Book review: “Die Nacht des Don Juan” by Hanns-Josef Ortheil

In preparation for a “meet the author” event, I visited a local library. Disappointingly, it only stocked two of the author’s long list of publications and these were no recent ones. One historic novel was “Im Licht der Lagune”; the other “Die Nacht des Don Juan”.

Don JuanIn “Im Licht der Lagune”, the sense of seeing, observing, watching, being spied upon, as well as the art of painting and drawing play an important role. In “Die Nacht des Don Juan” hearing, overhearing, listening, as well as creating, composing, performing and experiencing music are important. Where “Im Licht der Lagune” takes place in Venice, “Die Nacht des Don Juan” is situated in Prague.

There is no evidence Casanova and Mozart met in Prague. However, Casanova did know Lorenzo da Ponte, the librettist with whom Mozart worked on “Don Giovanni”. This opera was first performed in Prague and Casanova did leave some papers which seem to be linked to this opera. Using a few facts, Hanns-Josef Ortheil describes a fictional account of Casanova meeting Lorenzo da Ponte and Mozart in Prague in 1787.

Though not a Venice, Versailles, or Vienna, Prague is no cultural backwater. Yet on arrival, Casanova of course considers it to be a dismal provincial town. Casanova has accepted an invitation by an acquaintance to come and stay at his Prague home.

However, Casanova’s host suddenly has to leave for Vienna. Leaving his guest to fend for himself, this count orders his servants to ensure Casanova feels at home. One of the count’s musical servants, Paolo, becomes Casanova’s man servant. .

Some time before Casanova turned up on the doorstep, the count banished his daughter Anna Maria to a convent. There she has recurring nightmares of a masked man chasing after her. The banished Anna Maria is regularly visited by her maid Joanna, who worries about her mistress’ health.

Casanova is soon bored and dissatisfied. Rearranging furniture, food preparations, musical wake-up calls – in short: the total manner in which the household is run – , keeps him occupied the first few days. Then he starts meddling in the servants’ lives and love affairs.

On a stroll through Prague, Casanova bumps into his fellow Venetian, Lorenzo da Ponte. Casanova and da Ponte know each other – and don’t think the world of each other. Da Ponte complains about the new opera he is working on. This creative project is not running smoothly. There are problems with the singers, the orchestra, the libretto, the music.

Of course, Casanova can’t resist meddling. He deftly outmanoeuvres da Ponte and meets Mozart. Mozart in the meantime, is worried about his pregnant wife. She, on the other hand, suspects her husband is having an affair with a local beauty. In the meantime, Anna Maria has taken up to disguising herself as Joanna her maid. For this enables Anna Maria to escape from the convent and walk all over Prague.

The stage is set. In no time, plot and characters of this novel start mirroring events of Mozart’s “Figaro” and especially “Don Giovanni’. There are hilarious scenes, like the one in which Casanova feels utterly superior to Paolo and shows off his knowledge of good food and table manners which he acquired at various courts throughout Europe. Paolo is horrified by Casanova’s impressively dirty eating habits.

In the end, Casanova – the ultimate Don Juan or Don Giovanni – does not end as badly as Mozart’s Don Giovanni. In the opera, Don Giovanni is dragged off to hell. Casanova will end his life isolated, frustrated, unhappy in a remote Bohemian castle, working as a librarian and writing his memoirs.

Of course, one simply has to listen to Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” during or directly after reading this hilarious, splendid novel. Especially the sly and meddling Casanova is highly entertaining, yet totally human. But if you do not like opera that much, you may be interested in reading one of the author’s serious works, based on Mozart’s letters: “Mozart im Innern seiner Sprache.”

Die Nacht des Don Juan”, Hanns-Josef Ortheil, published in 2000. The book is available in translations, but I was unable to google an English one.
Mozart im Innern seiner Sprache“, Hanns-Josef Ortheil, published in 1982

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