BOOK REVIEW / A sidekick's view of the road to damnation: 'Leporello' - William Palmer: Secker & Warburg, 15.99 pounds

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The Independent Online
THERE are times when you cannot help wishing that nobody had ever heard of Mozart. It isn't just the sheer accessibility of his music which we take for granted (he's up there with Vivaldi at the top of the easy-listening charts), but the notion that it exists as a kind of blank screen on to which, without dishonour to his genius, we can project our fantasies and obsessions. The operas have come out worst of all, if only because of the commonplace delusion that to spot symbols and subtexts in the libretto means that you have something worthwhile to say about the musical score. Half the books and essays written about Die Zauberflote and Le Nozze di Figaro are actually about Schikaneder and Da Ponte rather than Mozart.

Thus contemplation staggers at the prospect of a novel retailed in the person of Don Giovanni's servant Leporello, a work in a genre best exemplified by Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea and Robert Nye's Falstaff, in which the re-writers offer improvisations on celebrated literary originals. As it turns out, William Palmer's flunkey's-eye-view of the libertine's progress down the familiar route towards damnation, strewn with petticoats and rapiers, is a good deal less dire than it sounds, even if his extreme fluency as a storyteller ultimately proves fatal to him. We have heard all this before, from Don Ottavio and Donna Anna to the stone guest's appearance at the banquet, but seldom in quite so fanciful and speculative a style, or one that so consistently tries to link the Mozart-Da Ponte plot to a broader vision of ancien regime decadence and moral implosion.

The scene of the Don's exploits has shifted from Spain to an Italy of aristocratic trifling, servants as panders, jesters and fixers, and a general sense of a society numbed by the insidious effects of aimless idleness. The Don's philosophy is reduced to the business of murdering boredom with sensuality. When at last he dies it is not in the flames of hell, under the Commendatore's baleful glare, but more prosaically as a result of his carnal excesses.

Palmer sensibly avoids the temptation, resorted to by numerous other commentators on the opera, to turn Giovanni into a symbolic avatar of predatory sexuality along the lines of Valmont or Des Grieux, whom hindsight invites us to place against a stormy backdrop of impending revolution. Ironically, he appears a good deal more sympathetic than Leporello himself, whose manner, however authentically it simulates an old man's anecdotage, eventually proves tiresome through its relentless verbosity. The idea of retelling the Don Juan legends in a context juxtaposing palpable naturalism with something more elegiac was a good one, but again and again the reader longs to tell the prosing old factotum - and, by the same token, his creator - for heaven's sake to get on with it.