Don Giovanni, partly improvised

For the most recent episode of my book, I’d promised

something about how the finale of Mozart’s Don

Giovanni was partly improvised at the opera’s premiere. And then I forgot

to put that in the episode. I’m going to add it, but because it’s such fabulous

stuff, I thought I’d put it here in the blog, too. It comes from Thomas Forrest Kelly’s book, First Nights at the Opera, and should be filed under the heading “How

spontaneous classical music could be, before it became classical.”

Here’s what Kelly writes:

The famous finale of act 2, with

its stage band playing dinner music from other operas for Don Giovanni, was evidently worked out in rehearsal, and perhaps

indeed in the course of performances. First comes a melody from the first-act

finale of Martìn y Soler’s Una cosa rara,

probably not yet known in Prague, though in Vienna it overshadowed

Figaro. It may have been an inside joke by Mozart, perhaps appreciated by the

members of the orchestra. Or it may refer back to its opera, in which two

peasant couples have escaped the designs of another Don Giovanni. The other two

selections seem to have been made in the course of rehearsals. One quotes the

aria "Come un agnello" from Giuseppe Sarti’s Fra i due litiganti, known from recent performances in Prague. Mozart had

composed variations on the same tune in 1784. Perhaps Mozart intended it as a

tribute to Count Thun, his friend and host in Prague, in whose palace theater the opera had

been performed. Or maybe its text ("Like a lamb going to the slaughter,

you will go bleating through the city") is a warning of Don Giovanni’s

fate. The third tune will have delighted the audience: the aria "Non più

andrai" from Le nozze di Figaro,

known everywhere in Prague

(remember Mozart’s letter cited above: "Nothing is played, sung or

whistled but `Figaro"’ ). And of course its original text tells a

butterfly that his nectar-sipping days are over.

In the surrounding dialogue the

characters on stage take full advantage of the joke. As each tune is heard,

Leporello praises it and identifies it ("Bravo! ‘Cosa rara!"’

"Evvivano `I litiganti"’). When Don Giovanni asks him what he thinks

of the first tune ("Che ti par del

bel concerto?") Leporello manages to insult both Martin and his master:

"It matches your merit" ("È conforme al vostro merto").

Other jokes are worked in also: Don Giovanni’s "Ah che piatto

saporito" may well be a reference to the attractive Teresa Saporiti; and

when Leporello, caught in the act of eating his master’s food, excuses him­self

by noting the quality of the cook ("si eccellente è il vostro

cuoco"), he may have winked at Herr Johann Baptist Kuchartz

("cook"), the well-known keyboardist, arranger,

and composer, in the orchestra pit.

Kuchartz (Jan Krtitel Kuchar), among other things, sold keyboard versions of

Mozart’s operas, including this very song.

When the band plays "Non più

andrai," Leporello says, "I know this one all too well!"

Ponziani (Leporello) had himself sung that aria as Figaro in Prague,

so his remark ("Questa poi la conosco pur troppo") has a double sense

that must have delighted the au­dience-though the remark is not in the Prague libretto.

The stage band was intended from

the first, but much of the finale must have been arranged in Prague; it may have arisen in part from

improvisations during rehearsals, as much of the dialogue related to the band’s

tunes does not appear in the printed libretto. In his later years in Dresden, Luigi Bassi is

reported as saying: "This is all nothing, it lacks

the liveliness, the freedom, that

the great Master wanted in this scene. In Guardasoni’s company we never sang

the scene the same from one performance to the next, we did not keep the beat

exactly, and instead used our wit, always new things and paying attention only

to the orchestra; everything parlando and almost improvised–that is how Mozart

wanted it."


Forrest Kelly, First Nights at the Opera.

New Haven and London:

Yale University Press, 2004, pp. 107-9.]

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  1. says

    Dear Greg — in a related note, have you heard of the new Don Giovanni being presented by BAM in Prague, directed by David Chambers?

    Hi, Lev, and yes, I’ve heard of it. Hard to know from the description on BAM’s website quite what it is, or at least precisely what it’s relationship is to the opera. Should be interesting, though.