In 1786 Vienna, Lorenzo Da Ponte is the court librettist for the Italian Theatre during the height of the enlightened reign of Emperor Joseph II. This exalted position doesn’t mean he’s particularly well paid, or even out of reach of the endless intrigues of the opera world. In fact, far from it.
One morning, Da Ponte stops off at his barber, only to find the man being taken away to debtor’s prison. Da Ponte impetuously agrees to carry a message to his barber’s fiancée and try to help her set him free, even though he’s facing pressures of his own. He’s got one week to finish the libretto for The Marriage of Figaro for Mozart before the opera is premiered for the Emperor himself.
Da Ponte visits the house where the barber’s fiancée works—the home of a nobleman, high in the Vienna’s diplomatic circles—and then returns to his own apartments, only to be dragged from his rooms in the middle of the night. It seems the young protégé of the diplomat was killed right about the time Da Ponte was visiting, and he happens to be their main suspect. Now he’s given a choice—go undercover into the household and uncover the murderer, or be hanged for the crime himself.
Dear Ms. Lebow,
The Georgian/18th Century era is one of my historical favorites. So when I saw the description for this book, I decided to give it a try. A bonus is that it’s not set in England and includes opera. The setting is well done but the characterization and mystery resolution didn’t work quite as well for me.
The book started with one of my personal bugaboos – too much description about irrelevant things. I do love having a scene set or learning new things while reading historical books but if it seems too much like showing off fact finding rather than actually needed, then I get antsy. I was just about to stop reading when the action finally got going rather than just reading about every character’s clothes and room décor. On the other hand, I liked learning about all the reforms Joseph II had implemented and really enjoyed the behind-the-scenes view of writing a libretto and composing the music to bring Barber to life.
Da Ponte is in that nebulous strata of a household. He’s above the chambermaid, equal to the secretary but not high enough to dine with the family. He makes several pointed observations about this leading one to suspect that he carefully guards his social standing and perhaps thinks it higher than in reality it is.
He’s actually got two investigations going – one that intrigues him and one that, if he fails at it, could get him killed. His brusque and clumsy opening moves in solving the murder make sense given his lack of expertise in crime solving but as he says about himself, he’s trained to observe and eventually this stood him in good stead. Still, there was not really a way for readers to play along at home as certain key clues weren’t revealed until the very end.
My interest in the mystery and murders, frankly, came and went. The court intrigues and momentous changes implemented by Joseph II were what caught and held my attention. I also wasn’t a fan of the characterization. Some turned out to be merely pasteboard, to be jerked around as needed with emotions turned up and down like a light switch.
Da Ponte’s investigations ebb and flow though I knew they would be tied together in the end. The denouement feature villain exposition from not just one but two of them. As well as a dramatic life or death struggle for each. Finally learning the truth was fine but the soap opera delivery? – not a fan.
It was nice to learn more about Da Ponte and his world but with no romance – and no, I didn’t buy his sudden falling in love – I probably won’t be back for future books. C