Tuesday, May 22, 2007

The Casanova Connection

There is an interesting bit of Jungian synchronicity in the fact that the San Francisco Opera is about to open its summer season with Don Giovanni while The New York Review has just run a piece by Michael Dirda on Giacomo Casanova's History of My Life. For those unfamiliar with the latter, the first thing they are likely to notice in Dirda's piece is that Casanova's History runs to 4289 pages in Willard Trask's English translation; and, if we read into the piece, we discover that Casanova died before completing it. We also read that Trask provided "extensive" endnotes; but, even without the endnotes, this is a massive undertaking.

Much has been made about the connection between Casanova and the protagonist of Mozart's opera. Thomas Allen even explored it in a slightly perverse way in a television program he made that was frequently broadcast on Ovation before they bought the farm. We know from Lorenzo da Ponte's Memoirs that he knew Casanova (and that Casanova owed him "several hundred florins"); but it appears that any direct contact took place after da Ponte had completed his Don Giovanni libretto for Mozart. According to the dates in Dirda's piece, Casanova could well have been working on his History at the time of their meeting; but Dirda does not say anything about Casanova showing the "work in progress" to anyone. Nevertheless, Casanova did have a reputation; and da Ponte was probably well aware of it (since he tried to be well aware of everything). However, there is something curious in Casanova's text that leads me to wonder whether da Ponte was the one doing the influencing, at least indirectly.

I am great believer in first sentences. I got this from my music composition teacher. He believed that, just as the initial gesture of a musical composition determines how much attention you will devote to what follows, the first sentence of a book really determines whether you want to read any more. Dirda is quite taken with the first sentence of Casanova's History; and, given the length of the entire work, it has better be impressive! Dirda goes so far as to claim that it "could easily be mistaken for a sentence by Gabriel García Márquez" (which may be a sign that Márquez had read and enjoyed his Casanova). Here is the sentence:

In the year 1428 Don Jacobe Casanova, born at Saragossa, the capital of Aragon, natural son of Don Francisco, abducted Donna Anna Palafox from a convent on the day after she had taken are vows.

Had Casanova publicized this fact about his ancestry in a way that da Ponte would have encountered it; or is this a memory that was "embellished" by Casanova's knowledge of the Don Giovanni libretto? Dirda goes to some length to argue that most of Casanova's accounts are fundamentally true. However, Casanova made it a point to camouflage many of the names out of a sense of good taste; and this could well have been a case where no one really knew the name of the abducted maiden. So I have to wonder of da Ponte played a hand in a mini-narrative which, in his libretto, is the tale of Donna Elvira, whose name is then replaced by that of Donna Anna, the "victim" we encounter at the very beginning of the opera.

Is this making too much of a single sentence? That may be so; but it is a first sentence, which carries a lot of baggage. It may well be that Casanova decided that the best way to introduce his History as a "good read" would be to draw upon the opening scenes of Don Giovanni, which were likely to be familiar to most of his potential readers. Casanova may have charted his own course in life; but, when it came to writing about that life, he may well have known that a connection to Mozart and da Ponte could have been used to his advantage!

No comments: