The opera was commissioned as a result of the overwhelming success of Mozart's trip to Prague in January and February 1787. The subject matter may have been chosen in consideration of the long history of Don Juan operas in Prague; the genre of eighteenth-century Don Juan opera originated in Prague.
The libretto of Lorenzo Da Ponte was based closely on a libretto by Giovanni Bertati for the opera Don Giovanni Tenorio, first performed in Venice early in 1787, although he was loath to admit this in memoirs written decades later. Some of the most important elements that he copied were the idea of opening the drama with the murder of the Commendatore (in earlier dramas, this incident always appeared somewhere in the middle), and the lack of a specification of Seville as the setting, which had had been customary in the tradition of Don Juan dramas since the appearance of the prototype Don Juan drama El burlador de Sevilla by Tirso de Molina, written in the early 17th century. For Bertati, the setting was Villena, Spain, whereas Da Ponte's libretto only specifies a "city in Spain".
Don Giovanni was originally to have been performed on 14 October 1787 for a visit to Prague of the Archduchess Maria Theresa of Austria, niece of the Emperor Joseph II, and her new husband, Prince Anthony of Saxony; however, the production could not be prepared in time and Le nozze di Figaro was substituted instead on the order of the emperor himself. The score was completed on 28 or 29 October 1787 after Da Ponte was recalled to Vienna to work on another opera. Reports about the last-minute completion of the overture conflict; some say it was completed the day before the premiere, some on the very day. More likely it was completed the day before, in light of the fact that Mozart recorded the completion of the opera on 28 October.
The score calls for double woodwinds, two horns, two trumpets, three trombones (alto, tenor, bass), timpani, basso continuo for the recitatives, and the usual string section. The composer also specified occasional special musical effects. For the ballroom scene at the end of the first act, Mozart calls for two onstage ensembles to play separate dance music in synchronization with the pit orchestra, each of the three groups playing in its own metre (a 3/4 minuet, a 2/4 contradanse and a fast 3/8 peasant dance), accompanying the dancing of the principal characters. In act 2, Giovanni is seen to play the mandolin, accompanied by pizzicato strings. In the same act, two of the Commendatore's interventions ("Di rider finirai pria dell'aurora" and "Ribaldo, audace, lascia a' morti la pace") are accompanied by a wind chorale of oboes, clarinets, bassoons, and trombones (with cellos and basses playing from the string section). The instrumentation and vocal writing are very reminiscent of Mozart's treatment of the voice of Neptune in Idomeneo.
The opera was first performed on 29 October 1787 in Prague under its full title of Il Dissoluto Punito ossia il Don Giovanni – Dramma giocoso in due atti (The Rake punished, or Don Giovanni, a dramma giocoso in two acts). The work was rapturously received, as was often true of Mozart's work in Prague (See Mozart and Prague). The Prager Oberpostamtzeitung reported, "Connoisseurs and musicians say that Prague has never heard the like," and "the opera … is extremely difficult to perform." The Provincialnachrichten of Vienna reported, "Herr Mozart conducted in person and was welcomed joyously and jubilantly by the numerous gathering."
Mozart also supervised the Vienna premiere of the work, which took place on 7 May 1788. For this production, he wrote two new arias with corresponding recitatives – Don Ottavio's aria "Dalla sua pace" (K. 540a, composed on April 24 for the tenor Francesco Morella), Elvira's aria "In quali eccessi … Mi tradì quell'alma ingrata" (K. 540c, composed on April 30 for the soprano Caterina Cavalieri) – and the duet between Leporello and Zerlina "Per queste tue manine" (K. 540b, composed on 28 April). He also made some cuts in the Finale in order to make it shorter and more incisive, the most important of which is the section where Anna and Ottavio, Elvira, Zerlina and Masetto, Leporello reveal their plans for the future ("Or che tutti, o mio tesoro"). In order to connect "Ah, certo è l'ombra che l'incontrò" ("It must have been the ghost she met") directly to the moral of the story "Questo è il fin di chi fa mal" ("This is the end which befalls to evildoers"), Mozart composed a different version of "Resti dunque quel birbon fra Proserpina e Pluton!" ("So the wretch can stay down there with Proserpina and Pluto!"). These cuts are very seldom performed in theatres or recordings.
The opera's final ensemble was generally omitted until the early 20th century, a tradition that apparently began very early on. According to the 19th-century Bohemian memoirist Wilhelm Kuhe, the final ensemble was only presented at the very first performance in Prague, then never heard again during the original run. It does not appear in the Viennese libretto of 1788, thus the ending of the first performance in Vienna without the ensemble as depicted in the film Amadeus must be an accurate portrayal. Undoubtedly, this practice was sanctioned by Mozart himself. Nonetheless, the final ensemble is almost invariably performed in full today.
Modern productions sometimes include both the original aria for Don Ottavio, "Il mio tesoro", and its replacement from the first production in Vienna that was crafted to suit the capabilities of the tenor Francesco Morella, "Dalla sua pace". Elvira's "In quali eccessi, o Numi ... Mi tradi per l'alma ingrata" is usually retained as well. The duet "Per queste tue manine" and the whole accompanying scene involving Zerlina and Leporello from the Viennese version is almost never included.
In modern-day productions, Masetto and the Commendatore are typically played by different singers (unless limited by such things as finance or rehearsal time and space), although the same singer played both roles in both the Prague and Vienna premieres, and the final scene's chorus of demons after the Commendatore's exit gives the singer time for a costume change before entering as Masetto for the sextet.
The instrumentation is:Woodwinds: two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets and two bassoons
Brass: two horns, two trumpets, three trombones
Strings: first violins, second violins, violas, cellos and double basses
Don Giovanni, a young, arrogant, and sexually promiscuous nobleman, abuses and outrages everyone else in the cast until he encounters something he cannot kill, beat up, dodge, or outwit.
The overture begins with a thundering D minor cadence, followed by a short misterioso sequence which leads into a light-hearted D major allegro.
Scene 1 – The garden of the Commendatore
Leporello, Don Giovanni's servant, complains of his lot ("Notte e giorno faticar" – "Night and day I slave away"). He is keeping watch while Don Giovanni is in the Commendatore's house attempting to seduce or rape the Commendatore's daughter, Donna Anna. Don Giovanni enters the garden from inside the house, pursued by Donna Anna. Don Giovanni is masked and Donna Anna tries to hold him and to unmask him, shouting for help. (Trio: "Non sperar, se non m'uccidi, Ch'io ti lasci fuggir mai!" – "Do not hope, unless you kill me, that I shall ever let you run away!"). He breaks free and she runs off as the Commendatore enters the garden. The Commendatore blocks Don Giovanni's path and forces him to fight a duel. Don Giovanni kills the Commendatore with his sword and escapes with Leporello. Donna Anna, returning with her fiancé, Don Ottavio, is horrified to see her father lying dead in a pool of his own blood. She makes Don Ottavio swear vengeance against the unknown murderer. (Duet: "Ah, vendicar, se il puoi, giura quel sangue ognor!" – "Ah, swear to avenge that blood if you can!").
Scene 2 – A public square outside Don Giovanni's palace
Leporello tells Don Giovanni that he (Giovanni) is leading a rotten life; Don Giovanni reacts angrily. They hear a woman (Donna Elvira) singing of having been abandoned by her lover, on whom she is seeking revenge ("Ah, chi mi dice mai" – "Ah, who could ever tell me"). Don Giovanni starts to flirt with her, but it turns out he is the former lover she is seeking. The two recognize each other and she reproaches him bitterly. He shoves Leporello forward, ordering him to tell Donna Elvira the truth about him, and then hurries away.
Leporello tells Donna Elvira that Don Giovanni is not worth her feelings for him. He is unfaithful to everyone; his conquests include 640 women and girls in Italy, 231 in Germany, 100 in France, 91 in Turkey, but in Spain, 1,003 ("Madamina, il catalogo è questo" – "My dear lady, this is the catalogue"). In a frequently cut recitative, Donna Elvira vows vengeance.
Scene 3 – The open country
A marriage procession with Masetto and Zerlina enters. Don Giovanni and Leporello arrive soon after. Don Giovanni is immediately attracted to Zerlina, and he attempts to remove the jealous Masetto by offering to host a wedding celebration at his castle. On realizing that Don Giovanni means to remain behind with Zerlina, Masetto becomes angry ("Ho capito! Signor, sì" – "I understand! Yes, my lord!") but is forced to leave. Don Giovanni and Zerlina are soon alone and he immediately begins his seductive arts (Duet: "Là ci darem la mano" – "There we will entwine our hands").
Donna Elvira arrives and thwarts the seduction ("Ah, fuggi il traditor" – "Flee from the traitor!"). She leaves with Zerlina. Don Ottavio and Donna Anna enter, plotting vengeance on the still unknown murderer of Donna Anna's father. Donna Anna, unaware that she is speaking to her attacker, pleads for Don Giovanni's help. Don Giovanni, relieved that he is unrecognised, readily promises it, and asks who has disturbed her peace. Before she can answer, Donna Elvira returns and tells Donna Anna and Don Ottavio that Don Giovanni is a false-hearted seducer. Don Giovanni tries to convince Don Ottavio and Donna Anna that Donna Elvira is insane (Quartet: "Non ti fidar, o misera" – "Don't trust him, oh sad one"). As Don Giovanni leaves, Donna Anna suddenly recognizes him as her father's murderer and tells Don Ottavio the story of his intrusion, claiming that she was deceived at first because she was expecting a night visit from Don Ottavio himself, but managed to fight Don Giovanni off after discovering the imposture, leading to the events we have already witnessed (long recitative exchange between Donna Anna and Don Ottavio, leading to Donna Anna's aria: "Or sai chi l'onore Rapire a me volse" – "Now you know who wanted to rob me of my honour"). Don Ottavio, not yet convinced (Donna Anna having only recognised Don Giovanni's voice, not seen his face), resolves to keep an eye on his friend ("Dalla sua pace la mia dipende" – "On her peace my peace depends").
Leporello informs Don Giovanni that all the guests of the peasant wedding are in Don Giovanni's house and that he distracted Masetto from his jealousy, but that Zerlina, returning with Donna Elvira, made a scene and spoiled everything. However, Don Giovanni remains cheerful and tells Leporello to organize a party and invite every girl he can find. (Don Giovanni's "Champagne Aria": "Fin ch'han dal vino calda la testa" – "Till they are tipsy"). They hasten to his palace.
Scene 4 – A garden outside Don Giovanni's palace
Zerlina follows the jealous Masetto and tries to pacify him ("Batti, batti o bel Masetto" – "Beat, O beat me, handsome Masetto"), but just as she manages to persuade him of her innocence, Don Giovanni's voice from offstage startles and frightens her. Masetto hides, resolving to see for himself what Zerlina will do when Don Giovanni arrives. Zerlina tries to hide from Don Giovanni, but he finds her and attempts to continue the seduction, until he stumbles upon Masetto's hiding place. Confused but quickly recovering, Don Giovanni reproaches Masetto for leaving Zerlina alone, and returns her temporarily to him. Don Giovanni then leads both offstage to his ballroom. Three masked guests – the disguised Don Ottavio, Donna Anna, and Donna Elvira – enter the garden. From a balcony, Leporello invites them to his master's party. They accept the invitation and Leporello leaves the balcony. Alone, Don Ottavio and Donna Anna pray for protection, Donna Elvira for vengeance (Trio: "Protegga il giusto cielo" – "May the just heavens protect us").
Scene 5 – Don Giovanni's ballroom
As the merriment, featuring three separate chamber orchestras on stage, proceeds, Leporello distracts Masetto by dancing with him, while Don Giovanni leads Zerlina offstage to a private room and tries to assault her. When Zerlina screams for help, Don Giovanni drags Leporello into the room, accuses Leporello of assaulting Zerlina himself, and threatens to kill him. The others are not fooled. Don Ottavio produces a pistol and points it at Don Giovanni, and the three guests unmask and declare that they know all. But despite being denounced and menaced from all sides, Don Giovanni keeps his cool and escapes – for the moment.
Scene 1 – Outside Donna Elvira's house
Leporello threatens to leave Don Giovanni, but his master calms him with a peace offering of money (Duet: "Eh via buffone" – "Go on, fool"). Wanting to seduce Donna Elvira's maid, and believing that she will trust him better if he appears in lower-class clothes, Don Giovanni orders Leporello to exchange cloak and hat with him. Donna Elvira comes to her window (Trio: "Ah taci, ingiusto core" – "Ah, be quiet unjust heart"). Seeing an opportunity for a game, Don Giovanni hides and sends Leporello out in the open wearing Don Giovanni's cloak and hat. From his hiding place Don Giovanni sings a promise of repentance, expressing a desire to return to her and threatening to kill himself if she does not take him back, while Leporello poses as Don Giovanni and tries to keep from laughing. Donna Elvira is convinced and descends to the street. Leporello, continuing to pose as Don Giovanni, leads her away to keep her occupied while Don Giovanni serenades her maid with his mandolin. ("Deh vieni alla finestra" – "Ah, come to the window").
Before Don Giovanni can complete his seduction of the maid, Masetto and his friends arrive, looking for Don Giovanni in order to kill him. Don Giovanni poses as Leporello (whose clothes he is still wearing) and joins the posse, pretending that he also hates Don Giovanni. After cunningly dispersing Masetto's friends (Don Giovanni aria: "Metà di voi qua vadano" – "Half of you go this way. the others, go that way"), Don Giovanni takes Masetto's weapons away, beats him up, and runs off, laughing. Zerlina arrives and consoles the bruised and battered Masetto ("Vedrai carino" – "You'll see, dear one").
Scene 2 – A dark courtyard
Leporello abandons Donna Elvira. (Sextet: "Sola, sola in buio loco" – "All alone in this dark place"). As he tries to escape, he bumps into Don Ottavio and Donna Anna. Zerlina and Masetto also enter the scene. Everyone mistakes Leporello for Don Giovanni, whose clothes he is still wearing. They surround Leporello and threaten to kill him. Donna Elvira tries to protect the man who she thinks is Don Giovanni, claiming that he is her husband and begging the others to spare him. Leporello takes off Don Giovanni's cloak and reveals his true identity. He begs for mercy and, seeing an opportunity, runs off (Leporello aria: "Ah pietà signori miei" – "Ah, have mercy, my lords"). Don Ottavio is now convinced that Don Giovanni is the one who murdered Donna Anna's father (the deceased Commendatore). He swears vengeance ("Il mio tesoro" – "My treasure" – though in the Vienna version this was cut).
In the Vienna production of the opera, Zerlina follows Leporello and recaptures him. Threatening him with a razor, she ties him to a stool. He attempts to sweet-talk her out of hurting him. (Duet: "Per queste tue manine" – "For these hands of yours"). Zerlina goes to find Masetto and the others; Leporello escapes again before she returns. This scene, marked by low comedy, is rarely performed today.
Donna Elvira is still furious at Don Giovanni for betraying her, but she also feels sorry for him. ("Mi tradì quell'alma ingrata" – "That ungrateful wretch betrayed me").
Scene 3 – A graveyard with the statue of the Commendatore.
Don Giovanni wanders into a graveyard. Leporello happens along and the two are reunited. Leporello tells Don Giovanni of his brush with danger, and Don Giovanni laughingly taunts him, saying that he took advantage of his disguise as Leporello by trying to seduce one of Leporello's girlfriends. The voice of the statue interrupts and warns Don Giovanni that his laughter will not last beyond sunrise. At the command of his master, Leporello reads the inscription upon the statue's base: "Here am I waiting for revenge against the scoundrel who killed me" (Dell'empio che mi trasse al passo estremo qui attendo la vendetta). The servant trembles, but Don Giovanni scornfully orders him to invite the statue to dinner, and threatens to kill him if he does not. Leporello makes several attempts to invite the statue to dinner but is too frightened to complete the invitation (Duet: "O, statua gentilissima" – "Oh most noble statue"). Don Giovanni invites the statue to dinner himself. Much to his surprise, the statue nods its head and responds affirmatively.
Scene 4 – Donna Anna's room
Don Ottavio pressures Donna Anna to marry him, but she thinks it inappropriate so soon after her father's death. He accuses her of being cruel, and she assures him that she loves him, and is faithful ("Non mi dir" – "Tell me not").
Scene 5 – Don Giovanni's chambers
Don Giovanni revels in the luxury of a great meal, served by Leporello, and musical entertainment during which the orchestra plays music from popular (at the time) late-18th-century operas: "O quanto in sì bel giubilo" from Vicente Martín y Soler's Una cosa rara (1786), "Come un agnello" from Giuseppe Sarti's Fra i due litiganti il terzo gode (1782) and finally, "Non più andrai" from Mozart's own The Marriage of Figaro (1786). Leporello complains that he is sick and tired of hearing Mozart's aria everywhere all the time. (Finale "Già la mensa preparata" – "Already the table is prepared"). Donna Elvira enters, saying that she no longer feels resentment against Don Giovanni, only pity for him. ("L'ultima prova dell'amor mio" – "The final proof of my love"). Don Giovanni, surprised, asks what she wants, and she begs him to change his life. Don Giovanni taunts her and then turns away, praising wine and women as the "support and glory of humankind" (sostegno e gloria d'umanità). Hurt and angry, Donna Elvira gives up and leaves. Offstage, she screams in sudden terror. Don Giovanni orders Leporello to see what has upset her; when he does, he also cries out, and runs back into the room, stammering that the statue has appeared as promised. An ominous knocking sounds at the door. Leporello, paralyzed by fear, cannot answer it, so Don Giovanni opens it himself, revealing the statue of the Commendatore. With the rhythmic chords of the overture, now reharmonized with diabolic diminished sevenths accompanying the Commendatore ("Don Giovanni! A cenar teco m'invitasti" – "Don Giovanni! You invited me to dine with you"), the statue offers a last chance to repent, but Don Giovanni adamantly refuses. The statue disappears and Don Giovanni cries out in pain and terror as he is surrounded by a chorus of demons, who carry him down to Hell. Leporello, watching from under the table, also cries out in fear.
Donna Anna, Don Ottavio, Donna Elvira, Zerlina, and Masetto arrive, searching for the villain. They find instead Leporello hiding under the table, shaken by the supernatural horror he has witnessed. He assures them that no one will ever see Don Giovanni again. The remaining characters announce their plans for the future: Donna Anna and Don Ottavio will marry when Donna Anna's year of mourning is over; Donna Elvira will withdraw from society for the rest of her life; Zerlina and Masetto will finally go home for dinner; and Leporello will go to the tavern to find a better master.
The concluding ensemble delivers the moral of the opera – "Such is the end of the evildoer: the death of a sinner always reflects his life" ("Questo è il fin di chi fa mal, e de' perfidi la morte alla vita è sempre ugual"). As mentioned above, the final ensemble was customarily omitted from productions for over a century beginning with the original run in Prague, but it started to be performed again frequently in the 20th century and is now is usually included in productions of the opera. The return to D major and the innocent simplicity of the last few bars conclude the opera.
A screen adaptation of the opera was made under the title Don Giovanni in 1979 directed by Joseph Losey.
The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard wrote a long essay in his book Enten – Eller in which he argues, writing under the pseudonym of his character "A", that "among all classic works Don Giovanni stands highest." Charles Gounod wrote that Mozart's Don Giovanni is "a work without blemish, of uninterrupted perfection." The finale, in which Don Giovanni refuses to repent, has been a captivating philosophical and artistic topic for many writers including George Bernard Shaw, who in Man and Superman parodied the opera (with explicit mention of the Mozart score for the finale scene between the Commendatore and Don Giovanni). Gustave Flaubert called Don Giovanni, along with Hamlet and the sea, "the three finest things God ever made." E. T. A. Hoffmann also wrote a short story derived from the opera, "Don Juan," in which the narrator meets Donna Anna and describes Don Juan as an aesthetic hero rebelling against God and society.
In some Germanic and other languages, Leporello's "Catalogue Aria" provided the name "Leporello List" for fan-folded printed matter, as used for brochures, photo albums, computer printouts and other continuous stationery.
The sustained popularity of Don Giovanni has resulted in extensive borrowings and arrangements of the original. The most famous and probably the most musically substantial is the operatic fantasy, Réminiscences de Don Juan by Franz Liszt. The minuet from the finale of act 1, transcribed by Moritz Moszkowski, also makes an incongruous appearance in the manuscript of Liszt's Fantasy on Themes from Mozart's Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni, and Sigismond Thalberg uses the same minuet, along with "Deh, vieni alla finestra", in his Grand Fantaisie sur la serenade et le Minuet de Don Juan, Op. 42. "Deh, vieni alla finestra" also makes an appearance in the Klavierübung of Ferruccio Busoni, under the title Variations-Studie nach Mozart (Variation study after Mozart). Chopin wrote Variations on "Là ci darem la mano" (the duet between Don Giovanni and Zerlina) for piano and orchestra. Beethoven and Danzi also wrote variations on the same theme. And Beethoven, in his Diabelli Variations, cites Leporello's aria "Notte e giorno faticar" in variation 22.
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky always regarded Don Giovanni – and its composer – with awe. In 1855, Mozart's original manuscript had been purchased in London by the mezzo-soprano Pauline Viardot, who was the teacher of Tchaikovsky's one-time unofficial fiancée Désirée Artôt (whom Viardot may have persuaded not to go through with her plan to marry the composer). Viardot kept the manuscript in a shrine in her Paris home, where it was visited by many people. Tchaikovsky visited her when he was in Paris in June 1886, and said that when looking at the manuscript, he was "in the presence of divinity". So it is not surprising that the centenary of the opera in 1887 would inspire him to write something honouring Mozart. Instead of taking any themes from Don Giovanni, however, he took four lesser known works by Mozart and arranged them into his fourth orchestral suite, which he called Mozartiana. The baritone who sang the title role in the centenary performance of Don Giovanni in Prague that year was Mariano Padilla y Ramos, the man Désirée Artôt married instead of Tchaikovsky.
In addition to instrumental works, allusions to Don Giovanni also appear in a number of operas: Nicklausse of Offenbach's The Tales of Hoffmann sings a snatch of Leporello's "Notte e giorno", and Rossini alludes to the Commendatore's music for Selim's entrance in Il turco in Italia.
Jean Françaix's Mozart new-look, Petite fantaisie pour contrebasse et instruments à vent sur la Sérénade de "Don Giovanni" (Mozart new-look: Little fantasy for double bass and wind instruments on the serenade from Don Giovanni), written in 1981, is based on the aria "Deh, vieni alla finestra".