The Librettist of Venice
Lorenzo Da Ponte (1749-1838) has remained famous almost exclusively for three librettos that he wrote for Mozart’s operas The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Cosi fan tutte, first performed between 1786 and 1790. Although these three works certainly deserve their continuing place in the repertory of frequently performed eighteenth century operas, the rest of Da Ponte’s long career has remained almost completely unknown. This excellent biography, The Librettist of Venice: The Remarkable Life of Lorenzo Da Ponte, Mozart’s Poet, Casanova’s Friend, and Italian Opera’s Impresario in America, by Rodney Bolt enables readers to understand not just the significance of what Da Ponte accomplished between the four brilliant years of 1786 to 1790 but especially also Da Ponte’s real accomplishments during the thirty-seven years that he lived before the first performance of The Marriage of Figaro in 1786 and the forty-eight years that he lived after the first performance of Cosi fan tutte in 1790.
Bolt carefully examined archival material in the four countries of Italy, Austria, England, and the United States in which Lorenzo Da Ponte lived during the four different careers in his long life. Bolt describes well Da Ponte’s extraordinary ability to redefine himself to overcome economic, social, and political challenges. In a real sense, Da Ponte was a survivor who learned to turn misfortune into success.
Lorenzo Da Ponte was born in 1749 in a Venetian Jewish ghetto as Emanuele Conegliano. Bolt argues persuasively that Emanuele’s widowed father Geremia tired of anti-Semitism and decided to convert his entire family to Catholicism in 1763 to increase their economic opportunities and especially to give his children the chance to obtain the formal education that was generally denied to Jews in Venice. In a clear attempt to impress influential Catholics, Geremia changed his own first name (Italian for the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah) to the more Christian name Gaspare and his family’s last name to Da Ponte because the bishop who baptized all the Coneglianos was named Lorenzo Da Ponte. The newly christened Gaspare gave his son Emanuele the new name Lorenzo. This impressed Bishop Da Ponte, who agreed to pay for the new Lorenzo Da Ponte’s education as long as he agreed to enter a seminary, which the fourteen-year-old Lorenzo did. During his years at a Venetian seminary and even after his ordination, Lorenzo spent little time studying theology. His main interests were Italian literature and the pleasures of the flesh to which he was introduced by his friend Giacomo Casanova, a well-known rake in Venice. By 1779, Father Da Ponte was living publicly with his mistress Anzoletta and their children. This overt violation of his vows of chastity angered Venetian church and civilian authorities. Father Da Ponte had to choose between imprisonment on a morals charge and exile. He showed good judgment by deciding to leave Venice.
Due to his solid knowledge of Italian literature and his exposure to operas performed in Venice, Lorenzo Da Ponte knew that Italian operas were popular in Dresden, the capital of the Duchy of Saxony, and in Vienna, the capital of the Hapsburg Empire. Da Ponte went first to Dresden whose harsh winters displeased him. While in Dresden, however, Da Ponte made the acquaintance of a court poet and librettist named Caterino Mazzola, who recognized Da Ponte’s poetic talent but did not want competition from another Italian poet in Dresden. Mazzola solved his problem by persuading Da Ponte to leave Dresden for Vienna. Mazzola recommended Da Ponte to Antonio Salieri, an Italian composer then active in Vienna. Due to the enormous success of Milos Forman’s 1984 film Amadeus based on Peter Shaffer’s play of the same title, which portrayed Salieri as an unsympathetic composer totally lacking in creativity, many people hold Salieri’s music in low esteem. Salieri, however, was not as poor a composer as the film Amadeus would have us believe. Emperor Joseph II, who reigned in Vienna from 1780 to 1790, greatly admired opera and especially Italian opera. Throughout the 1780’s, Da Ponte was well paid, and he composed many librettos, first for Salieri and, later, three for Mozart. Bolt analyzes insightfully the real literary quality in the librettos that Da Ponte wrote for...
(The entire section is 1791 words.)