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Mozart puts the finishing touches on Don Giovanni with a little help from his friends—an idea that outshines the execution of it in a historical from the son of opera conductor Julius Rudel.

In the autumn of 1787, fresh off the success of The Marriage of Figaro, Mozart is in Prague and rehearsing his still-unfinished version of the Don Juan legend. It’s a frustrating time for the young composer as he grieves for his dead father, has doubts about his marriage to Constanze, and wrangles with his egomaniacal librettist, Lorenzo Da Ponte. Coming to Mozart’s rescue is the Chevalier de Seingalt, the great rake and memoirist better known as Casanova. Rudel notes that Casanova, a middle-aged man by 1787, did in fact offer his Don Juan–like expertise to Mozart; and in this imagined version of events, he not only provides valuable insight into the mind of a seducer but also cures Mozart’s personal frustrations and rejuvenates his marriage. Added to this auspicious pairing of 18th-century figures is the advice—in letters written from the Bastille—of Casanova’s pal, the Marquis de Sade. Certainly it would be hard to invent a more colorful gallery of characters. But in the hands of first-timer Rudel (Classical Music Top 40, a music guide, not reviewed), these larger-than-life men become mere caricatures endowed with little beyond their trademark quirks: Mozart composes an overture in an hour, Casanova seduces sets of twins, and so on. The treatment of history is also clunky (“I’ve heard the trouble in Paris is getting worse. Some say there may be a revolution.” “Ridiculous. It could never happen”), and Mozart’s and Casanova’s speeches about the egalitarian potential of opera and the liberating energies of coitus, respectively, are repetitive and uninspired. “They liked it,” Mozart notes as the audience applauds at the end of Don Giovanni. “But did they understand?”

An interesting speculation done clumsily in broad strokes.

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 2001
ISBN: 0-87113-827-1
Page count: 288pp
Publisher: Atlantic Monthly
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1st, 2001