The raunchy and hilarious aria ‘Madamina, il catalogo è questo’ – ‘My dear Madam, let me give you the list…’ – is one of the shining highlights from the opera Don Giovanni. Leporello, the faithful servant, informs Donna Elvira that she’s not the only woman, who has fallen for his master’s ruthless sexdrive. There were ladies and girls of all ages and social standing, Leporello says, kitchenmaids and baronesses, fat ones, small ones, in five countries. He’s counted them all: there were 640 conquests in Italy, 231 in Germany, 100 in France, 91 in Turkey, but the crown goes to Spain: ‘Ma in Ispagna son già mille e tre’: 1003.
The claim that Giacomo Casanova worked on the libretto of Don Giovanni, and somehow informed the main character was first made in 1876 by Alfred Meissner in his book ‘Rococo Bilder’. This was based on notes made by Meissner’s grandfather, who was a professor and historian in Prague and a confidant of musicians playing in the 1787 premiere at the Estates Theater. In Prague, Casanova had run into his old friend from Venice, Lorenzo da Ponte, a fellow libertine, now working as Mozart’s librettist. Apparently, they attended concerts together at the Villa Betramka, the retreat of local arts patrons Josefina and Fratišek Dušek. Here, it is believed, Casanova met 31-year-old Mozart.
There is no real evidence, that Mozart or Da Ponte modelled their Don on Casanova. Da Ponte himself was no mean adventurer. Alfred Einstein, in his ‘Mozart. His Character, His Work’ (1979) writes about Da Pontes life in Venice:
‘He devoted himself to affairs of literature and gallantry, and was as much at home in the muddy waters of the corrupt republic as a fish in the sea. (…) For three years da Ponte was able to continue this sort of life until the scandal caused by his affair with a married woman forced him to flee in haste; he was banished from Venice (…) for fifteen years, on pain of confinement in a dungeon for seven years if he should be discovered there.’
It’s certainly possible, that Mozart – being under considerable pressure to finish the work – called upon the 62-year old Italian for some advice, or even some notes, when Da Ponte had left Prague. It’s beguiling, but there’s no hard proof. Casanova was in the audience when the opera premiered on October 29. As Einstein has it: ‘Among the witnesses of the first performance was old Casanova, who must have had a strange experience in listening to the aria about the mille e trè, even though his arts of seduction were based on methods different from those of Don Giovanni.’
Translation: Peter Lockwood