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Kim Witman

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Casanova and Giovanni

Posted: 05/16/2012 9:57 am

Casanova: The name is synonymous with "womanizer."

Giacomo Casanova was a friend and colleague of Lorenzo da Ponte, the man who wrote the words to Mozart's Don Giovanni. Casanova and da Ponte had much in common, including a particular brand of masculine arrogance and the love of the pursuit of women. They were friends and colleagues, and there's a real chance that through da Ponte, Casanova actually got involved in the creation of Giovanni.

Some Mozart scholars believe that Casanova actually had a hand in the final revisions of the opera, leading up to its premiere in Prague in 1787. The scholars don't agree, mind you (scholars never do, and that's one of the most wonderful things about them), but it is a fact that a draft of a portion of the Act II texts in Casanova's handwriting was found among his papers. (For you aficionados, it's Act II Scene 9, just after the sextet.)

Mozart composed feverishly right up until the opening night of Giovanni. As he was cranking out last minute revisions, da Ponte was called back to Vienna. And many experts believe that da Ponte deputized Casanova to finish tweaking the text prior to the premiere.

In 1985, Donald Henahan wrote, "At very least, we may be excused for wishing to believe that Casanova attended the Prague premiere and, at age 62, assessed Giovanni's moves with the eye of a past master. You can bet he would have known how to add Zerlina to his catalogue."

I've recently gone down the rabbit hole, reading da Ponte's memoirs, and being newly astonished at the depth and breadth of the machismo therein. Most scholars agree that he modeled his memoirs on those of his friend, Casanova's Histoire de ma vie (Story of My Life). The hyper-masculine tone and the depiction of gender roles and attitudes in both of these autobiographies are very much products of their time, but that makes them no less difficult for a 21st-century woman to grasp. Getting inside the minds of these two men really affords a whole new appreciation for Don Giovanni -- for although Don Juan was not da Ponte's sole creation, he put a very specific spin on the operatic womanizer.

What's the takeaway for our upcoming production?

That Giovanni's brand of behavior toward women was socially sanctioned to a degree; that it was something respected men wrote about proudly in their autobiographies. And paradoxically, the fact that Mozart and da Ponte's Don Juan is punished for all eternity because of it.

Giacomo Casanova, Lorenza da Ponte, and Don Giovanni. A frighteningly powerful intersection of virility, machismo and hubris. For my completely subjective purposes, I've kept poor Wolfgang out of this. A part of me wants to believe that he was exceedingly glad to allow the women of his opera to have the final word.

 

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