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Mozart’s Inscrutable Anti-Hero

Don Giovanni is an opera crammed with paradoxes: is it comedy or tragedy, a proto-Romantic rebel cry against the constraints of Enlightenment reason or a warning about the chaos of order undermined? An especially fascinating paradox involves the identity of the anti-hero himself. The action opens at night, with the masked Don declaring to Donna Anna, whom he has just attempted to rape: “Who I am you shall not know!” And he has indeed resisted attempts by subsequent generations to define him. While some interpret the allegro part of the Overture as a portrait of his vitality, Don Giovanni himself has no extended solo aria that gives us a view into his interior life—the so-called “Champagne Aria” (a misnomer that post-dates Mozart) is a frantically restless to-do list for his party. Yet he is without question the gravitational force of the entire opera.

An unrepentant narcissist, the Don is also a consummate actor who seems to lack identity: Mozart’s musical portrayal shows him again and again pitching his music to his audience, whether to seduce or intimidate. His famous duet with Zerlina, for example, trips along with the innocent guile she would find most appealing; elsewhere he impersonates his servant Leporello, and when he receives the Stone Guest, it is the latter’s sternly commanding harmonies that the miscreant adapts. Disguises, masks, and deceptive identities are not only plot devices here: they underline the eternal elusiveness of the Don himself.

—Thomas May writes regularly for Washington National Opera.

Don Giovanni, starring Ildar Abdrazakov, runs September 20–October 13, 2012 in the Kennedy Center Opera House.