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Tantalizing Treachery: Mozart's 'Don Giovanni'

There are plenty of great operas that reveal their true intentions right from the start, as with the ebullient overtures that launch the brilliant comedies of Rossini and the portentous preludes that often introduce Verdi's complex tragedies. But there are others that open with cards held closer to their vests. Mozart's enigmatic Don Giovanni takes the latter approach.

The overture to Don Giovanni begins in a dark D Minor key that seems to suggest impending tragedy. Yet the music's quick pivot to a bouncy D Major represents only the first in the opera's compelling progression of abrupt, emotional u-turns.

Actually, a close look at Mozart's own description of the opera warns us not to make any assumptions about its dramatic character. He called it a "dramma giocoso" — a "playful drama" — which at first seems to be a severe case of misdirection, as the action begins with an attempted rape, quickly followed by a cold-blooded murder.

Yet, in between the shocking opening sequence and a climactic scene that features Giovanni plunging into the fires of hell, the notorious Don leads us through exploits that often evoke high comedy. And it's Giovanni himself — with his deeply unsettling appeal — who provides the dramatically shifting core of Mozart's masterpiece.

Don Giovanni is a genuine villain. He's a serial womanizer, a rapist, a killer — and that's just touching the surface. Yet, as he laughs at his pitiable victims, the audience tends to laugh right along with him. And after his well-earned demise, the opera ends with a scene suggesting that even those victims wish Don Giovanni was still around — to keep us all uneasily entertained for as long as possible.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeonepresents Don Giovanni in a production from the Vienna State Opera, featuring a top-notch ensemble cast that also packs plenty of star power. Bass-baritone Ildebrando d'Arcangelo takes the title role, with bass Alex Esposito as Leporello, soprano Sally Matthews as Donna Anna and mezzo-soprano Roxana Constantinescu as Donna Elvira. The performance is led by conductor Franz Welser-Möst.

See the previous edition of World of Opera or the full archive.

Copyright 2011 WDAV

Bruce Scott
Bruce Scott is supervising producer of World of Opera. He also produces NPR's long-running, annual special Chanukah Lights, with Susan Stamberg and Murray Horwitz.