By the 18th century, educated women were beginning to question male freedoms and dominance of society, and starting to demand similar freedoms for themselves. Many men were also increasingly uneasy about their own social and economic privileges, especially the moral latitude shown toward male sexuality (as opposed to the constraints placed on female sexuality). The women of Don Giovanni showcase the many tensions that dominated gender relations of the era, each representing different aspects of the cultural and social landscape.
For critics, the most problematic of the three central female characters is Donna Anna. Her character does not appear at all in Molière’s play, Don Juan. In Tirso de Molina’s The Trickster of Seville and the Stone Guest, it is suggested that perhaps Don Giovanni raped her, with the play revolving largely around the issue of her honor. At the end, Giovanni confesses that he had not been successful with her, thus resolving the main dramatic question. In Mozart’s opera, she figures not so much as one of Giovanni’s conquests, but foremost as the daughter of the Commendatore whom Giovanni kills, and who in turn enacts his own supernatural revenge on the libertine. Anna’s relentless pursuit of Giovanni and her request to delay the wedding to her fiancé, Don Ottavio, suggest that perhaps she may have been violated, though some critics note that she may simply have been traumatized by the death of her father, who was killed while protecting her honor. In his book on Mozart’s opera, Edward Joseph Dent argues that Anna and Ottavio, “were evidently intended by Da Ponte to be the pair of more or less serious lovers customary in most Italian comic operas.” If Anna and Ottavio indeed fulfill the function of the Italian innamorati, Irving Singer points out that her request to wait the conventional year before marrying is rather normal, and there is no reason for us to believe that her encounter with the Don had anything to do with it. Singer suggests that Anna, the dutiful and guilt-ridden daughter, represents Mozart himself and his own strained relationship with his father. At the end, Singer notes that “neither the capture of Don Giovanni nor the comfort of Ottavio’s love can eliminate the sadness she feels” at the loss of her father.
Of the three women, Zerlina appears to be the most sexually liberated. She can be portrayed as either an innocent village girl or a cunning, no-nonsense peasant woman. She most closely parallels commedia dell’arte’s Columbina, the clever maid stock character. Although Zerlina has no qualms about flirting with Don Giovanni on the day of her wedding to Masetto, we don’t know if her interest is genuine and she indeed comes under the spell of the Don’s charisma, or whether it’s merely her strategy of dealing with Masetto, making him jealous and by extension more prone to her influence. As Singer points out, “[S]he knows that the more she is fickle with Masetto, the more he will dote on her; the more he dotes on her, the greater her freedom to deceive him.” We also don’t know if Zerlina really believes in Giovanni’s promises of marriage, or merely pretends to in order to justify the seduction. She is sensual, but she also understands the social and moral judgment that women must conform to, and she quickly adjusts her behavior to what Masetto expects, begging him to “beat your poor Zerlina.” In the end, Masetto doesn’t beat Zerlina, but Giovanni beats Masetto, which she cleverly blames on Masetto’s own jealousy. Zerlina is often compared to Papagena from The Magic Flute, a child of nature who treats sensual pleasure with casual joy and without the guilt of dominant Christian morality.
Finally, Donna Elvira’s chase of the Don and her drive to “avenge my deceived heart” is one of the most tragic motifs of the opera. Elvira is as traditional as possible; believing in the institution of marriage, she is unable to come to terms with Giovanni’s false promises and betrayal. If she were a character in an opera buffa, her love-hate pursuit of her former lover would be farcical, but the music that accompanies her is always serious, suggesting something darker and perhaps even pathologically obsessive in her passion. As David Cairns put it, “[Elvira] is a victim-figure, and her music depicts her obsessiveness, her continued sexual fascination with Don Giovanni, her lack of control; but, unlike the Don, it doesn’t deride her. She rises above the indignities callously heaped on her, and earns our respect.” She is constantly torn between the reality of her predicament and her fantasy world. She desperately wants to believe Giovanni’s assertions because not believing means admitting to her own gullibility, but the more she trusts him, the more she suffers. He deceives her until the very end.