The Figaro Murders
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|The Figaro Murders
by Laura Leboew
Publication date: March 31, 2015
At St Martin’s Press/Minotaur Books
Available as hardcover and ebookGenre: Historical Fiction/Historical Mystery
Received from the publisher via Netgalley for review
This book counts for the following Reading Challenges:
MY THOUGHTS ABOUT THIS BOOK
Loving both historical mysteries and opera, I jumped on the opportunity to read The Figaro Murders. It has the unique advantage of focusing not so much on Mozart as on the opera librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte, well known though sometimes left in the shadows.
I read an interesting historical mystery on Mozart’s last days, entitled Mozart’s Last Aria. In this present novel, we meet Mozart as a young man, his wife and two young children.
Both novels feature the complex socio-political situation of Vienna in the 1780’s, with the strife between Protestants and Catholics, plus hatred against the Jews, as well as the looming shadow of Frederick, King of Prussia, over Austria and its emperor Joseph II. Laura Lebow does a fantastic job at recreating this background, and that’s definitely a high point of her work.
It is also a transitional and difficult time for composers and musicians. Even though the emperor is enlightened and a great champion of the arts, it is not easy earning one’s life with music. There’s the constant pressure of finishing your commissioned work on time, of following the strict rules of the time (for instance here the issue of introducing ballets in operas, a “French custom” far from being accepted by all at the time), and extreme rivalries, here mostly pictured between Da Ponte, the court theater librettist, Casti, and Salieri, the court composer. With the economic and political situation, added to competition, blackmailing is flourishing, and we have a lot of this in the novel.
When the book opens, Lorenzo Da Ponte, originally a Jew from Venice, has been living in Vienna for 5 years. Despite his origin, he received actually a Christian education and prepared for priesthood. But he does not officiate as a priest, just enjoying the level of culture his formation gave him, to be a writer and a poet.
When he goes to his usual barber, Vogel, he discovers this man is on his way to the debtor’s prison, because he can’t reimburse the loan from Rosa Hahn, housekeeper at the Palais Gabler, a famous Baron. Thinking his real mother, whom he does not know, was actually rich, Vogel asks Lorenzo to try to find her. To help, he sends him to the Palais, where his fiancée Marianne Haiml works. When Lorenzo visits, he meets young Florian Auerstein, page to the Baron. After his visit though, Florian is discovered dead: someones seems to have pushed him off a window sill where he enjoyed sitting.
It looks like the murder may have involved some people concerned with high level of foreign policy. Did Frederick plant a spy at the Palais, and did the boy know who it was? So they ask Lorenzo to go as a poetry teacher to find who the spy might be. If he refuses the deal, Lorenzo will be accused of murdering the boy.
The story is complex like a play or an opera, with a double plot going on and criss-crossing, with both the identification of Vogel’s mother and the possible spy. Is there a connection between them? Can Lorenzo clearly discover who’s who between these two leads? If there’s blackmailing, who is blackmailing whom? For what reason? Lorenzo is going from possible lead to lead, and grows confused, as anyone seems to be a possible spy and or murderer.
The final revelation of Vogel’s mother was a bit too easy, but totally in agreement in how mysteries are resolved in operas. In fact, another beauty of the book is that all the characters, not in names but in roles, are the characters of The Marriage of Figaro! The titles of the parts of the book also come from the opera.
Poetry plays also an important part inf the book, and Lorenzo often quotes his favorite poet Petrarch. I really enjoyed his poems to Laura when I was a teen, so that was nice to meet him again!
We also see Lorenzo working on his libretto for Martín y Soler’s A Rare Thing. Even though it is mostly unknown these days, at the time, it was actually much more successful than the Marriage of Figaro, which was well-received but quickly forgotten (until after WWII!).
Be sure to visit the author’s website with great references on Da Ponte and Mozart. She did a great job at reading her sources and smartly turning them into a very enjoyable work. I’m glad to know more historical mysteries focused on Mozart’s operas are coming from her! I’m especially curious to see what she will do with The Magic Flute and its possible Freemason hidden message!
VERDICT: If you enjoy both the world of operas and historical mysteries, The Figaro Murders is a must for you. Built on very serious background work and using the characters of the opera itself, it offers a very suspenseful, entertaining, and insightful view of late 18th century Vienna in which lived famous librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte.
WHAT IS IT ABOUT
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. (from the publisher)
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
I live in Cambridge, Massachusetts with my husband, a lot of books about Mozart, and many opera CDs.” [from Goodreads]
HAVE YOU READ THIS BOOK YET?
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focusing on a composer ?
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