1st Edition

The Original Portrayal of Mozart’s Don Giovanni

By Magnus Tessing Schneider Copyright 2022
    260 Pages 16 B/W Illustrations
    by Routledge

    260 Pages 16 B/W Illustrations
    by Routledge

    The Original Portrayal of Mozart’s Don Giovanni offers an original reading of Mozart’s and Da Ponte’s opera Don Giovanni, using as a lens the portrayal of the title role by its creator, the baritone Luigi Bassi (1766–1825).

    Although Bassi was coached in the role by the composer himself, his portrayal has never been studied in depth before, and this book presents a large number of new sources (first- and second-hand accounts), which allows us to reconstruct his performance scene by scene. The book confronts Bassi’s portrayal with a study of the opera’s early German reception and performance history, demonstrating how Don Giovanni as we know it today was not only created by Mozart, Da Ponte and Luigi Bassi but also by the early German adapters, translators, critics and performers who turned the title character into the arrogant and violent villain we still encounter in most of today’s stage productions.

    Incorporating discussion of dramaturgical thinking of the late Enlightenment and the difficult moral problems that the opera raises, this is an important study for scholars and researchers from opera studies, theatre and performance studies, music history as well as conductors, directors and singers.


    Rewriting the myth of Don Juan

    The demonising of Don Giovanni: A historical overview

    Chapter 1: Luigi Bassi as Don Giovanni

    The singer and his role

    Intention and experience: Prescriptive and descriptive sources

    The performer as a phenomenon

    Grace and gallantry: Bassi’s portrayal

    Performance traditions: Italians and Germans

    Chapter 2: The opening scene

    Chapter 3: Don Giovanni and the three women

    Donna Elvira’s entrance aria

    The duettino

    The quartet and Donna Anna’s narration

    Chapter 4: The party episode

    The champagne aria

    The garden scene

    The ballroom scene

    Chapter 5: The disguise episode

    The first duet with Leporello

    The trio

    The canzonetta

    The disguise aria

    Chapter 6: The graveyard scene

    Chapter 7: The second finale

    The supper

    The last encounter with Donna Elvira

    Don Giovanni and the stone guest

    The final scene

    Postscript: In defence of the operatic work



    Magnus Tessing Schneider (Stockholm University) is a Danish theatre scholar specialising in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Italian opera. He has edited Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito: A Reappraisal (2018), together with Ruth Tatlow, and Felicity Baker’s essay collection Don Giovanni’s Reasons: Thoughts on a Masterpiece (2021).

    This was just the book I needed when staging Don Giovanni. Magnus Tessing Schneider has done a fantastic job documenting the preparations that led to the first performance of this most controversial of operas, in Prague in 1787. Building on facts, he dares oppose the false tradition that emerged after the deaths of Mozart and Da Ponte, and which portrays the title character as simply ‘a bad man who ends up in hell’. As I read this inspiring book, I understood why Giovanni is rather like Carmen, that other rebellious spirit who is also killed and with whom we also sympathize. Might we do so because they are free in a way that we are not? Presenting us with the enigma, the book leaves it to us to find the answer.

    - Andrei Șerban, stage director


    This is an important book. It is important as a radical historical reinterpretation of an iconic work of art, but also as a defiant challenge to certain tendencies in today’s intellectual climate. […]

    Tessing Schneider’s historical examination is driven by a revisionist agenda but leans on a patient and systematic argumentation based on a large and diverse source material. It never becomes programmatic but is characterised by a combination of rigorous source criticism and inventive analytical observations. By means of this method, the author reaches a new and enthralling understanding of one of the most scrutinised works in the history of opera. He has presented us with a Don Giovanni who is even more interesting, complex, and thought-provoking than has commonly been assumed.

    Moreover, this study is important because of what it reveals about a certain contemporary inclination: an impulse towards simplification and unambiguity in the interpretation of fictional stories and characters, and towards the instrumentalisation of historical works of art to suit present ideological agendas.

    - Lars Berglund, Swedish Journal of Music Research


    Connecting [Mozart’s Don Giovanni] to the practices and techniques of acting in the late Enlightenment opens new possibilities for how future directors, performers, and academics may perform or interpret it. […] As Schneider points out […], virtually every performance of Mozart’s Don Giovanni since the latter half of the nineteenth century portrays a villain who deserves what he gets, and thus it may come as a surprise that early productions with [Luigi] Bassi did not portray him acting violently toward women. Schneider’s exploration of Bassi’s approach therefore points to new or previously forgotten interpretations of the title character. What makes these chapters particularly rich and interesting for Don Giovanni fans is that they often provide a line-by-line analysis of how Bassi incorporated specific ideas of Mozart and Da Ponte into his performances. […] Through the analysis of new sources pertaining to the inception and early reception of Don Giovanni, Schneider’s work will surely make an excellent companion to scholars and performers alike.

    - Robert Creigh, Newsletter of the Mozart Society of America


    One of the book’s strengths is multi-disciplinarity. Drawing on librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte’s original Italian text and its various translations and adaptations, analyses of different music manuscript versions, biographical information gathered from memoirs, anecdotes, and literary fiction, performance reviews, various renditions of scenography and acting styles, as well as academic and critical literature, Schneider is able to convey the complexities of eighteenth-century opera and its contextual origins. […]

    Schneider’s observations are assembled into a larger construction centred around the development of the tradition of Don Juan and the stone guest. From its seventeenth century multi-genre dramatic origins as a popular tale of sin and retribution, complete with farcical as well as superstitious elements, it was reinvented by Da Ponte and Mozart, under the guise of opera buffa, into a critical Enlightenment tragedy of a young galant homme; only to be reappropriated by nineteenth century Romantic translators and commentators, reverting it to a Christian moral system, with a lasting impact on the reception of the opera and its title role. In this way, Schneider places the stone guest tradition within a framework of four centuries of shifting world conceptions, with the Enlightenment artists and connoisseurs appearing as the short-lived heroes of free aesthetic expression in close kinship with the tragic Don Giovanni himself.

    In Schneider’s reading, the seductive powers of the title role are a metaphor for the powers of the real seducer – the musical maestro, with his capacity for mesmerizing the audience. It is tempting to extend this metaphor to encompass the function of the historiographer. Schneider’s carefully constructed body of evidence, engagingly set forth, presents a very convincing case of how different the 1787 Don Giovanni of Bassi, Mozart, and Da Ponte must have appeared to the audience and critics of the time, compared to the current understanding. The elegant libertine versus the violent brute, the serenading seducer versus the rapist, the 21-year-old adventurer versus the middle-aged lecher.

    - Annabella Skagen, Nordic Theatre Studies