(Note: This post has been updated (1) as of 3:22 PM Eastern on 15 Jul. See below.)
(Note: This post has been edited extensively to correct for certain omissions, and for clarity as of 1:43 PM Eastern on 11 Jul.)
So, what happens to Don Giovanni near the close of Mozart's great two-act opera of the same name, and what's the deal with that final sextet that closes the opera?
Ask almost any opera-goer and the typical answers would be: 1) demons drag Giovanni down to hell with the assistance of the heaven- or God-sent, judgment-dealing spirit of the dead Commendatore (who Giovanni knocked off in a sword fight in the opera's first act) for Giovanni's refusal to repent his manifold sins and way of life, and 2) that closing sextet is actually a superfluous, dramatically lame if pretty bit of operatic nonsense the opera would have done better without.
While it's a certainty that Mozart's audiences, as do almost all audiences today, understood the Don's fate as above described, there's clear, if not certain, evidence that neither Mozart nor his librettist, Lorenzo Da Ponte, intended it that way even though they were pretty much obligated to present it that way in all its outer trappings as the legend of the prodigious seducer who ends by being dragged down to hell was an old and well-known one even in Mozart's and Da Ponte's time and the subject of many plays, books, and even a couple operas. And there's also clear if not certain evidence that Mozart, knowing his audiences would largely understand Giovanni's fate as above described, actually commented on that bourgeois understanding by way of the extended, sardonic, slightly malicious Mozartian joke that is the opera's closing sextet.
The first thing that strikes one as curious is that in the two Act II Commendatore-Giovanni encounters — the first in a graveyard, and the second when the Commendatore shows up as the invited guest of Giovanni at a banquet given in Giovanni's villa where the final catastrophe takes place (and when we speak of the Commendatore here it's always to be understood as the dead Commendatore's ghost or incarnated spirit; or the "Stone Guest", as he's been called because first met with in Act II as a graveyard memorial statue) — nowhere is any direct reference made to heaven, hell, God, or the Devil. It's curious — more than curious, actually — because the Commendatore's repeated command to Giovanni (at the banquet) to repent or face certain doom has about it the seemingly clear aura of divine sanction (i.e., a command given on the authority of God or heaven), and after Giovanni repeatedly refuses to do so, flames shoot up from below and lick round him; a chorus of voices, also from below, declare the fate awaiting him; the flames rise to engulf him; the ground opens beneath him; and down he drops.
Sure sounds and looks like a precipitous decent to hell for Giovanni, accompanied appropriately by a chorus of the damned, or of demons, intoning their dire tidings. But not even that chorus (marked in the score simply as Coro (Chorus) with no further identifying description beyond Da Ponte's stage directions that the voices are to come from below, and have a heavy or sullen quality) makes direct reference to hell or the Devil, saying to Giovanni merely that, "No doom is too great for your offenses. Worse torments await you below!"
I think it no accident, nor a felicitous omission, that Mozart and Da Ponte refrained from any direct reference to theology, realms, and entities specifically Christian in those two encounters, such as divine retribution, heaven and hell, and God and the Devil. The closest they come to inserting such direct reference is in the words of the Commendatore who declares, on being asked by Giovanni to sit at table and partake of the banquet, that those who've partaken of celestial food have no need of mortal food.
But the term used by the Commendatore is cibo celeste, celestial food, not cibo di cièlo, the food of heaven, and celeste is here used clearly as a metonym for the unearthly (I mean, the guy is, after all, stone-cold dead), not as a specific, per se reference to heaven. And if we insist on reading heaven itself into this, we then have to ask ourselves, What about the Commendatore after his death would make him a resident of heaven in the first place, much less one of God's or heaven's elect, and a dispenser of God's or heaven's judgment? And, perhaps more to the point, What about Giovanni in specific (as opposed to myriad other similar individuals) would provoke God's or heaven's special interest in securing his repentance, or in passing judgment on him?
The answer to both questions is, of course, nothing.
Unless, that is, one's a prisoner of an 18th-century bourgeois sensibility.
But more on that, anon.
I think it fairly clear that the intent of both Mozart and Da Ponte — arrived at either intuitively or by conscious decision — was to evoke the ageless and decidedly pre-Christian idea of the unquiet avenging spirit of a man (or, less commonly, woman) forced to roam the earth until retribution for his wrongful killing is secured (the inscription on the base of the Commendatore's graveyard memorial statue states that he awaits vengeance on he who killed him). Invoking the Commendatore as the avatar of this idea makes the two Commendatore-Giovanni encounters that much more terrifying and powerful because more strange and more universal, and that much more shocking dramatically, all of which is precisely what Mozart and Da Ponte were after in those Commendatore-Giovanni encounters, a dramma giocoso though Don Giovanni essentially is. It's not for nothing Mozart introduced three trombones into the orchestra for those encounters — in Mozart's time, an instrument heard only rarely in opera except to represent things terrific and unearthly, and an instrument not utilized at all in Don Giovanni outside those encounters.
But to question further, Why does the Commendatore repeatedly command Giovanni to repent? It's simply too much to imagine that the Commendatore has any interest whatsoever in saving Giovanni's soul (or whatever), or that the Commendatore is, for reasons hidden, an instrument or agent of God or heaven sent to accomplish that task. The idea is just too absurd and effectively given lie to directly by the inscription on the Commendatore's graveyard statue.
No, the Commendatore is no-one's instrument or agent, and acting entirely in his own behalf and interests in the matter of Giovanni. And for the Commendatore, it's a win-win proposition. If he secures Giovanni's repentance for his crimes and way of life, he will have secured a confession from Giovanni that he wrongfully killed the Commendatore, which in turn will secure for the Commendatore's unquiet spirit the release it requires, thereby permitting it to go to its eternal rest. If he fails to secure Giovanni's repentance, then the Commendatore's vengeance will be satisfied by Giovanni's descent into everlasting torment (which is also tacit confirmation of his guilt), which descent will also release the Commendatore's unquiet spirit from its earthly roaming, and permit it to go to its eternal rest. For the Commendatore it's a heads-I-win, tails-you-lose deal, and he doesn't care a whit how the coin lands.
And Giovanni? Why, the man is condemned out of his own mouth to a fall from grace, no association with his fellowmen, and therefore a life of everlasting torment; a fate made theatrically explicit and vivid by the drama's closing pyrotechnics. A kind of hell indeed, but not the hell of Christian theology to enter which, please remember, one must already be dead.
Now, about that closing sextet...
First, let's instantly deep-six the wrongheaded but not uncommon notion that the sextet is a mere formal add-on and really doesn't belong as the close of the great drama that preceded it, and most especially doesn't belong immediately after the jaw-dropping shock and terror of the final Commendatore-Giovanni encounter. That Mozart never intended to end the opera with Giovanni's descent is made perfectly clear by him by the imperfect cadence he used to bring that episode to a close. It's certain that something more was always intended to follow that imperfect cadence, and that something more is, and has always been, the closing sextet.
My take on that sextet is that, as I've above remarked, it's an extended, sardonic, and slightly malicious Mozartian joke; one targeted at the bourgeois sensibilities of the audiences of the time, and perpetrated at their expense by Mozart whether those audiences were made up of aristocrats, the middle-class, or the proles, all of which classes Mozart held pretty much in equal contempt (although for different reasons). Mozart knew precisely how those audiences would understand Giovanni's fate: as just recompense and divine retribution for his profligate, sinful, and even criminal life, and would understand it in that way not least because those audiences needed the comfort of knowing that Giovanni had met his end in such a morally decisive manner because of the threat such a one poses to the moral, social, and cultural status quo of the prevailing order. In that closing sextet, Mozart, with a sly and slightly malicious off-stage grin undetectable by most of his audiences, assures those audiences that now that Giovanni has been dealt with fittingly, everything is once more restored to proper bourgeois order with nothing of consequence left to threaten or disturb their good and just bourgeois sleep.
When this sextet is well-staged in the theater it always takes place after a significant pause subsequent to Giovanni's descent thereby distancing it from the apparent dramatic finality that preceded it. And if the stage director really knows his stuff (and I've never seen it staged this way, but would pay double the admission price for the entire opera just to see that closing sextet so staged), the sextet would be performed in front of a dropped curtain (i.e., dropped immediately after Giovanni's descent), with all six singers first walking onstage one at a time and lining themselves up across the full width of the stage, then, when all six are lined up, begin their singing, facing and addressing not each other, but the audience directly. Then would that sly and slightly malicious off-stage Mozartian grin be apparent to all.
Update (3:22 PM Eastern on 15 Jul): Blogger Sarah Noble of Prima la musica, poi le parole has some nice things to say about the above post, and then puts forward a possible unintended consequence of my proposed staging of the closing sextet:
If this [the closing sextet] is - and it could well be - "a sly and slightly malicious off-stage grin undetectable by most of his [Mozart's] audience", mightn't we keep it that way [r]ather than making it evident to all by having the six assemble in front of the curtain and sing to the audience[?] Because I'd say there are still today plenty in the audience happy to accept the epilogue at face value and to go home with all the moral issues so nicely sorted out for them. If we oblige everyone to 'get the joke', then where's the fun in that?
An excellent point, and one to which I gave due and careful consideration before proposing my staging of this sextet. I came to the conclusion — one in which I've a fair measure of confidence — that those in the audience who "still today [are] happy to accept the epilogue at face value and ... go home with all the moral issues ... nicely sorted out for them," will do just that despite the staging (which they'll certainly think a bit odd or eccentric), and miss Mozart's "slightly malicious off-stage grin" entirely, that staging notwithstanding.
Why? Because such people (assuming such still exist who would be part of an audience for Don Giovanni today) simply need to. For them, there's no other choice.