Lorenzo Da Ponte 1749-1838
Italian librettist, dramatist, poet, and memoirist.
Da Ponte is renowned for having written the librettos for three of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's most acclaimed operas, Le nozze di Figaro (1786; The Marriage of Figaro), Il dissoluto punito o sia il Don Giovanni (1787; Don Giovanni), and Così fan Tutte o la scuola delle amanti (1790). As poet to the Italian Theatre in Vienna, he rose to become a favorite of Austrian emperor Joseph II, but fell from favor at court after Joseph's death, eventually becoming an unsuccessful bookseller in New York. Da Ponte led a life marked alternately by high levels of intrigue, betrayal, libertinism, piety, high accomplishment, and crushing failure. He recorded his life story in the entertaining, coyly self-centered Memoire de Lorenzo Da Ponte da Ceneda (1823-27; Memoirs of Lorenzo Da Ponte).
Da Ponte was born Emanuele Conegliano in the Jewish ghetto of Ceneda, known today as Vittorio Veneto. As a young man he was baptized into the Catholic church, changed his name, and studied for the priesthood. Although he took major orders, he led a rakish life, running a brothel for a time; such activities led to his being expelled from a seminary position in 1776 and a fifteen-year banishment from Venetian territory three years later. Removing to Austria, Da Ponte made the acquaintance of poet-librettist Pietro Metastasio, and then, on the strength of a few poems, gained the position of Poet to the Italian Theatre. Becoming an influential favorite of Emperor Joseph II, he embarked on a career as a successful librettist, collaborating with such composers as Antonio Salieri, Vincenzo Righini, and (most importantly) Mozart, whom he met in 1783. Da Ponte was lionized for his successes as a librettists, but he also made several jealous, influential enemies. (One such enemy, on an occasion when Da Ponte was ill, tricked him into imbibing a "curative" which caused all his teeth to fall out—damaging Da Ponte's career as one of Vienna's more active libertines.) Upon the death of Joseph in 1790, he was forced to leave Vienna by the new emperor, himself heavily influenced by Da Ponte's enemies. With his wife and children, Da Ponte settled in England for some thirteen years, working for a time at Drury Lane Theatre as a librettist. But he incurred such heavy debts that he was forced by circumstances to flee to the United States, taking ship literally just a step ahead of the debt collector. He arrived in America in 1805, working successively as a grocer, medicine salesman, bookseller, and—near the end of his life—the first professor of Italian literature at Columbia College (now University), to some extent through the influence of a close friend, author Clement C. Moore, a Columbia trustee. In this last position, he worked prodigiously to elevate the appreciation of Italian culture and literature in the United States. When he died in 1838, his Memoirs of a full life had been in print for several years, though available only in Italian.
All of Da Ponte's libretti are forgotten today except those he wrote for Mozart: The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Così fan Tutte. This fact has been called a testimony to Mozart's ability to inspire the best from his librettist, and all three operas are performed to this day. Memoirs of Lorenzo Da Ponte is valued for its gossipy, insider's view of life at court in eighteenth-century Vienna, its confessions of sexual libertinism reminiscent of the author's friend, Giacomo Casanova di Seingalt, its recurrent theme of genius (the author's own) brought low by jealous rivals, and its view of nineteenth-century America through Italian eyes.
Little in-depth criticism of Da Ponte's work in any genre exists. The Marriage of Figaro is based upon a work by Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais and deemed a libretto which skillfully conveys the decline of the old European social order. Indeed, one critic, Herbert Weinstock, has written that The Marriage of Figaro by itself justifies the very existence of opera. Don Giovanni, written while Da Ponte was at work on two other libretti as well, is considered the weakest of the three, largely because of uneven characterization. Così fan Tutte, written at the emperor's request, is considered a superb example of comic opera, laden with sardonic wit. Criticism of Memoirs of Lorenzo Da Ponte tends to basically recount what the author has written and comment upon his believability. While Memoirs is valued for its vigor and insights, it is generally considered less valuable as such than the memoirs of Casanova, Giambattista Vico, and Carlo Gozzi.