Although Così fan tutte has many operatic puzzles to be solved, the most controversial puzzle in the Mozart/Da Ponte operas arguably is the role of Donna Anna. The lady’s ambivalent behavior has reserved her increasingly nastier portrayals in recent operatic productions. It has been almost widely accepted that she is attracted to Don Giovanni and trapped in an engament of convenience with the unmanly Don Ottavio. In Roger Norrington’s words, she is often portrayed as a neurotic, while the libretto and the music show her as a heroic character instead. However, in Calixto Bieito’s and in Claus Guth’s productions, we see a schemy, unfaithful and two-faced woman. I know our days tend to see a hero rather than an anti-hero in Don Giovanni, but I have the impression that this view has been established at the expense of the opera’s serious couple’s seriousness.
In their first scene together, Donna Anna is trying to detain Don Giovanni while her servants are arriving to help her. Although the audience is unaware of what has happened inside, Leporello would later say that his master tried to rape her (due imprese leggiadre: sforzar la figlia ed ammazzar il padre). While she desperately tries to prevent him from escaping, he answers that this is all in vain, for she will not discover who he is (chi son’io tu non saprai). In any case, if she indeed knew who he is (as many recent productions suggest), why would she make such a scandal to attract her father’s and her servants’ attention? A lady such as Donna Anna in a conservative country as Spain used to be would never jeopardize her reputation like that. The text shows a woman ready to sacrifice her own life to save her honour (non sperar se non m’uccidi).
So the text is quite clear about the fact that Donna Anna was almost raped by Don Giovanni, who would kill her father soon after that. That said, still the pieces of the puzzle do not fit perfectly together. Although her fiancé, Don Ottavio swears he will revenge her father and kept – awkwardly, truth be said – his word, the young woman repels him with increasing vehemence. Her strange behavior is probably the reason why directors tend to see some sort of insincerity in her. Curiously, while trying to break into Don Giovanni’s party under their masks, Donna Anna answers to Donna Elvira’s comment that this was dangerous and risky business by saying she feared for her dear fiancé in the first place (temo pel caro sposo, e per noi temo ancor). One could even say that she is quite tender with Don Ottavio, even when he looses his patience with her and says she is cruel towards him. But he is somehow right to ask: why would she wish to postpone a wedding that her father himself has approved especially now that she is alone in the world?
Before I address the issue, I would like to make one previous question: where exactly does Don Ottavio live? We can assume that he does not live in the Commendatore’s house, for it would be inappropriate to have an unmarried couple living under the same roof. So, if he lives somewhere else, how exactly could Donna Anna fetch him so quickly when her father was in danger? In an emergency situation such as that, she would not have the time to get a carriage or even a horse to ride to Don Ottavio’s place, get a servant to open the doors in the middle of the night, wake him up, get him dressed and then run back. If she indeed managed to do that as fast as she could, she would nonetheless take a couple of hours in the operation. In any case, a reasonable person would guarantee that in-house servants who were supposed to have weapons around took care of the situation rather than leave her father unattended while facing an invader. Considering all that, it seems well-grounded to believe that Don Ottavio was already in the Commendatore’s house. In the middle of the night without his host’s permission, although the young lady seemed to be aware of that.
When Donna Anna recognizes in Don Giovanni her father’s murderer, she tells Don Ottavio: “It was quite late at night, when I saw a man covered in his cloak whom I first thought to be you enter my room”. One can only wonder why she would believe that this man could be her fiancé. I am sure that her father would not approve of those nocturnal visits – a young woman alone in her room with her fiancé in the middle of the night. Notice that she found it quite natural, also the fact that he had a cloak on (i.e., he came from outside). She only found it strange when she realized that the man was not Don Ottavio. It is therefore justified to believe that she accorded her fiancé this intimate interview. Probably because the couple did not want to wait for the honeymoon to have some fun, Donna Anna arranged this rendez-vous finally to be surprised by a strange sexual offender. This perfectly explains why the young woman felt so guilty about the whole event – she betrayed her own father’s confidence in the very day of his death and, if she had not opened the door, he would have had no reason to fight Don Giovanni and he would have not even died (before you find it exaggerated, please have in mind the first scene in Verdi’s La Forza del Destino). This also explains why she felt that rushing things towards consummating her marriage with Don Ottavio required some consideration: it was rushing things that put them into those tragic circumstances. In her big aria, she is hurt by the accusation of being cruel – for she knows that she had previously been extremely indulgent towards her fiancé. She even says “Love has spoken enough in your favor to me”.
One extra inference is believing that Don Ottavio and Don Giovanni were actually friends. After Donna Anna explained her fiancé the circumstances of her father’s death, he says “It is possible that under the sacred mantle of friendship…”. Donna Anna herself acknowledges that Don Giovanni is a friend of Don Ottavio’s when shortly before that she says that they need their friendship. Entering a rich lady’s bedroom without her consent was not the easiest thing in the world in the days when a sword was the most dangerous weapon a man could carry. And nobody forced Donna Anna’s door – she saw a man enter and was not surprised by it. Who knows Don Ottavio, trying to impress his philanderer friend, rashly told him about his plans only to be trumped? Convincing a beautiful serious lady to sin against chastity is something a guy could use to impress a friend far more successful in the seduction department.
Although this interpretation is closely based on the text, it is still pure speculation – but again Mozart’s music for Donna Anna is very different from what he composed to Vitellia. Her cries for revenge receive music of heroic quality, her consistently high tessitura and fioriture portray her as a serious character and the florid stretta of her noble aria are a good illustration of how sincere is her guilt and solem her vow to atone (“maybe one day Heaven will pity me” is her text). Donna Anna’s sincerity also makes Don Ottavio a far more interesting character – he might be not an alpha male, but he has hormones like everybody else and, as much as Don Giovanni, all he is trying to do is having some fun in a beautiful Summer evening, just like everyone in Seville before the invention of TV, Internet and Ipad.