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BOOKS

Imagining Don Giovanni

Anthony J Rudel

RRP: £7.99

1 October 2001

Published by Atlantic Books

ISBN: 9781903809679

In October 1787, sixty-two year old Giacomo Casanova and thirty-one year old Wolfgang Mozart are believed to have met in a Prague coffeehouse to discuss a revolutionary new opera based on the life of Don Juan. The composer and his librettist, poet Lorenzo Da Ponte, were to stage the work later that month, but major sections of the plot and music still hadn’t been finished. Classical music expert Anthony Rudel expands upon this provocative historical footnote in Imagining Don Giovanni. It is a sweeping story of love, friendship, artistic passion, and philosophical awakening set against the lush background of old Prague, one of the most vital of 18th-century European cities.

In the eleventh hour, Mozart and Da Ponte halt the writing of Don Giovanni when they realize that they fundamentally disagree about the direction the opera should take. Is its age-old story, in which the womanizing Don Giovanni is dragged to hell by a vengeful statue, a comedy or a tragedy? Neither strong-willed man will back down. For the devout Mozart, the Don’s immorality is clearly tragic, but for Da Ponte, a womanizer himself, that “immorality”-or refusal to conform-and society’s reaction to it are clearly comic. Tempers flare but no consensus can be wrought as the royally-decreed premiere date looms. When all hope seems lost the infamous Casanova appears on the scene with a flourish, full of salacious stories and surprising wisdom. The tale is not so simple as comedy or tragedy. It is funny, it is sad, but most of all he sees it as a paean to a burgeoning new social commitment to determined free expression and independence for all.

Mozart and Da Ponte are both skeptical and intrigued. Casanova’s progressive ideas stir their democratic enthusiasm, but also their fear. Mozart exercised his free will over his domineering father, dead just five months, only one time-when he married Constanze. That act drove a painful wedge between father and son, which in turn planted the seed of resentment between the lovers. Da Ponte, harboring a fragile secret, worries about the consequences of offending his royal benefactors and wealthy patrons. Furthermore, Constanze Mozart rails against the adulterous spark that Casanova’s example produces in her impressionable husband. And as Casanova begins to influence the shape of the opera itself, professional and romantic jealousies between the men complicate matters even more. Da Ponte and Mozart anxiously jockey to protect their mandates in the rehearsal hall and in their respective bedrooms; Constanze, for one, with a devoted heart but a feisty spirit, is unabashedly fascinated by the elegant and understanding older man.

Winding through Prague’s glittering society balls, rustic old-town inns, secluded manor gardens, and the majestic, newly completed Prague Opera House, a struggle of wills and desires ensues. But it is the correspondence of an imprisoned French nobleman of questionable sanity that finally cements the opera’s destiny. Consulted by Casanova, the Marquis de Sade writes from his asylum cell to passionately endorse Don Giovanni‘s theme of freedom of expression (and to suggest a few ways to spice up the love scenes). Galvanized, the three collaborators and their musicians begin work once more on what is to become perhaps the greatest opera of all time. After reconciling with Constanze, Mozart writes his incomparable Overture in one night. The premiere the following day is a crescendo of inspiration, a passionate devotion to personal liberty, and renewed bonds of love.