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Who was the first Don Giovanni?

Mozart’s premieres often featured the stars of his day. There was one exception, however: Don Giovanni.

What you will read in this article:

An (in)famous exception...

Many people who were the first to sing Mozart opera roles are famous. Just think of the first Papageno Emanuel Schikaneder. Also the first Konstanze (Die Entführung aus dem Serail), Caterina Cavalieri, was one of the most famous opera singers of her time.

It was a different story with Don Giovanni. When Mozart traveled to Prague in 1787 to premiere his latest opera at what is now the Estates Theater, he found an exceedingly young opera ensemble there. One member of it: the Italian baritone Luigi Bassi.

From women roles to seducer

Luigi Bassi came from the Italian port city of Pesaro. He was a child of the theater, because at the age of 13 he could already look back on extensive stage experience in private theaters. Because of his youth and therefore still high voice, he mostly played women.

It is thus of a certain irony that Luigi Bassi was chosen by Mozart for the role of the seducer par excellence: Mozart wanted Bassi as his Don Giovanni.

From prodigy to prodigy? Who knows...

I’m sure you’re familiar with the child prodigy myth that surrounds Mozart. Personally, I am not a particular fan of it. However, one thing is indisputable: Mozart had attained an exceptionally high level of skill at a young age. The same was true for Luigi Bassi. When Luigi Bassi sang Don Giovanni, he was – brace yourself – 21 years old!

This is overwhelming for two reasons: first, by today’s standards, it is hard to imagine a 21-year-old having the vocal power necessary for Don Giovanni. Second, there is the question of what age the operatic character Don Giovanni should be.

This question continues to puzzle opera directors to this day. Nevertheless, 21 years would almost certainly be too young an age for a Don Giovanni. A 21-year-old who has seduced more than 1000 women in half a dozen countries? Not a bad average…

In this respect, it is all the more interesting how Luigi Bassi was made into Don Giovanni in the Prague premiere. The following image exists of him – decide for yourself: Did those responsible in Prague succeed in making Bassi look older than 21?

Luigi Bassi Don Giovanni in Prag
Luigi Bassi as Don Giovanni in the world premiere of Mozart's opera in Prague 1787.

Sweet doubts and Mozart's Prague success

In recent Mozart research, a conjecture has emerged that offers a simple explanation for the Luigi Bassi phenomenon: Luigi Bassi pretended to be younger than he was (not that this is unusual today…).

However, to this day there is no proof that this is true. The success should also outshine these doubts: Mozart’s Don Giovanni was well received in Prague and was the starting signal for Bassi’s successful singing career. Later, he even tried his hand at directing.

(By the way, Mozart’s Prague success is not only based on his Don Giovanni, but also on a triumphant concert. Read more about it here).

Jonathan Stark – Conductor
Jonathan Stark – Conductor

Hello! I'm Jonathan Stark. As a conductor, it is important to me that visits to concerts and operas leave a lasting impression on the audience. Background knowledge helps to achieve this. That's why I blog here about key works of classical music, about composers, about opera and much more that happens in the exciting world of music.

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