When Casanova Met Mozart

The world's most notorious lover lived in Prague at the same time as the composer, but the mystery remains: did they collaborate on a famous opera?

Casanova's spirit is everywhere in the Czech capital city of Prague. (Francesco Lastrucci)

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Despite the Cold War protocol, everyone was very helpful. Tarantová explained that when the Communists nationalized Czech aristocratic property in 1948, the state inherited a vast cache of Casanova’s writings that had been kept by the Waldstein family, who once owned Castle Duchcov. “We have Casanova’s letters, poems, philosophical works, geometry works, plans for a tobacco factory, even treatises on the manufacture of soap,” she said, of the wildly prolific author. “There are 19 cases. It’s impossible to know everything that’s in there. I’ve never counted the number of pages!”

Soon Tarantová laid before me the two pages of notes covered in Casanova’s elegant, distinctive script; in them, he has reworked the lines of Act II, scene X, of Don Giovanni, where the Don and his servant Leporello have been discovered in a ruse that involved swapping clothes and identities. “Nobody knows if he was really involved in writing the libretto or was just toying with it for his own amusement,” said Tarantova. According to biographer Ian Kelly, “the close interest and precise knowledge of the newly performed text argues in favor of (Casanova) having been involved in its creation.” With da Ponte away, it is quite feasible that Mozart would have called on the 62-year-old Italian writer, whose reputation as a seducer was known throughout the courts of Europe, to help with the text. Casanova was also in the audience when the opera premiered on October 29. “Although there is no definitive proof that he worked on the libretto,” sums up the American Casanovist Tom Vitelli, “I think Meissner’s account is likely true, at least to some extent.”

On my final evening, I attended a performance at the majestic Estates Theater, where Don Giovanni still plays in repertory. The gilded edifice is one of the last intact 18th century opera houses in Europe, and was used as a set for Amadeus and the Beethoven biopic Immortal Beloved. A small bronze plaque in the orchestra pit marks the spot where Mozart stood to conduct that night in 1787. (Its interior has changed in only one respect: the red-and-gold color scheme was changed to blue-and-gold after the Velvet Revolution of 1989 – red was associated with the hated Communist regime.)

At this historic performance – which was a huge success, prompting a standing ovation – Casanova sat in a box seat in the wings. When later asked by a friend whether he had seen the opera, Casanova allegedly laughed, “Seen it? I practically lived it!” The very next year, he began to write his own romantic memoirs in Castle Duchcov.

A contributing writer to the magazine, Tony Perrottet is the author of Napoleon’s Privates and The Sinner’s Grand Tour: A Journey through the Underbelly of Europe; www.sinnersgrandtour.com


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