The mythical figure of Don Juan is a man who would do anything to get what he wants from others, especially women. He has no conscience at all. He is what we call a libertine. The Oxford English Dictionary says: ‘A man (rarely a woman) who is not restrained by moral law; one who leads a licentious life.’ The editors quote Ophelia’s response to the inherited moralising of her brother:
Whiles like a puffed up reckless libertine
Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads.
The libertine is like a badly spoiled child who has never been taught manners. He is transfixed by his own image and he cannot think beyond himself. His speciality is loveless sex. He is not just frank but boastful of what he sees as his conquests, but he would tell any lie to get what he wants. His very existence mocks God and affronts humanity. Yet for too many, he holds some magnetic attraction. He betrays all those who fall for him, and he instantly drops and forgets them, but somehow they never learn. Indeed, the more he offends, the more some people fall for him.
The Don Giovanni of Mozart is our nightmare of Rousseau realised – an individual infatuated with liberty. Toward the end of the first act Giovanni proclaims ‘Viva la libertà’. He belts it out with manic drive. The counterpoise comes with some plain dances and a trio of surpassing beauty. ‘Liberty’ for this Don Juan is the same for all of them – the power to do what he wants with impunity. Mozart was a good Catholic and a worthy Mason. For him, Giovanni mocked God, and the only answer was divine retribution. When Giovanni’s preposterous ego stops him from recanting, he must go to Hell. His damnation is prefigured in the title ‘Il dissolute punito.’
So, this opera, perhaps the most weighty that this genius left us, shows how libertines take liberties, and how an espousal of ‘liberty’ may be just a veil for a grab for power or immunity. But we are also warned of the magnetism of false leaders and our capacity for self-delusion that leads to the truism relied on by all deceivers that there is one born every minute.
Would Mozart, then, have been as shocked as we are that in a nation that has not favoured mocking God, a libertine is nominated to stand for the presidency by a conservative party that gave the world the sublime Abraham Lincoln?