Don Giovanni

Dissolute Don Giovanni

An interview with the dramatist Jan Vandenhouwe

By Simon Hatab 02 January 2022


© Charles Duprat / OnP

Dissolute Don Giovanni

Mozart chose to call his opera Il dissoluto punito ossia il Don Giovanni (The Dissolute Punished or Don Giovanni). And yet, the 19th century ignored that periphrasis and saw in Don Giovanni both a flamboyant seducer and a subversive, liberating force. For this new production of Don Giovanni, you have chosen to go back to the original interpretation... 

Jan Vandenhouwe: It was important for Ivo [Van Hove] to present a dark and uncompromising Don Giovanni devoid of all empathy, who takes advantage of everyone around him and who has no hesitation in killing: a destructive element who challenges the social order. One has to remember the Jesuit origins of the Spanish play by Tirso de Molina – The Trickster of Seville—at a time when the theatre was supposed to have an edifying function. Don Juan is a parasite who has to be eliminated to restore the balance of the world. In fact, with Mozart, he is punished twice: first by human society—and that is the essence of the role of Don Ottavio who seeks to bring the criminal to justice—but also by the statue of the Commendatore which embodies a more metaphysical form of punishment. This last verdict is of course the more complex to grasp.


How do you stage a punishment that is presented as divine?

Jan Vandenhouwe: In 2005, the Austrian director Michael Haneke [in his production for the Paris Opera] opted to completely humanise the punishment of the dissolute: Don Giovanni is stabbed to death by Donna Elvira and his body is thrown out of the window by the same cleaning staff he had systematically persecuted and humiliated. As far as we were concerned, it seemed important to retain the superhuman aspect which is at the very essence of the opera: After Requiem, Don Giovanni is Mozart’s most religious score. No other composer at the time possessed such an incredible capacity to set the supernatural to music—the stone statute that speaks, Don Giovanni engulfed by the flames of Hell... It’s enough to listen to the brass and the trombones in the section for the Commendatore to be convinced that those are the sounds from beyond the grave...

What crimes does this metaphysical punishment penalise?

Jan Vandenhouwe: If you consider the “voice” of the punishment—namely, the statue of the Commendatore—you realise that it comes into play at two specific moments in the opera: first in the cemetery when Don Giovanni scoffs at marriage; and then again in the finale of Act II when Donna Elvira visits him to forgive him, and Don Giovanni rejects her. And here we touch on two key principles. Forgiveness is one of the underlying themes in Mozart’s operas, whether we think of Le Nozze di Figaro or La Clemenza di Tito. As for marriage, it was one of the cornerstones of the policies of Emperor Joseph II, who was the first European sovereign to legislate on the subject: back then, marriage was regarded as a symbol aimed at preserving the balance of society by curbing the excesses of the Ancien Regime.   

Jacquelyn Wagner (Donna Anna), Stanislas de Barbeyrac (Don Ottavio), Nicole Car (Donna Elvira), Etienne Dupuis (Don Giovanni), Palais Garnier, 2019
Jacquelyn Wagner (Donna Anna), Stanislas de Barbeyrac (Don Ottavio), Nicole Car (Donna Elvira), Etienne Dupuis (Don Giovanni), Palais Garnier, 2019 © Charles Duprat / OnP

Ultimately, isn’t there something in the debate which crystallizes around Don Giovanni’s character as a seducer or a predator which is evocative of the current news cycle today: On the one side, the growing chorus of voices denouncing male domination and, on the other, those who see that particular liberation movement as undermining their privileges and a threat to their freedom of expression?

Jan Vandenhouwe: The tendency to absolve Don Giovanni of his crimes first appeared in the 19th century, notably in the writings of Hoffmann: Don Giovanni henceforth became synonymous with liberation and even revolution. And yet, Mozart could not be any clearer: when he appears on stage, his first deed consists of raping a woman and killing her father. And then, a few minutes later, there he is in the street in search of a new victim... In reality, Don Giovanni does not represent modernity, but rather, all the abuses of the Ancien Regime. The “liberty” he advocates has nothing in common with the liberty associated with the French Revolution: it is that of the dominator who refuses to tolerate any impediment to his carnal pleasure. Ivo also highlights the character’s tendency to lie compulsively. if I dare say so, the problem with Don Giovanni is that he himself believes the Don Juan legend: he has convinced himself that he is capable of seducing all the women cited in Leporello’s list. And yet, in the opera, you cannot say that his exploits are very convincing. Only Elvira is in love with him. Anna rejects him and as for Zerlina, well, he tries to rape her. The only time in the work where we actually see him seducing someone is during the duet with Zerlina. But we know all too well that the young peasant girl is just the umpteenth victim to whom he promises marriage so he can spend a night with her only to abandon afterwards, just as he did with Elvira in Burgos. Besides, his endeavours ultimately end in failure. For a man reputed to have seduced several thousand women, he comes across as something of a loser...   

Etienne Dupuis (Don Giovanni), Mikhail Timoshenko (Masetto), Elsa Dreisig (Zerlina), Philippe Sly (Leporello), Palais Garnier, 2019
Etienne Dupuis (Don Giovanni), Mikhail Timoshenko (Masetto), Elsa Dreisig (Zerlina), Philippe Sly (Leporello), Palais Garnier, 2019 © Charles Duprat / OnP

Where do we find the counterweight to the destructiveness embodied by Don Giovanni?

Jan Vandenhouwe: In stark contrast to Don Giovanni, Zerlina and Masetto are the embodiment of the “natural” couple, in accordance with a notion dear to Mozart that we will find later in Die Zauberflöte: it is a pure and simple love, tinged with a hint of jealousy, eroticism, sensuality, and sexuality… It should also be noted that Masetto is one of the few characters in all of Mozart’s operas who can be described as revolutionary. In Act II, he takes up arms and raises an “army” to go in search of Don Giovanni, determined to finish off and eradicate the old system of oppression and domination that condemns women and the poor to perpetual servitude. Bear in mind, this is 1787, two years before the French Revolution and Masetto’s aria is infused with accents that evoke the revolutionary songs that were being sung by the people at that time.
Don Ottavio, for his part, is the Enlightened Man, the voice of Reason. He says his aim is to “discover the truth”: for this particular era, the reference is clear. Being a person who is respectful of the rule of law, the social contract and human rights, he represents true modernity. Contrary to what the 19th century would have us believe; he is neither weak nor tedious. To help him develop his ideas, Mozart composed two arias which count among the most beautiful that the latter ever wrote for a tenor: two arias in the opera seria style, imbued with profound humanism, which already act as a precursor for Titus. You cannot imagine a greater contrast with Don Giovanni who, strictly speaking, has no aria of his own—except for the fiery “champagne aria” and the canzonetta in Act II—yet the latter is literally “another’s aria” because he disguises himself as a valet to seduce Donna Elvira’s chambermaid.

Don Ottavio and Donna Anna represent the other couple who stand in opposition to Don Giovanni. From beginning to end, both are united by true love. Donna Anna wants Don Giovanni to be punished for the murder of her father, but she wants it done through the justice system. In stark contrast to Elvira who, consumed by her passions, cannot stop braying for revenge—to the point of wanting to tear Giovanni’s heart out—Anna strives to embrace reason. She retains complete control over her feelings: despite the fact that she has been assaulted, she never come across as a victim. For Elvira, suffering and love are just two sides of the same coin. As such, she is more akin to the sacrificial characters of 19th century novels. She is left overwhelmed and obliterated, unlike the other characters who continue to live after the death of Don Giovanni.    

Philippe Sly (Leporello), Etienne Dupuis (Don Giovanni), Ain Anger (Il Commendatore), Palais Garnier, 2019
Philippe Sly (Leporello), Etienne Dupuis (Don Giovanni), Ain Anger (Il Commendatore), Palais Garnier, 2019 © Charles Duprat / OnP

You link Don Giovanni’s excesses in a historical context with the world as it was before, the world of the Ancien Régime. What resonance does this particular character have in our contemporary society?

Jan Vandenhouwe: What seemed interesting to us about the metaphysical punishment which we talked about earlier is that it is not just a few victims who turn against Don Giovanni, it is the entire universe. There’s a book by Peter Sloterdijk—You Must Change Your Life—in which the author recalls a poem by Rilke, an episode in the poet’s life during the time he was living in Paris: While contemplating the perfection of an ancient statue, Rilke thinks he hears a voice rising out from within the stone ordering him to change his life. Using the anecdote as a starting point, Sloterdijk wonders what if anything today can still warn us and help us guide our lives and our actions at a time when religion and even art no longer take on such a role. The answer to which the philosopher arrives at is this: it is the world itself that warns us. We live in a world that never ceases to warn us—social conflicts, political gridlock, and looming ecological disaster—yet despite everything, we fail to change course. There is something extremely Don-Juanesque in that attitude, don’t you think? The Earth is opening up under our feet and we still keep walking…    


L'Opéra chez soi

What is this flame that compels Don Giovanni to seduce, subjugate and conquer women one after the other, with the fervour and cold indifference of a predator securing his prey; to pursue through his conquests some obscure and ever‑elusive objective?

5 questions about: Don Giovanni

2 min


5 questions about: Don Giovanni

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