Lorenzo Da Ponte?
Venice, 1763. In a church crowded with worshippers and onlookers, a baptism is about to take place. A bishop presides at the ceremony. Giacomo Casanova, sitting in the crowd, observes the baptism of four Jews with a disapproving look. Among them, there is a young man, Emanuele Conegliano. The boy is not sure that he wants to be welcomed into”the lap of our Holy Mother the Church”, but the bishop, noticing the young man’s interest in the text of Dante’s Divine Comedy found in the sacristy, convinces
him to accept, promising him full access to the whole library. Once he has been baptized, the young man becomes Lorenzo Da Ponte… Lorenzo is ordained as a priest but his friendship with Casanova means that he does not give up his libertine ways. He frequents women and prostitutes, but, above all, he uses his talent as a poet to write and distribute texts attacking the Church and the power of the Inquisition.
Thats the beginning of latest feature by Spanish director Carlos Saura, I, Don Giovanni which some critics claim to be more compelling as an exhibition of powdered wigs than as a drama about the making of Mozart’s most ambitious opera. Certainly, Saura is not the first Spaniard with an axe to grind against the Church.Da Ponte, however, is such a complex subject, almost no movie could represent his narrative in a commercial context.
Mozart’s darkest opera, based on a long literary tradition going back to Tirso de Molina, is a subject with a fascinating variety of social and behavioural issues, with enough complex themes and contradictory elements to provide rich ground for any director to work with. But this film, though sumptuously mounted by Saura and well shot by Vittorio Storaro of Apocalypse Now fame, the film lacks some of the vitality of its clearest antecedent, Milos Forman’s Oscar-winning adaptation of Peter Shaffer’s play Amadeus. But then, this is not really a movie about Mozart.
First off, Venice of the 1770s, could create woeful tale for any young young poet. Da Ponte was, from the beginning caught in the clutches of a slimy culture. Venice was the epitome of hypocrisy: the use of the masks, even when Carnival was over, enabled respectable husbands, wives, nobles, priests, and others to engage, undercover, in amorous affairs, gambling, dancing, drinking, and all-around degenerate behavior, all night long. It was accepted practice, of course, that when the morning came, the cloaks came off, and respectability, rules, and laws of behavior, which were very strict, returned, and everything appeared “normal.” Not surprisingly, the political system was just like the social system: Appearance said it was a republic, but it was in fact a repressive state with under a veneer of sophistication and liberalism.
Comparisons between Saura’s work the Forman film are inevitable, given the many scenes that present “Wolfi” (played here by Lino Guanciale) as 18th-century Vienna’s favourite musical bad boy. That said, Saura shifts the focus of the action to Don Giovanni’s librettist, Lorenzo Da Ponte (Lorenzo Balducci), an appropriately rakish former priest whose writings made him prone to scandal. Da Ponte conceives his collaboration with Mozart both as a tribute to his friend and fellow swordsman Casanova (Tobias Moretti) and as a means to woo Annetta (Emilia Verginelli), a beauty who’s understandably wary of Da Ponte and his libertine ways. This relationship to Casanova is a cinematic ploy, as in real life the relationship was vague and not substantial, or at least far less important than Saura presents. Whether Da Ponte’s freemasonry was “determining” is also questionable, but serves as subtext for his opposition to the Church.
…After an evening in a gambling club with an old gambler, Lorenzo meets Annetta, the old man’s daughter, and falls madly in love with her. Lorenzo swears to take care of Annetta and protect her but, as soon as he has made this promise, he comes back down to earth and flees, overcome by a sense of guilt. Arrested on the charge of belonging to a Masonic society and of acting against the will of the Church, the Holy Inquisition sentences Lorenzo to fifteen years in exile….
This first act of the film, indeed little more than a prologue, though sadly short, is also its most compelling. There is gripping intrigue, danger and drama as Lorenzo tries to maintain his act as a Priest while chasing women and publishing “dangerous” and scandalous poetry which the Inquisition is trying to stamp out. Before any of this has a chance to flesh out into a substantial story, Leonardo is inevitably caught out and exiled, making his way to Vienna to serve in the court of the Austrian King as a writer collaborating with the brilliant younodigy Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Lino Guanciale) in his compositions for the Vienna Opera.
This is technically where the real story is supposed to begin, with everything in Venice simply a quick setup for the tale to come; that of these two young and very different artists collaborating to create a bold and risqué new opera masterpiece – the tale of Don Giovanni, a legendary rake and womaniser, who Lorenzo sees as a reflection of himself.Factually, this is quite innacurate since there was a series of earlier collaborations. Nonetheless, this should be the moment where the story takes off. Instead, the film instead descends into banality thereafter, losing the drama and momentum of the prologue to a plodding, poorly paced and erratic unfolding of a predictable romantic challenge, where Lorenzo finds himself pursuing his muse and heart’s desire, Annetta (Emilia Verginelli), while work on the Don Giovanni opera continues.
Da Ponte is one of the most enigmatic and erudite men in history. Much is made of his romantic pursuits and his general love of wine, women and song as if to fit him into a compelling stereotype, a caricature of minimal dimension; but this is a decoy to distract from a very profound thinker, who may not have received his just due.
Joan Acocella on Da Ponte’s Memoirs: At this point, Da Ponte’s book becomes a lot of fun. Events tumble out of it like kittens out of a bag, and some are quite fantastic. One evening, Da Ponte encounters a beautiful, mysterious young lady. “My name is Matilda,” she says, “daughter of the Duke of M___a.” Her father had tried to force her to marry “an old man of horrible aspect.” When she refused, she was imprisoned in an ancient castle, from which she escaped in the dark of night. Now she has arrived in Venice, and, after two meetings with Da Ponte, she begs him to run away with her. They’ll be fine, she says; she has a casket of diamonds. He says he’ll think about it. When he gets home, Angiola meets him at the door with a stiletto. Still he can’t decide, and, while he is pondering the problem, Matilda is carried off by the Inquisition. “My grief knew no bounds,” he writes, and then Matilda drops out of the narrative. Similar episodes follow, and they lend the book a kind of giddy causelessness. Never does Da Ponte try to connect the events of his life to his own character. This may be the least introspective autobiography ever written.
Again, with sublime art and a clear conceptual framework, they targetted the Venetian oligarchical system, and its conception of man as a beast. “Don Juan” was not a new theme—in fact, there were a number of plays and even an opera already being performed on that theme in Vienna that year; but Da Ponte had two other commissions he was obliged for, simultaneously, and Mozart was pleased with the idea. Da Ponte borrowed liberally from Bertati’s libretto of Don Juan, but the transformation was complete. The opera premièred in Prague, exceeded all expectations, and was hailed as a masterpiece unlike anything the world had known before. Mozart conducted, and was applauded throughout. Da Ponte had been called back to Vienna to work on the opera with Salieri, who did not like being upstaged. Da Ponte said:
I did not see the performance of Don Giovanni in Prague, but Mozart immediately wrote to me and told me about his miraculous success and Guardasoni wrote me the following words: “Long live da Ponte, long live Mozart! All the impressarios and all the virtuosi must praise them. As long as they are in the world theater, will never know want.”
…The Emperor summoned me, overloaded me with gracious felicitations, presented me with another hundred sequins and said that he greatly longed to see Don Giovanni. Mozart returned, and since Joseph was shortly to depart for the field [he left in February 1788—SB], hurried the score to the copy-clerk to write out the parts. The opera went on the stage—Don Giovanni came on the stage—need I recall it? Don Giovanni did not please! Everyone, except Mozart, seemed to think that something was missing there. And so parts were added, the arias were changed and it was newly performed: and Don Giovanni did not please!
And what did the Emperor have to say about it? “That opera is divine, it is perhaps even more beautiful than Figaro, but it is not a morsel for the teeth of my Viennese.” I told Mozart this and he was not upset, and he said: “Give them time to chew on it!”
He did not delude himself. I ensured, according to his wish, that the opera was performed frequently: And the applause strengthened with every performance, and little by little, even Vienna of the dull teeth acquired a taste for it, they appreciated its beauty and ranked Don Giovanni among the most beautiful operas staged in the opera theater.