• Random Observation About “Don Giovanni”

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    I recently read an excellent article from Psychology Today, about what to say, and what not to say, when a friend or loved one is grieving. It made me realize something about Don Giovanni: Don Ottavio’s attempts to support Donna Anna in her grief are absolutely terrible.


    Commentators rarely pay attention to that shortcoming of his. They generally fixate on his being “dull” and a “wimp.” But the way he handles Donna Anna’s loss of her father is arguably a far worse flaw. It’s always left a bad taste in my mouth, but especially so after reading the Psychology Today article. Let’s compare and contrast the things Ottavio says with what the article says not to say.


    The article’s instructions (among others):


    *Respect the grieving person’s boundaries.

    *Listen to them.

    *Don’t judge them or make them feel guilty.

    *Don’t tell them how to feel.

    *Don’t tell them that what happened was “meant to be.”

    *Think of their needs, not yours.


    Don Ottavio?


    *Just minutes after they find the Commendatore’s bleeding body, urges Anna “Leave behind the bitter memory: you have both husband and father in me.”

    *Repeatedly begs her not to cry, to be calm, to console herself, etc.

    *Guilt-trips her by saying “Your father’s spirit would grieve to see your torment.”

    *Tells her “We must bow our heads to the will of Heaven.”

    *Tries to “console” her by offering to marry her very next day. Then, when she says no (and she isn’t even talking about postponing the wedding yet – just rejecting his offer to move it to tomorrow), he gets angry and calls her “cruel.”

    *Have I mentioned that all of this takes place less than 24 hours after her father was murdered defending her from a would-be rapist?


    I’ll give him credit where it’s due – he’s beautifully eager to avenge her father’s death, even if he is all too reluctant to believe that Don Giovanni is the killer. And in the final scene, when she insists on postponing their wedding to mourn for a year, he accepts it with total, loving grace. Maybe he learns something by the end. But it takes him the entire opera to learn it.


    Now, whether or not Da Ponte and Mozart meant him to be awful at dealing with Anna’s loss, I don’t know. Maybe they saw him as the perfect caring gentleman; maybe his attitudes were typical for an 18th century man. Maybe they’re all too common even today. Commentators rarely find fault with them, after all, even if they dislike Ottavio for other reasons. And of course plenty of those writers seem to identify with Ottavio even as they claim to disdain him, and disparage Anna for being so absorbed in her grief, calling her “cold,” or “whiny,” or speculating about her motives because “that much anguish can’t be just for her father.” (Less than a day after his murder defending her honor.) But whether or not he’s supposed to seem inept and insensitive in the face her pain, he does.


    Don Ottavio: a walking, talking, singing lesson in what not to do or say when tragedy strikes a loved one.

    • What about the music?

    • Don Ottavio means well, he just hasn’t read all the right books. I think he gets a bad rap from “the commentators” On top of that, Donna Anna is understandably distraught. And I imagine she’s not easy to deal with,even under the best of circumstances,

      • Agreed. I don’t think Mozart and Da Ponte meant for him (or Anna) to be unlikeable, and for all his mistakes, I think he gets more flack than he deserves. Everyone, with the possible exception of the Countess in “Figaro,” is all too human and flawed in the Mozart/Da Ponte universe.

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