(Cover picture courtesy of NetGalley.)
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.
Brilliantly recreating the cultural world of late 18th century Vienna, the epicenter of the Enlightenment, Lebow brings to life some of the most famous figures of music, theatre, and politics.
[Full disclosure: I requested and received a free ebook in exchange for an honest review.]
First off, if you’ve watched the actual opera The Marriage of Figaro you will appreciate this book much, much more. It’s not necessary for understanding it or even appreciating it but you will appreciate it on a much deeper level if you have seen the opera.
Why? That’s because we have a murder mystery set in Vienna with what are essentially the characters of the opera. We have ourselves a lecherous count, a desperate love-seeking countess, her grumpy former guardian, a girl-obsessed young nobleman working as a page, a maid and a barber. That, my friends, reads very much like the list of characters in the actual opera. But if you have seen the opera, don’t worry. The murderer is definitely not who you think it is and not for the reasons you think. Knowing something about the characters and general plot doesn’t reveal the culprit too early, believe me. Really, Laura Lebow basing her characters off of actual characters in the opera was brilliant in that respect because if you’ve seen the opera you think you’ll know who did it but it’s really a sort of red herring. It just adds a whole other layer to the book and I did enjoy it.
Lorenzo Da Ponte himself is nothing like I pictured but I never actually knew much about the historical figure so that’s not really saying much. He’s a largely toothless lady-killer, a relatively impoverished man working as the court poet and sort of official librettist at the court of one of the more enlightened European monarchs, Joseph II. He was good friends with Mozart and is of course a bitter rival of Salieri and his librettist. Essentially, in the beginning he’s not all that remarkable but things change quickly when he’s accused of murdering young Florian. Then the secret service equivalent of the day swoops in and forces him to go undercover in the household as a poetry teacher to discover who really murdered the young prince. Why would they send a poet in to do a spy’s work? Well, things aren’t all that simple in Vienna of the day and some main players keep their cards very close to the chest. Despite his indignation at the whole situation, Lorenzo does rise to the occasion quite well and discovers that not everything is as it seems in that household.
Laura Lebow’s writing was excellent. She brings to life 18th century Vienna so well that you really do feel like you’re there along with Lorenzo. Her characters are well fleshed-out anyway but it’s her brilliant writing that really makes them come alive. While you may or may not be able to predict who killed Florian near the end, I personally was quite surprised (not that that’s really saying much as I don’t read many mystery novels.) Even if you are able to predict the outcome, I think you’ll enjoy the book because Lebow writes suspense quite well. Throughout the book there’s this aura of tension that gets slowly ratcheted up as the novel progresses. Sometimes it’s almost unbearable and you just have to keep reading to find out what happens next. Really, you can’t ask for more in a historical murder mystery: actual history brought to life and plenty of mystery and suspense.
The book ended quite realistically and I was actually surprised to learn that The Marriage of Figaro was not what Da Ponte was most known for in his day because it’s a staple of opera houses everywhere. No, he was known for some obscure little opera that is practically never performed today. But after he solved the mystery and the opera premiered fairly successfully, he and Mozart are going on a little road trip to write one of the darker, more terrifying operas I’ve ever seen: Don Giovanni. It was definitely a satisfying ending with that little promise of an awesome sequel coming up because I do love Don Giovanni as well. The Figaro Murders doesn’t come out until March 31, but I already can’t wait for the next book.
I give this book 5/5 stars.
As a side note, if you are interested in actually watching Le nozze di Figaro, the best version I’ve found is from James Levine’s 40th anniversary at the Met. Unfortunately, it’s no longer available although you can watch clips on YouTube here (the first three videos were deleted for whatever reason but you can get the gist of the first scene from the rest of it). It’s hard to ruin either of the Figaro operas, so as long as you stay away from the Mozart Festival one with Anna Netrebko you’ll be fine. The cast was great in that one (particularly Netrebko herself), but the production was total and utter crap and the choreographer and/or director were clearly on something.