The following sketch for a longer essay appears in this week’s edition of USItalia, which won’t be uploaded for several days. The Mozartiamo project includes a superb essay along similar lines by musicologist Giacomo Fornari, Verdi studia Mozart.
27 January is a momentous date in music history: the date of Mozart’s birth in 1756 and of Verdi’s death in 1901. Both men composed some two dozen operas, though Mozart died at 35 while Verdi lived to nearly 90. Many other traits and experiences divide the two.
Mozart is music’s wunderkind, a child prodigy and adult master proficient in all genres who was also a keyboard and violin virtuoso. Verdi is music’s grand old man, a late bloomer who was refused admission to the Milan Conservatory and a composer whose surviving works include only rare forays outside of opera. Mozart often worked at the behest of noble and ecclesiastical patrons; Verdi wrote for commercial, public theatres.
A gulf of time, culture, and personality yawns between these giants, yet their points of contact are deeper and more numerous than one might suspect. One of Verdi’s early champions in Milan was Teresa Saporiti, the first Donna Anna in Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Verdi gave concerts at her salon and, in the words of biographer Mary Jane Phillips-Matz, “dared to try out the music of Nabucco” on her. Phillips-Matz speculates that Mozart’s daunting writing for Anna, via Saporiti, may have influenced Abigaille’s music, especially since Verdi’s wives, both singers, are known to have advised him on his work.
In Milan, Verdi reportedly made the acquaintance of Carl Mozart, the composer’s son, and played through Don Giovanni for him. The opera was a special favorite of Vincenzo Lavigna, Verdi’s teacher and a former maestro concertatore at La Scala, where Lavigna had presided over the local premiere of Don Giovanni in 1814.
Among the three Mozart-da Ponte operas, Così fan tutte was widely neglected in the nineteenth century, and Verdi had reservations about Le nozze di Figaro, opining that Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia was a superior comic opera. But Don Giovanni remained a constant in his life. He singled out Adelina Patti’s Zerlina as one of the great portrayals he had witnessed. And he looked to Don Giovanni when crafting his first undisputed masterwork, Rigoletto.
Consider the common elements of the two works: A rakish young lord egged on to debauchery and also despised by a buffoonish servant. Dishonored women who fall for their seducers. Fathers’ curses and thirst for revenge. Disguises and back-alley thuggery. Depravity in the midst of glittering revelry. Ominous brass and seething strings; offstage voices moaning from beyond. Audaciously hybrid perspectives: Mozart and da Ponte’s dramma giocoso, both bawdy and grave; Verdi and Piave’s melodramma, a thing of heartbreak and jocular humor of which one early critic sneered, “One cannot determine whether the score belongs to opera seria, buffa, or any kind of opera.”
As Pierluigi Petrobelli notes, Verdi quotes the dance music from Don Giovanni’s Act I finale in the opening tableau of Rigoletto. Both scenes employ onstage orchestras. Verdi’s minuetto (heard as the Duke courts Countess Ceprano) emphatically recalls Mozart’s first dance; his perigordino, too, hints at Mozart’s music.
By means of these reminiscences, Verdi summons the Don Juan myth and also signals his opera’s distance from Don Giovanni, ossia Il dissoluto punito. Who in Rigoletto is dissolute? Upon whom is punishment visited? In Mozart’s opera, for that matter, is Don Giovanni’s world cleansed or impoverished by his doom? To summon Don Giovanni is to propagate a cloud of ambiguity, an effect that Verdi knowingly and brilliantly exploits.
Many critics also note an affinity between Don Giovanni’s music and that of the Duke of Mantua—not thematic but in the generic, anonymous quality of song that makes both characters captivating and fundamentally unknowable. As Gabriele Baldini observes:
Don Giovanni lends certain traits to the Duke of Mantua—the canzone and ballad, both elegant, rapid, disdainful and a little perverse, are in some sense descendants of “Finch’han dal vino—calda la testa,” though less in terms of musical material than in their extraordinary capacity to fix a character by seeming almost to consume him.
Baldini discerns traces of Da Ponte’s style in the archaic cast of Rigoletto’s verse: “O il bel zerbino!” Massimo Mila, too, associates the Duke of Mantua’s ambiguous personality with that of Mozart’s licentious cavalier. And are not the noblemen’s amorous principles essentially interchangeable? “Questa o quella—per me pari sono”; “Non si picca se sia ricca, se sia brutta, se sia bella…”;
These reflections only begin to probe the crosscurrents between Mozart and Verdi’s masterworks, both darkened by avenging fathers. While Mozart was at work on Don Giovanni, his harsh, domineering father died. Around the time that Verdi was composing Rigoletto, he formally severed ties with his parents and may have abandoned a baby girl he fathered with Giuseppina Strepponi. While biography can be a reductive approach to art, such wrenching events may have helped shape these powerful works. Much could be said, too, of the boundless, impersonal exuberance of “La donna è mobile”; and how reflects the “energy of sensual desire” that Kierkegaard had discerned in Don Giovanni.
Don Giovanni permeates another opera that Verdi knew and studied—Salieri's Falstaff, whose protagonist has been described as “a late-middle-aged Don Giovanni gone to seed.” Musical traces of Mozart’s opera are hard to find in Verdi's commedia lirica, which inverts Don Giovanni’s dark thrills. Sir John is chastised, not damned. Fathers rage, but wise women dispose. Falstaff’s fugues and minuets look back to Mozart, but its micro-melodies and headlong energy propel it into the twentieth century and beyond.
Don Giovanni also looms large in Un ballo in maschera, originally set in the Sweden of Mozart’s era. Gustavo, its protagonist, is another noble voluptuary trailed by a comic double and inclined to take up dance rhythms and popular forms. Sharing with Mozart’s anti-hero a defiant streak, he boldly faces death in the opera’s final scene.
Still, where Don Giovanni and the Duke abuse women, Gustavo sends Amelia away rather than cause her shame. No punishing father haunts his world: Gustavo himself enters and dies addressing his subjects as “figli”; mercy and generosity inform his acts. He gives voice to a passion whose violence neither Don Giovanni nor Verdi’s Duke knows, but dies lamented, a martyr, as the strings play a mazurka whose sad, celestial grace might be that of Mozart.
Even in difference, Verdi renders homage to the creator of Don Giovanni. Across the years and despite radically contrasting lives and sensibilities, Mozart and Verdi shed light on each other and on the souls of all of us blessed to be their heirs.