Ghostly Mozart: The “Commendatore Scene” from “Don Giovanni”

The dramatic climax of Mozart’s opera, Don Giovanni, delivers the ultimate ghost story.

Don Giovanni’s horrific fate is sealed earlier in the opera’s second act. In Scene 3, the brash, promiscuous nobleman (also known as Don Juan), wanders into a graveyard where he is reunited with his servant, Leporello. Don Giovanni brags that he took advantage of his disguise to try to seduce one of Leporello’s girlfriends. A voice comes from one of the graveyard’s statues warning Don Giovanni that “his laughter will not last beyond sunrise.” It’s a statue of a Commendatore, bearing the eerie inscription, “Here am I waiting for revenge against the scoundrel who killed me.” Leporello trembles, but Don Giovanni arrogantly taunts the ghost, inviting him to dinner (the duet, “O, statua gentilissima”).

The phantom’s arrival is announced with an ominous knock on the door. The Commendatore offers Don Giovanni one last chance to repent. When Don Giovanni refuses, he is surrounded by demons and carried away to Hell. A final ensemble contains the moral, “Such is the end of the evildoer: the death of a sinner always reflects his life.”

Something akin to that terrifying knock on the door can be heard in the orchestra’s underlying rhythm at the beginning of the scene. Repeating with an ominous inevitability, it’s the same unrelenting rhythm we hear in the opening bars of the opera’s Overture. With wrenching dissonances and slithering lines in the strings, the suspense builds. As the fearful Leporello hides under the table, his trembling is felt in the orchestra. Dizzying scales rise and fall in the strings, giving us a sense of lightheadedness. Don Giovanni’s “hour of doom” is announced by the Commendatore with a descent into the bottom of the bass register. Throughout the scene, the dramatic “heat” is turned up with continuously searing intensity.

Here is a 1990 Metropolitan Opera performance featuring the German bass, Kurt Moll, in the role of the Commendatore. Samuel Ramey is in the title role and Ferruccio Furlanetto performs the role of Leporello.

Recordings

  • Mozart: Don Giovanni, K. 527, Metropolitan Opera, James Levine, Bryn Terfel, Renee Fleming, Solveig Kringelborn, Ferruccio Furlanetto, Paul Groves (2005 performance) Amazon

Featured Image: “Don Juan et la statue du commandeur” (c. 1830) by Alexandre-Evariste Fragonard

About Timothy Judd

A native of Upstate New York, Timothy Judd has been a member of the Richmond Symphony violin section since 2001. He is a graduate of the Eastman School of Music where he earned the degrees Bachelor of Music and Master of Music, studying with world renowned Ukrainian-American violinist Oleh Krysa.

The son of public school music educators, Timothy Judd began violin lessons at the age of four through Eastman’s Community Education Division. He was a student of Anastasia Jempelis, one of the earliest champions of the Suzuki method in the United States.

A passionate teacher, Mr. Judd has maintained a private violin studio in the Richmond area since 2002 and has been active coaching chamber music and numerous youth orchestra sectionals.

In his free time, Timothy Judd enjoys working out with Richmond’s popular SEAL Team Physical Training program.

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