No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Friday, August 24, 2007

#45: Leporello -- William Palmer

What, Leporello, does a man do when he has died and been dragged down to Hell? And then is resurrected again? It's a problem that did not trouble my ancestor in all those wretched plays. He sinned; paid, and satisfied consciences all round.

One of those books that I felt I should have enjoyed more than I actually did. This is the narrative of the infamous Don Giovanni's valet, as told by the aged Leporello himself to an unseen listener, who clearly keeps interrupting with references to the opera. Leporello dismisses these interjections testily: irrelevant, and who cares about some stupid opera? Instead, he tells us what really happened, from his early days as a peasant in an Italian village (suitably bawdy and picaresque) to his first encounter with the Don and his role in the events that spawned the opera. Here are Donna Anna, Don Ottavio, Donna Elvira in their 'true' names and guises: Anna, for instance, is Eleanora, a spoilt rich girl who tricks Leporello into eloping with her, only to reveal that she's in search of a mysterious lover who promised to be with her always ... yes, the Don.

Leporello also tells the story of the moralistic masque which, in the opera, becomes a literal descent to Hell. And he tells what happens, happened, after the opera ends: the prime and decline of Don Giovanni di Tenario, a gradual descent from tragedy to darkest farce that makes us glad that Mozart and Da Ponte stopped where they did.

Leporello is not merely a retelling of the opera: it becomes plain, as the tale progresses, that Leporello and his master are of different worlds. They're divided not just by social class but by a battery of metaphysics: the Don as Enlightenment gentleman, fascinated by microscopes and natural philosophy, and Leporello stubbornly insistent on God's will and workings. There's the underlying issue, too, of whether Leporello is friend or servant; and there's the issue of whether the Don (like the Earl of Rochester as portrayed in The Libertine, of which this strongly reminded me in places) is simply an overgrown adolescent, fighting and whoring and intriguing to stave off the mortal enemy of Boredom.

The setting is magnificent and the detail credible: Leporello comes across as rather less cowardly and more sensible than Mozart's version, but perhaps at the expense of his master, who's not actually a very likeable person.

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