Doing Don

By Howard, Patricia | Musical Times, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

Doing Don


Howard, Patricia, Musical Times


Doing Don The Vienna Don Giovanni Ian Woodfield The Boydell Press (Woodbridge, 2010); xviii, 2i4pp; £55, $105. ISBN 978 i 84383 586 8.

IT is a truth universally acknowledged that any opera produced in the 18th century that does not fail at its first performance will exist in several versions. Quite apart from the possibility that the composer might have second thoughts, a prerogative some scholars are reluctanr to allow, subsequent performances might see changes to the cast or instrumental forces, either of which could require a degree of rewriting. Moreover, any distance of time or place between the premiere and its reprise will increase the likelihood of variant versions. The practical and financial exigencies of producing the work with a new theatre company would inevitably play a part in reshaping the opera: a different management would have its own opinion on the desirable duration of the evening's entertainment and the number and status of musicians employed; the new soloists would be motivated to put their personal stamp on a role, often seeing themselves in competition with the singers who created the original version; and exposing the work to the taste of a new authence, with its own expectations and prejudices, could also drive change. No wonder many 18th-century scores exist in folders of unbound gatherings facilitating a pick-and-mix solution to recreating the work in changed circumstances, and raising questions which would never have occurred to an 18th-century opera goer: what constitutes the authentic Don Giovanni? wherein lies 'the work'? The complexity of the situation is not unwelcome to scholars since it provides a challenging textual and philosophical puzzle. And unlike many such puzzles, the solution is of immediate practical value. Modern productions of a work that exists in multiple versions need to take such scholarly activity on board: ultimately, choices have to be made.

Mozart's Don Giovanni was first performed in Prague on 29 October 1787. At the Emperor's request, it was given in Vienna on 7 May 1788. According to Da Ponte, the opera, which had been an unqualified success in Prague, in Vienna 'did not please', and 'additions were made'. Ian Woodfield 's study, following his highly-regarded work on the compositional history of Così fan tutte (The Boydell Press, 2008), unpicks the tangled sources for the Vienna production of Don Giovanni, and shows how the composer responded to the challenges of a new cast and a new authence. But this is far more than an account of alternative versions. Accessing a daunting quantity of source material, Woodfield picks a tortuous path among the incomplete autograph and other surviving scores, part books and librettos, revealing the composition process as one of continuous evolution, with the composer interacting with the strengths and weaknesses of different performers and engaging with the preferences of different authences, not to mention having those inevitable second thoughts. Unable to establish definitively exactly what was performed at the Viennese premiere, Woodfield uncovers instead a rich array of Mozart's transient ideas and practical experiments in a range of versions devised by the composer at different points during the year. Moreover, his investigation of productions of Don Giovanni in the last decade of the 1 8th century shows that continuous experiment with cuts, inclusions and re-ordering was the norm. …

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