienna in 1761.
Vincenzo Righini composed a full-length Don Giovanni opera in
1777. Ten years
later, in 1787, another Don Giovanni opera appeared with libretto
by Giovanni Berttati and music by Giuseppe Gazzanniga. It was upon this
version that librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte based the story and Mozart
composed his masterful Don Giovanni.
Although Mozart's Don Juan story is the greatest and most well known,
many versions have followed including operas, musical numbers, and literary
works. Some of the world's foremost poets and writers found inspiration
in the Don Juan story including Alexander Dumas père in France,
George Gordon Lord Byron and George Bernard Shaw in England, and Aleksandr
Pushkin in Russia.
Why has the Don Juan story held such appeal? Perhaps the answer can
be found in the manner in which the character constantly challenges
conventional morality. During the Middle Ages, it was believed that
all knowledge and power were not under human control but came from the
Church. With the breakdown of the universal Church in the late Middle
Ages, man began to question everything including belief in heaven and
Don Juan delights in these changing beliefs and unabashedly breaks
all the rules. He indulges his every desire without inhibition, restraint,
guilt, or concern for the impact of his actions. While we condemn him for the murder of the commandant,
we are at the same time fascinated by his flamboyant escapades and the
power he seems to hold.
Don Juan can be likened to a more contemporary mythic figure
James Bond, the famous Agent 007. He is the very intriguing international
spy who has a limitless supply of charm and knowledge, not to mention
all of the right tools and weapons, to get him out of any and every
perilous predicament. His adventures usually involve a great many colorful
characters and fantastic situations like the statue coming to
life in the Don Juan story. Although Bond kills and seduces in his pursuit
of justice, he always saves the day (and gets the girl!) and,
in light of his victory, his sins become irrelevant. Because Agent 007
works to help virtuous countries (like ours!), he is not condemned to
a gloomy demise.
We owe a legacy of creative works to the Don Juan myth which continues
to remain enticing and popular even today. For that, and, of course,
Mozart's beautiful music, Don Giovanni continues to remain
an audience favorite.
Above photo: Don Giovanni, Cleveland Opera, 1983