As the legend goes, he was the quintessential rake — a womanizing scoundrel with a list of amorous conquests so long that his right-hand man needs an entire aria just to outline it. His name is Don Juan or, in Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's operatic version of the story, Don Giovanni.
Mozart's title character has a suave exterior, but it's immediately apparent that he's basically not a very nice guy — to say the least. As the opera begins, he has just assaulted a young woman and afterward he kills her father.
Still, despite the opera's violent opening moments, Mozart didn't designate Don Giovanni as a tragedy, or even simply as a drama. Instead, he called it a "dramma giocoso" — a "playful drama."
In fact, the notorious Don is more complex than just an unprincipled, single-minded ladies man with a taste for violence; when it comes to Giovanni, an instant poll of uncommitted audience members might just yield higher positives than negatives.
The opera also has a strong comic element, driven by Giovanni's devious schemes and high jinks, but Lorenzo da Ponte's libretto, and Mozart's matchless music, ensure that the dire consequences of those schemes are as evident as their humor.
The result is a unique and often disturbing ambiguity that's at the core of Mozart's masterpiece. The Don's personality is so beguiling that it's easy to root for him even as his dark side becomes more and more obvious. Yet, when he eventually receives a personal invitation to hell, and his enemies rejoice, it's hard to blame them.
Don Giovanni is routinely listed among the finest operas ever composed. Some have even called it the greatest of them all. That's a pretty bold statement, but however you rank it, Mozart's opera is a brilliant combination of stark human tragedy and touching comedy, set to music of limitless genius.
On World of Opera host Lisa Simeone presents it in a production from the historic Vienna State Opera. The stars are baritone Ildebrando d'Arcangelo as Don Giovanni, soprano Soile Isokoski as Donna Elvira and soprano Ricarda Merbeth as Donna Anna.
Copyright NPR. View this article on npr.org.