Il ricco d' un giorno (libretto) 1784
Il burbero di buon cuore (libretto) 1786
Le nozze di Figaro (libretto) 1786
Una cosa rara o sia bellezza ed onestà (libretto) 1786
L'arbore de Diana (libretto) 1787
Il dissoluto punito o sia il Don Giovanni (libretto) 1787
Cosi fan tutte o la scuola delle amanti (libretto) 1790
Storia compendiosa della vita de Loranzo Da Ponte (memoirs) 1807
Memoire de Lorenzo Da Ponte da Ceneda [Memoirs of Lorenzo Da Ponte]. 4 vols. (memoirs) 1823-27
Emilio Goggio (essay date 1919)
SOURCE: "The Dawn of Italian Culture in America," in The Romanic Review, Vol. X, No. 3, July-September 1919, pp. 250-62.
[In the excerpt below, Goggio summarizes Da Ponte's significance in introducing American college students to Italian language and literature.]
Lorenzo da Ponte, a poet of renown and the well-known librettist of Don Giovanni and Le Nozze di Figaro, was also an exile, a satirical sonnet against Count Pisani having been the cause of his banishment from his beloved Venice. He first sought refuge in Austria and later migrated to the United States. In New York, where he finally settled, he opened a little book store and earned his livelihood by the sale of Italian books and wares. Moreover, being especially fond of literature, he thought of devoting part of his time to teaching, and began to offer private lessons in the language of his native country. This new enterprise turned out far better than he expected, for many young men and women of distinguished families profited by the occasion and applied for instruction. The gratifying success which he attained as a teacher is well brought out in the many letters in Italian which he received from his pupils and which he himself published with his Memoirs. When his students had been well drilled in the rudiments of the language, he passed to the literature and introduced them to the best Italian poets and prose writers, expounding to them the works of Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio and of all the other great lights, including Alfieri and Metastasio . . .
From 1826 to 1837 Da Ponte held a professorship at Columbia College, which, however, was in reality a private tutorship, carrying no salary from the college itself. Through his suggestion and cooperation, many Italian books of literature were given a place on the shelves of the college library and were made accessible to the student body of that institution. In 1833 Italian Grand Opera was auspiciously initiated in New York under his direction, and a new source of interest was thus created by him in the language of Italy.
Joseph Louis Russo (essay date 1922)
SOURCE: "How Da Ponte Became a Librettist" and "Glory and Downfall," in Lorenzo Da Ponte: Poet and Adventurer, Columbia University Press, 1922, pp. 41-58, 59-82.
[Russo wrote the first full-length English-language study of Da Ponte in the twentieth century. In the following excerpt from that work, he offers a biographical and critical survey of his subject's rise and fall as a librettist. As the excerpt begins, Da Ponte has been banished from Venice and has entered Austrian territory, seeking refuge and his fortune.]
Solely from his lyre the Poet hoped now to derive the help he so badly needed. The Peace of Teschen. . . . had been negotiated and signed in the name of Maria Theresa by Count Johann Philipp von Cobenzl (1741-1810), whose father, the old Count Guido, was one of the leading noblemen of Gorizia. That the latter, evidently proud of his son's success, might welcome a poetical glorification of it, was at once perceived by Da Ponte, who accordingly wrote an ode eulogizing the aged Empress and her brilliant diplomat,—ode which he entitled La gara degli uccelli, (The Birds' Rivalry), an allusion to the Austrian and Prussian eagles.
Though on more than one occasion Lorenzo showed a paternal predilection for this offspring of his Muse, it is certainly not one of the best of his poems. Yet it sufficed to gain for him the protection of the wealthy patrician, who had it printed at his own expense, and generously rewarded its author. The reputation he thus acquired in the town procured him new favors. Count Rodolfo Coronini (1731-91) entrusted him with a translation into Italian verse of his Liber primus fastorum Goritiensium, a work of pretended historical erudition,—the Fasti Goriziani alluded to in the Memorie. Other families, all equally prominent, such as those of Strassoldo, Lantieri, Attems, Tuns and Torriani, opened their doors to him, and the young poet soon became a favorite in that society.
It happened, however, that his uncommon good luck aroused envy in another poet, Giuseppe de Colletti (1744-1815), whom Lorenzo describes in his autobiography with the bitterest animosity and against whom he wrote at that time a violent satire.
Meanwhile, at the request of a noble lady, he translated, probably through the French, a German tragedy for the use of a good Italian theatrical company which was giving performances in Gorizia. The play, he freely admits, proved a failure, but his reputation was somewhat restored when, shortly after, another production of his was presented,—this time the translation of a French tragedy. Admitted to an "Arcadic colony" which had just then been founded in Gorizia under the name of Colonia Sonziaca (a designation derived from that of the river Isonzo on which that city is situated), he had himself called Lesbonico Pegasio. Among the poems composed by him for that society, Il capriccio and La gratitudine o sia la difesa delle donne deserve to be remembered.
Yet, despite his remarkable success, it appears that he was far from happy, and in his heart he longed for a return to the City of the Lagoons. If he entertained any hope that his old protector, Giorgio Pisani, might grasp the reins of the Venetian government and recall him, that hope was rudely shattered by the news brought to him by Caterino Mazzolà, whom he had known in the house of Memmo, and who passed through Gorizia on his way to Dresden, where at the invitation of that Elector he was about to assume the position of Poet for the Opera House. . . .
Da Ponte offered to collaborate with Mazzolà in the composition of the plays which the latter was preparing for that Opera House, a help which it seems was gladly accepted. It was for our Poet, as he soon had occasion to discover, a sort of training for his future career.
But, apart from this work, his residence in Dresden and the close association with a pious man like Father Huber inspired him to compose a number of "psalms" which rank among his best poems. They are not, as some of his biographers have erroneously surmised, translations of the Psalms of David, but original compositions in varying meters, each having as a theme a passage from the Bible, such as Miserere mei. Deus, quoniam infirmus sum, or Justus es, Domine, et rectum iudicium tuum, from which he developed the first two poems. For their austere simplicity coupled with unusual elegance of style, they were praised by many men of letters and, as Da Ponte with pardonable pride informs us, by no less an authority than Ugo Foscolo. Both Father Huber, to whom the verses were dedicated, and the Elector, who was presented with them by the learned clergyman, generously rewarded our Poet. . . .
Towards the end of  having learned that the Emperor intended to establish an Italian theatre in Vienna, he boldly approached Salieri, asking that he be recommended for a position similar to that held by Mazzolà in Dresden. Salieri took the matter to heart, spoke to Count Olindo Orsini di Rosemberg (1725-96), High Chamberlain and intimate friend of Joseph II, and the request was granted.
In his account of his first audience with the Emperor, Da Ponte relates that he was asked whether he had ever written a drama. To his frank denial Joseph answered good-naturedly: "Never mind, we shall have a virgin Muse!"
The title conferred on him was that of "Poet to the Italian Theatre," and he received a yearly salary of 1200 florins, with the obligation of writing dramas, for which, according to usage, he was in addition to receive royalties.
To the poor man, whose life since his flight from Venice had been a daily struggle for existence, this sudden change bringing to him at the same time comforts and honors, must have seemed like a golden dream. He obtained at once access to the best homes of the Austrian capital and became acquainted with men elevated in rank or prominent in the fields of art, by whom he was treated with esteem and benevolence. It was at this early stage of his theatrical career that he met, in the house of Baron Wetzlar, the already famous Mozart.
It is curious to read in the Memorie of the difficulties which he encountered in writing his first melodrama, Il ricco d' un giorno. To quote his words, it seemed to him as though he had undertaken "to wield the club of Hercules with a child's hand." For many months he struggled with his subject, and only towards the end of 1783 was he able to submit the completed libretto to Salieri, who had to compose the music. . . .
The music of Il ricco d' un giorno was composed by Salieri during the early spring of 1784. Unfortunately the opera could not be given at that time, for the composer had to go to Paris for the first performance of his Le Danaidi, the score of which he had written in substitution for Gluck. To make matters worse, Casti, whose reputation as a poet was widespread all over Europe, came to Vienna from St. Petersburg in the beginning of May, followed soon after by Paisiello, whose fame in the field of music was at least as great as Salieri's, and the Emperor commanded an opera from them.
When, on August 23d, their Re Teodoro a Venezia was given, the great expectations of the sovereign and the public were realized; the opera obtained an extraordinary success, and, while Da Ponte would like us to believe that the applause was only for the music and the singers, it is certain that Casti's share in the triumph was recognized as well.
In the autumn, Salieri having returned, Il ricco d' un giorno was finally presented. It proved a complete fiasco. From Da Ponte's stanzas to Pietro Zaguri it appears that the hisses in the theatre were so insistent as to cause the performance to be suspended. Lorenzo, though frankly admitting the faults of his libretto, accuses Salieri of having mutilated it, claims that the music was worse than the words, and finally complains that the great artiste, Storace, being indisposed, her rôle had been entrusted to an incapable singer. There was probably some truth in these as sertions, but when Lorenzo goes so far as to accuse Casti of trying to ruin him in order to foster his own ambitions, and of combining with all the adventurous poetasters who at that time crowded Vienna, in a conspiracy headed by no less a personage than Count Rosemberg, it seems that his imagination and his peculiar weakness for seeing rivals and enemies everywhere overpowered his better judgment.
Granting that Casti craved the place left vacant by the death of Metastasio, nothing forbade the simultaneous existence of a "Caesarean Poet" and a "Poet to the Italian Theatre," and therefore it is hard to see why the author of Gli animali parlanti, whose happy-go-lucky nature is well known, should have organized so devilish a plot. Even more absurd appears the accusation against Rosemberg (to whom, by the way, he owed his position) for the Count was too much of an Austrian courtier, as Nicolini opportunely remarks, to attempt to persecute a favorite of the Emperor, as Da Ponte undoubtedly was.
Nor is serious consideration due to the matter of a short dialogue in his praise and against Casti which Lorenzo inserted in his Memorie, and which is supposed to have taken place between Joseph II and Count Rosemberg the day after the performance of the unlucky opera; for the Venetian ambassador, Daniele Andrea Dolfin (1748-98), to whom the Emperor is said to have related it, and from whom it reached the ear of Da Ponte, was at that time representing the Republic of St. Mark at the Court of France and only on May 20th, 1786, came to Vienna to succeed Sebastiano Foscarini.
Be that as it may, Salieri took a solemn oath rather to allow his fingers to be cut off than again to write music for Lorenzo's verses. Nor were the singers more kindly disposed, for they wondered how they could have attempted to sing "those miserable lyrics." Satirical pamphlets were written against our Poet, to which he did not fail to answer with equal violence. The storm, however, was overcome, inasmuch as the Emperor retained him in his favor, and when, towards the beginning of the following year (1785), the two musicians, Stefano Storace and Vincenzo Martini, came to Vienna, he asked Da Ponte to write a libretto for the latter. . . .
Il burbero di buon cuore, an evident adaptation from the well known comedy of Goldoni, Le Bourru bienfaisant, set to music by Martini during the fall of that year, was finally produced on the evening of January 4th, 1786. That the opera was received with exceptional favor, is proved by the fact that for many years it continued to be played in Vienna and was also quite popular in Italy. It seems that Joseph II, on meeting the Poet immediately after the first performance, said to him with a smile: Abbiamo vinto!
And undoubtedly Lorenzo's prestige was restored. His popularity had grown overnight to such an extent that several of the foremost composers evidenced a desire to avail themselves of his services as a librettist.
One month later,—to be precise, on Februrary 7th,—in the Court Theatre of Schönbrunn, was produced the musical farce Le parole dopo la musica, which, according to a rather curious anecdote related by the Prince of Ligne, was written by Casti by order of the Emperor, after the music had already been composed by Salieri.
Michael Kelly (1762-1826), who sang the tenor rôle, gives in his Reminiscences an amusing account of the performance and, though by an evident error he attributes the music to Righini (spelled by him Rigini) and the words to Da Ponte, the facts related by him must be true since our Poet corroborates them in his Memorie.
"There was a character," he says, "of an amorous, eccentric poet, which was allotted to me. At that time, I was esteemed a good mimic, and particularly happy in imitating the walk, countenance and attitudes of those whom I wished to resemble. My friend the poet [Da Ponte] had a remarkably awkward gait, a habit of throwing himself (as he thought) into a graceful attitude by putting his stick behind his back and leaning on it; he had also a very peculiar, rather dandyish way of dressing; for, in sooth, the abbé stood mighty well with himself and had the character of a consummate coxcomb; he had also a strong lisp and broad Venetian dialect.
"The first night of the performance, he was seated in the boxes more conspicuously than was absolutely necessary, considering he was the author of the piece to be performed. As usual, on the first night of a new opera, the Emperor was present, and a numerous auditory. When I made my entrée, as the amorous poet, dressed like the abbé in the boxes, imitating his walk, leaning on my stick, and aping his gestures and his lisp, there was a universal roar of laughter and applause; and after a buzz round the house, the eyes of the whole audience were turned to the place where he was seated. The Emperor enjoyed the joke, laughed heartily; the abbé was not at all affronted, but took my imitation of him in good part, and ever after we were on the best terms."
That speaks well for the good nature of our Poet; but his grudge against Casti was certainly aggravated by what he deemed a deliberate caricature of himself.
For Giuseppe Gazzaniga (1743-1819), judged by him "a composer of some merit, but of antiquated style," he had to prepare soon after a libretto, at the request of Count Rosemberg. The work, undertaken with little enthusiasm, was completed in a few days: it was Il finto cieco—an adaptation, as he says, of a French comedy—and was indifferently received.
But for this failure Da Ponte had opportunity soon after to console himself with a new work, the clamorous success of which brought him to the foremost position among living librettists, revealing at the same time the excellence as an operatic composer of that prodigious genius, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. . . .
Da Ponte met Mozart for the first time in the early part of 1783, at the home of Baron Wetzlar, a wealthy Jew with whom the great composer was then lodging. That they had already discussed on that occasion the possibility of collaborating on a new opera, appears from the following passage of a letter which Mozart wrote to his father, on May 7th of that year:
A certain Abbé Da Ponte is our poet here; he has at present a great deal to do in theatrical revision, and has been charged per obligo to write a new libretto for Salieri. He will not be able to finish this for two months, after which he has promised to write one for me. But who can tell whether he can or will keep his word? You understand these Italian gentlemen; they are very charming on the surface, but—well, you know what I mean! If he fraternizes with Salieri, I may well wait for the rest of my life for a libretto from him. And yet I should be so glad to show what I can do in an Italian opera.
But Da Ponte, despite this rather pessimistic view, was faithful to his promise and as soon as he could he began to work on the libertto of Le nozze di Figaro. Free from any engagement with Salieri after the fiasco of his first production, and eager to gain credit and reputation, our Poet was keen enough to perceive the advantage of allying himself with the young German composer, who, though still a novice in the operatic field, enjoyed already a European renown in the other branches of music.
As he himself states, it was Mozart who suggested that he turn Beaumarchais' Mariage de Figaro into an opera. The idea probably originated from the fact that Paisiello's Barbiere had recently obtained an extraordinary success in Vienna. Furthermore, there is ground to believe that Mozart, knowing what excitement Beaumarchais' second comedy had created in Paris after having been prohibited for three years, foresaw that the curiosity of the Viennese public would be aroused by a presentation of it in operatic form, and that this would contribute to the success of his work.
The first difficulty which Da Ponte encountered in writing his libretto, was that of treating the subject in such a manner as to preclude the imperial censor from raising any objection to it. In this he showed uncommon ability, for, while eliminating whatever seemed too daring, he faithfully reproduced in his verses the vivacity and delightful humor of the original play.
In his Memorie he tells us that the score was written by Mozart almost as fast he handed him the words, and that the opera was completed in only six weeks. This explains the gap we find in Mozart's letters just at this period, and a note that Leopold Mozart wrote to his daughter on November 11th, 1785, not only enables us approximately to fix the time in which Le nozze di Figaro was composed, but also confirms Da Ponte's statement that the work which they had undertaken was pushed with feverish haste.
"At last," the note says, "I have received a letter of twelve lines from your brother. He apologizes owing to the fact that he is up to his eyes in work finishing Le nozze di Figaro. In order to keep his mornings free, he has put off all his pupils to the afternoons."
When the opera was completed Da Ponte undertook to secure the Emperor's consent for its performance. As was to be expected, the first objection made was to the subject; but this difficulty the crafty Poet easily overcame by pointing out that he had transformed Beaumarchais' violent satire into a harmless opera which could give offense to no one. The next obstacle was the fact that Joseph II, as was known, had a strong prejudice against Mozart and held him in slight esteem as an operatic composer. Here again Da Ponte showed his skill. With great tact and subtle diplomacy he informed the Emperor that the score was already completed and suggested that His Majesty, being himself so competent a musician, could form his own opinion as to the merits of the opera by ordering the composer to appear in his presence and play some excerpts.
Highly flattered, Joseph did as the Poet had advised, and the result was that the opera was ordered to be produced.
At this point in his Memorie, Lorenzo informs the reader that his "rivals," headed by Casti, who was powerfully protected by Count Rosemberg, tried by every means to spoil the success of the new opera; and he relates the following anecdote: Rosemberg, having learned that in the concluding scene of the third act the peasants assisting at Figaro's wedding were supposed to perform a little dance, took upon himself to interpret literally a command issued by the Emperor some time before, and in a rather blunt manner ordered the Poet to cut out that scene. Mozart was in despair. He intended to appeal directly to the Emperor and threatened to withdraw the score. Da Ponte had a hard time in calming him, and pretending to acquiesce in silence recurred to a clever stratagem in order to attain his purpose: in one of the principal rehearsals given in the presence of the Emperor, when the opera came to its finale and the forbidden scene had to be performed, the orchestra suddenly ceased playing, the singers became dumb and started gesticulating as in a pantomine.—"What's all this?" exclaimed Joseph, turning to Casti, who was sitting behind him.—"Perhaps the poet can tell you, Your Majesty," suggested Casti with a grin. And Lorenzo, summoned into the presence of the Emperor, without saying a word showed him the libretto from which Rosemberg had torn the dance scene. Count Rosemberg had an audience in his turn, was reproved for what he had done, and the ballet was restored.
Almost every biographer of Mozart and of Da Ponte has accepted this story as an actual occurrence; yet had it really taken place, is it not more than probable that Michael Kelly—who in his Reminiscences takes a particular delight in relating all kinds of anecdotes—would have recorded the incident in his book? Considering that he was one of the singers at the first performance of the opera, and that as such he would have taken an active part in the interpolated pantomime or at least have witnessed it, the fact that he makes no mention of it is indeed surprising.
The opera was presented for the first time at the Viennese Court Theatre on May 1st, 1786, with the following cast: Signora Laschi sang the part of the Contessa, Anna Storace that of Susanna, and Frau Gottlieb that of Barbarina, while the baritone Mandini took the rôle of Almaviva, Benucci that of Figaro, Michael Kelly those of Basilio and Don Curzio, and Bussani those of Bartolo and Antonio.
"Never," says Kelly again, "had one beheld such a triumph. The theatre was packed and so many numbers had to be repeated that the time of the performance was nearly doubled."
Yet, despite this immense enthusiasm, the popularity of Le nozze di Figaro was not of long duration, and, after nine performances during that season, the opera disappeared from the Vienna stage and was not mounted again until three years later, when, that is, the success of Don Giovanni had again brought Mozart into prominence. . .
With a care-free mind, Lorenzo redoubled his activity. He wrote at this time, for the composer Storace, the libretto of Gli equivoci, which he derived from Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors and in which, as Kelly remarks, "he retained all the main incidents and characters" of the original play.
But he attained a still greater success with the production, during the autumn of that same year, of Una cosa rara, set to music by Martini and undoubtedly the Spanish composer's masterpiece. The source from which Da Ponte took the plot of this opera is, as he states in his Memorie, the play La luna de la Sierra, which he erroneously attributes to Calderon, while it is by Luis Velez de Guevara, as pointed out by Arturo Farinelli in his exhaustive study on Don Giovanni.
Despite some intrigues on the part of the singers, related by our Poet with the usual amount of details which he employs whenever he dwells upon the obstacles he encountered, the new opera obtained a success that overshadowed that of Le nozze. Both Da Ponte and the composer became the favorites of Viennese society, while the ladies even adopted the vogue of dressing à la Cosa Rara.
Besieged now by several composers, Lorenzo hastily wrote for Righini Il filosofo punito, which was produced towards the end of 1786. It was received with marked indifference and, as Lorenzo facetiously remarks, it might better have been entitled "Both the maestro and the poet punished."
Another libretto which he prepared, shortly after, for the Sicilian composer Francesco Piticchio, that of Bertoldo, was even less fortunate. The opera, performed for the first time on June 22d of the following year, was a complete failure, and our Poet relates that Joseph II, on meeting him a few days later, gave him the advice not to write any more for composers who were not of the first rank.
The suggestion did not pass unheeded, and when Da Ponte soon after set again to work, he started to write simultaneously a libretto for Mozart, another for Martini, and a third one for Salieri, who, after our Poet's recent triumphs, had reconsidered his former vow and had humbly begged that their past differences might be forgotten.
To the Emperor, who expressed his doubts as to the possibility of carrying out successfully such an arduous task, Lorenzo replied: "I shall try. I will work for Mozart at night and I will picture to myself that I am studying Dante's Inferno; I will devote my mornings to Martini and I will fancy that I am reading Petrarch; finally the evenings shall be given to Salieri and I will imagine that I am turning over the leaves of my Tasso."
This time it was he who selected the subject of the new libretto for Mozart and his choice fell on the legend of Don Juan; for Martini he began to write L' arbore di Diana; and for Salieri, Axur, re d' Ormus.
It is amusing to read how the Poet began his work:
A bottle of Tokay on my right, the inkstand before me, and a box of Spanish snuff on my left, I sat at my table for twelve consecutive hours. My landlady's daughter, a pretty girl of sixteen (for whom I wish I could have felt only a paternal affection) came to my room whenever I called for her, which was very often, especially when it seemed to me that 1 was losing my inspiration. Now and again she brought me a cake or a cup of coffee, and sometimes only her winsome little face, always gay and smiling, as if created to inspire poetical fancies and witty ideas.
In the course of sixty-three days the libretti of Don Giovanni and L' arbore di Diana were completed, while only one-third of Salieri's opera remained unfinished.
Of the three works, the one which he esteemed the best was that written for Martini, the theme of which was the dissolution of monastic establishments by Joseph II, amusingly represented in an allegory in which Diana and her nymphs were outwitted by Cupid and Endymion.
It is more than probable that this plot was original; not so that of Axur, re d' Ormus, which, as he himself states, was an Italian adaptation of the libretto Tarare, written by Beaumarchais and unsuccessfully produced some time before by Salieri in Paris. As for Don Giovanni, hardly any doubt remains, especially after the already quoted study by Farinelli, that Da Ponte availed himself of other existing libretti, and in particular of that of Giovanni Bertati, who was his successor, some years later, as "Poet to the Italian Theatre," and against whom he directed some caustic remarks in his Memorie.
Yet this ought not entirely to deprive our Poet of the credit due to him, for, apart from the very selection of the subject which inspired Mozart's masterpiece, it is undeniable that the libretto has unusual qualities which ought to be taken into consideration.
"The common opinion," as one of Mozart's biographers very appropriately remarks, "which considers the work of a librettist of small importance, is quite recent. At the time of Da Ponte, the relation between musician and poet was much closer than it is nowadays." Something similar to it can perhaps be found in the French comedy of the latter part of the last century where two authors coö perate in creating one play. The composition of the text of an opera was a specialty which required considerable study and gift, and which was held in great honor.
And, after what we know of Da Ponte's nature and adventurous life, is it not true that hardly another man could have been better qualified to treat the subject of Don Giovanni?
It was with keen insight, therefore, that Lamartine wrote, in his Cours familier de Littérature, after reproducing the passage of the Memorie in which Lorenzo describes how he started to work on his play:
C' est ainsi que Don Juan devait être écrit, par un aventurier, un amant, un poète, un homme de plaisir et de désordre inspiré du vin, de l'amour et de la gloire, entre les tentations de la débauche et le respect divin pour l'innocence, homme sans scrupule, mais non sans terreur des vengeances du ciel. D' Aponte [sic], à l'impénitence près, écrivait le drame de sa propre vie dans le drame de Don Juan.
Of the three plays written by our Poet, L'arbore di Diana was the first to be produced. It was given on October 1st, 1787, on the occasion of the arrival in Vienna of the Archduchess Maria Theresa of Austria, bride of Prince Anthony of Saxony, as appears from the frontispiece of the libretto in its first edition. It was received with favor both by the public and the Emperor, who appreciated Da Ponte's flattering tribute to his policies and sent him a gift of one hundred sequins.
Nearly a month later—to be precise, on the 29th of October—Don Giovanni was staged in Prague. That public, known for its passionate love for music, and which the preceding year had received Le nozze di Figaro with unbounded enthusiasm, acclaimed the new opera a distinct triumph. Mozart, who came to direct it, was received with wild applause, which increased in volume after each number and soon seemed to threaten to break all bounds of restraint.
Da Ponte, unfortunately, was not present. He had come to Prague but, as he informs us, had been hurriedly recalled to Vienna, where Salieri, anxious to give his own opera, wanted him to finish the libertto for it.
From Mozart, we are told, he received immediately after the first performance the following note:
Our opera, Don Giovanni, was given last night before a very brilliant audience. The Princesses of Tuscany with their magnificent suites were present. It was received with such signs of approval that we could not have wished for more. Guardassoni [the impresario] came this morning to my room enthusiastically shouting: 'Long live Mozart! Long live Da Ponte! While these two live, impresari need not fear poverty!' Good-bye, my friend; prepare another opera for your MOZART.
It was not until six months later (May 7th, 1788) mat the opera was performed in Vienna, where it met with an exceedingly cold reception. Salieri, whose Axur, re d' Ormus—given for the first time on January 8th—was enjoying immense popularity, endeavored to prevent its representation and it was only by the express command of the Emperor that Don Giovanni was given.
The interpretation, there is reason to suppose, was a very good one for the rôles were entrusted to first-rate artists: Benucci, who had created the part of Figaro, sang that of Leporello, Don Giovanni was the baritone Albertarelli, while the parts of Elvira and Anna were taken respectively by the Cavalieri and the composer's sister-in-law, Aloysia Lange. Yet, "How can I write it?" says Da Ponte in his Memorie,
Don Giovanni was a failure! All, save Mozart, believed that something was lacking. We added a little, we changed some songs, and it was given again. Again it failed!—"The opera is divine," the Emperor asserted, "it is perhaps superior to Figaro, but it is not food suited to the teeth of my Viennese."—I related this to Mozart and he calmly replied: "Let us give them time to chew it."—He was right. I succeeded in arranging, by his advice, that the opera should be frequently repeated; at each performance the applause increased, and little by little the Viennese began to taste its beauty and to esteem Don Giovanni as one of the most beautiful operas ever produced for any stage.
About this time Italian opera in Vienna underwent a critical period. Lorenzo attributes this to the intrigues of certain singers, but it is more likely that Joseph II felt obliged to withdraw his support owing to the depletion of the State's finances resulting from the campaign then being waged against the Turks.
Da Ponte enlisted the support of private subscribers, and for some time managed to avert the necessity of discontinuing the performances. He wrote then for Salieri the libretto of Il pastor fido, taken from Guarini's drama. The opera was presented in the early part of 1789 and was indifferently received. Hardly a better success attended La cifra, written also for Salieri, and Così fan tutte, o La scuola delle amanti, which Mozart set to music. On the contrary, Il pasticcio, a kind of "revue" in which he introduced the best selections of all the operas heard in Vienna during the last few seasons, seemed to arouse a certain interest. "It was," the author informs us, "a rather witty and amusing criticism of the public, the impresari, the singers, the poets, the composers, and finally of myself."
The death of Joseph II, which occurred on February 20th, 1790, brought a sudden change in the fortunes of our Poet. Leopold II, who succeeded him, was quite a different type of man and he ascended the throne with the firm determination of pursuing a policy of restrictions and economy in contrast to his late brother's prodigality. . . .
Extremely busy with state affairs, Leopold ignored a canzone which Lorenzo wrote soon after his accession to the throne, mourning the death of Joseph and lauding in flattering hyperboles his successor. For a time, it seems, the old order of things remained unchanged, and when, towards the end of that year, Ferdinand IV of Naples came to Vienna, accompanied by his Queen and his two daughters, Princesses Maria Theresa and Maria Louise, brides respectively of the future Emperor Francis and of his brother Ferdinand, Lorenzo was asked to compose something in honor of the illustrious guests. He wrote then a cantata entitled Flora e Minerva, which was set to music by Joseph Weigl, and presented with great success, on January 17th, 1791, before the assembled court.
Another cantata, probably the one entitled I voti della nazione napoletana, for which Francesco Piticchio composed the music and which was given a month or so later, was written by Lorenzo at the request of the Neapolitan ambassador, Marquis Del Gallo. It was the last production of our Poet in Vienna, for the storm which had been gathering for some time burst upon him, resulting in his dismissal.
L. Collison-Morley (essay date 1926)
SOURCE: "Mozart's Librettist, Lorenzo Da Ponte," in The London Mercury, Vol. XIV, No. 82, August, 1926, pp. 401-10.
[In the excerpt below, Collison-Morley surveys Da Ponte's career.]
Of the many literary adventurers, knights of the pen rather than of the sword, who are so characteristic a feature of the life of eighteenth-century Italy, there is no more attractive figure than Lorenzo Da Ponte. Adventurers of all kinds were not uncommon at that day, when the national life was at its lowest ebb and there was no opening for men of such restless energy in their own country in any respectable sphere. The previous century had given them ample scope, for, with all its faults, the epoch of Spanish rule was not deficient in vigour. The adventurer enjoyed life for its own sake, for the adventures it threw in his way. Brigandage offered the most obvious outlet to a man of this type. But among the eighteenth-century adventurers are figures of outstanding ability who found it more amusing, more profitable, even more safe to exploit society while keeping their places in it. Of this type Casanova and Cagliostro are the most outstanding examples. Then there were the literary adventurers, like Goldoni, who calls himself an "avventuriere onorato," men of a more attractive pattern, often far more exploited than exploiting. It is to the adventurers that we owe the best memoirs of the time. There are Goldoni himself and Casanova, with that delightful Venetian spendthrift, Antonio Lungo, and last, but by no means least, Lorenzo Da Ponte.
Like Goldoni, he was a man of letters, and, though most of his troubles were due to his own fault, to the defects of character which no experience could teach him to overcome, they were thrust upon him rather than of his own seeking. . . .
[In 1782] we find him starting for Vienna with an introduction to Salieri, the chapel-master at Court. By a stroke of luck the Emperor was going to open an Italian theatre, being weary of his French actors and their grumblings and, at Salieri's suggestion, Da Ponte applied for and obtained the post of poet, the Emperor, Joseph II, being graciousness itself during the interview.Da Ponte had never written an opera book in his life and, though the decline had set in, the libretto was of far greater importance than it has since become. It was expected to have a poetic value of its own, to be worth reading for its own sake. Da Ponte's first effort was not a success, and the famous Abbate Casti, who was in Vienna, a guest of Count Rosemberg, and hoping to step into Metastasio's shoes, went about saying that he could not write a book. But Joseph II met him out walking one morning in the Graben and said, "You know your opera is not as bad as they would have us think. Courage, you must give us another." We begin to hear a good deal of those enemies again, and doubtless there was a strong party who wished Casti to oust Da Ponte, but fortunately his second attempt was a success, and the Emperor said to him, "We have won."
Mozart was in Vienna, but hitherto jealousy had prevented him from writing anything. Da Ponte's pride is pardonable when he says that "it was due to my persistence and firmness that Europe, and indeed the whole civilised world, owes to a great extent the exquisite vocal compositions of this admirable genius." Mozart hesitated when Da Ponte made the suggestion, saying he did not think it would be allowed, but Da Ponte said he would answer for that. Mozart suggested Figaro as a subject. Unfortunately the Emperor had just prohibited a German version of the comedy, but Da Ponte undertook to submit the opera to the Emperor at a favourable opportunity. When he did so, the Emperor said Mozart had written only one opera, which had not been very successful. "Nor should I have written more than one, but for your Majesty's clemency," answered Da Ponte. And he gave his consent. Kelly (the Irish tenor) shows us Mozart, who was very like Garrick, directing the rehearsals in his red pelisse and gold-laced cocked hat. The opera was not a great success at Vienna, but it scored heavily at Prague, where musical taste was then in advance of that of the capital. Da Ponte's greatest success as a theatre-poet was Una Cosa Rara, with music by Martini, which finally established his position above all intrigue. He and Martini became the social lions of the hour. The book is entirely original. But, of course, Da Ponte owes his fame as a librettist to his association with Mozart.
His next two operas were for inferior composers and failed. Meanwhile, Martini and Mozart both asked him for operas, while Salieri requested him to provide him with a good book for his Tarare, the existing libretto being very poor. This year, 1787, was to be the culminating point in Da Ponte's career as a theatre-poet. For Mozart he chose Don Giovanni, a subject with which he was delighted. Martini was to have Diana's Tree, a theme thoroughly adapted to his style, and Tarare was to be duly revised for Salieri. The Emperor said he would fail. Da Ponte answered that he probably should:
but I shall do my best. I shall write at night for Mozart when I intend to read Dante's Inferno. In the morning I shall write for Martini, when I propose to study Petrarch; in the evenings for Salieri and he shall be my Tasso.
The Emperor appreciated his comparisons and they parted. Da Ponte went straight home.
I sat down at my desk and remained there twelve hours at a stretch, a bottle of Tokay on my right, an inkpot in the middle and a box of Seville snuff on my left. A lovely girl of sixteen (whom I should have preferred only to love as a daughter) was in the house also, helping her mother, who looked after the family. She came to my room whenever I rang the bell, and I am afraid I rang it rather frequently, especially when my inspiration began to flag. She would bring me a biscuit, or a cup of coffee, or nothing but her own beautiful face, always bright and smiling, the very thing to inspire a poet and stimulate a weary brain. I continued working twelve hours a day, with short intervals, for two whole months and during all that time she remained in the next room, reading, sewing or embroidering, ready to come to me at the first sound of the bell. Sometimes she would sit by me without moving, almost without opening her lips or blinking her eyes. She would gaze at me fixedly, smile sweetly, sigh, and at times seem to be on the point of bursting into tears. In short, this girl was my Calliope for those three operas and in fact for all that I wrote during the next three years. At first I let her visit me in this way pretty often, but I was soon forced to limit her visits for fear of wasting too much time in love-making, an art of which she was a perfect mistress. On the first day, what with the Tokay, the Seville snuff, the coffee, the bell and the young Muse, I wrote the first two scenes of Don Giovanni, two of L'Arbor di Diana, and more than half of the first act of Tarare. In the morning I took these scenes to the composers, who could hardly believe their eyes when they saw them. The first two operas were finished in sixty-three days and nearly two-mirds of the last.
Doubtless we must not take this account too literally. Something it owes to Da Ponte's imagination and dramatic instinct. But could one conceive of a more ideal setting for the writing of the libretto of Don Giovanni? Anybody who has seen it given at the Old Vic. in Mr. Edward Dent's version, with the delightful moral ending there revived, will understand that the love affairs of Don Giovanni and Figaro are Da Ponte's love affairs, leaving no sense of tragedy behind them. His Don Giovanni is a character of comedy, not the latter-day Don Giovanni, hopelessly seeking the ideal of womanhood through life, doomed for ever to disappointment.
L'Arbor di Diana was the first given and proved as great a success as the Cosa Rara.
Mozart, as we know, retired to write the Don Giovanni overture at midnight, asking his wife to make some punch and stay with him. She began by telling him fairy tales (which made him laugh till the tears ran down his cheeks) to keep him awake; but it was hopeless, and she persuaded him to sleep till five, when he set to work and had it ready by seven. But the copyists were slow and the music did not reach the theatre till 7:45, though the opera was timed to begin at seven. It was played by the brilliant Prague orchestra at sight, the sand still on the notes, and received with great enthusiasm by the critical audience. The whole performance was a triumph. But it actually failed at Vienna.
Don Giovanni is Da Ponte's masterpiece, and is considered the best libretto of the day after Metastasio's. Da Ponte always preferred L'Arbor di Diana because it was original, whereas Don Giovanni is based on an older libretto. Its excellence had not a little to do with inspiring Mozart, as Wagner pointed out. Da Ponte tried to deliver opera, says Masi, from the false heroic world of Metastasio and restore to it the intrigue and characteristics of comedy without falling into the worst trivialities of opéra bouffe. Of this some of his now forgotten books are even better examples. In Don Giovanni we see the culmination of the wild libertinage and gaiety of the old régime just before the débâcle of the Revolution. The story had, of course, to pass through a soul as great and sublime as Mozart's before it became the masterpiece we now possess. Yet its reckless impenitences, its diabolical gaiety, are always true comedy, and this is because, though Da Ponte's heart had been superficially seared by his vagabond life, his transparently open and kindly character was at bottom untouched, and remained so till the end, as we see on every page of the Memoirs. For Mozart he also wrote Così fan Tutte. . . .
[In 1825] he was made Professor of Italian at Columbia University, but as his professorship brought him neither pupils nor money, he soon threw it up in disgust. However, the students always invited him to the annual dinner. He even opened, when well over eighty, an Italian bookshop in Broadway. He was not often troubled by customers, but he had the satisfaction of seeing all that was smartest in the city going into the fashionable confectioner's next door. This is where his Memoirs end.
The Memoirs are written in a delightfully easy and unaffected style, very different from the elaborate periods then in vogue. This Da Ponte adopted deliberately, as he found the ordinary books of the day too difficult for beginners. They tend to be diffuse, but this is the only sign of age about them, except perhaps a little very natural querulousness at his treatment in England and America. Yet largely he sees that this was his own fault and his heart is always young. They bring the man before us to the life, and it is impossible not to admire his pluck and energy, his good heartedness, silly though it may often have been, his Micawber-like optimism, and the honesty with which he tells his story. We may smile at his vanity and laugh over his faults, as we do over those of Figaro or Cherubino, but he wins our affection. His mind was not profound, but he had a real lyric gift up to a point, and he can tell a story.
Leonard Woolf (review date 1929)
SOURCE: "From Mozart to Miss Stein," in The Nation and the Athenaeum, Vol. XLV, No. 17, July 27, 1929, p. 566.
[Woolf is best known as one of the leaders of the Bloomsbury Group of artists and thinkers, and as the husband of novelist Virginia Woolf, with whom he founded the Hogarth Press. A Fabian socialist during the World War I era, he became a regular contributor to the socialist New Statesman and later served as literary editor of the Nation and the Athenaeum, in which much of his literary criticism is found. In the excerpt below, Woolf summarizes Da Ponte's Memoirs as the work of a failure and a rake, but intriguing as a portrait of the author's milieu.]
Da Ponte's memoirs were well worth translating into English. He was born in 1740 at Ceneda in Venetia of Jewish parents, but he was baptized at the age of fourteen and soon became an Abbé. He is chiefly remembered as the librettist of Mozart's Don Giovanni, Figaro, and Così fan tutte. His early life was lived in Venice, and he was one of those eighteenth-century adventurers, of whom the greatest was his friend Casanova. But he was neither as great a scoundrel nor as great a character as Casanova. There is something very mean and unpleasant about the ego of Lorenzo da Ponte which, for all his efforts to conceal it, creeps about the pages of his biography. A wanderer, like all adventurers, from Venice to Gorizia, from Gorizia to Dresden, from Dresden to Vienna, from Vienna to Trieste, from Trieste to London, and from London to the United States, he was always meeting with misfortunes which he ascribed to the jealousy and malice of enemies, but which were really due to his own cantankerous follies and vices. When he died at the age of eighty-nine, Professor of Italian at Columbia, but in poverty and without a single pupil, dictating "tributary verses to his kind physician," he could look back over a life of failure in which his worst enemy had been his own ego. The merit of his memoirs is that they show us this ego creeping about the strange eighteenth-century world of Venice, Vienna, and London, and then again creeping on into the still stranger nineteenth-century world of New York and Philadelphia.
Walter Littlefield (review date 1929)
SOURCE: "Da Ponte, Adventurer and Librettist," in The New York Times Book Review, December 1, 1929, pp. 10, 50.
[In the following excerpt from a review of two editions of Da Ponte's Memoirs-one edited by L. A. Sheppard, the other by Arthur Livingston-Littlefield emphasizes the rakish side of the noted librettist.]
Knowledge of Lorenzo Da Ponte, Mozart's most celebrated librettist, Caesarean Poet to Emperor Joseph II of Austria and the first professor of Italian at Columbia College, great lover, pompous scholar, gentle, inspiring teacher, dominating poseur and impressive adventurer, is as persistently cumulative as is his fame.
Lorenzo Da Ponte was the greatest intellectual gift bestowed by the dying Ancien Régime of Europe on the young American Republic. The value of that gift, which included the first teaching of Italian here, the first exposition of Dante and the inauguration of Italian opera, has waited long for proper appraisement—so has the career of the remarkable man himself. When he died in this city in 1838, at the age of 89, after a residence of thirty-three years, some of his distinguished friends wrote intimate eulogies for the press followed by articles in the reviews. Their European vistas, however, were full of shadows and outlines. For mis Da Ponte was chiefly responsible. He never imparted to his New York friends his original name or race, or the circumstances of his birth—naught but the fact that he had been educated under the patronage of a man of identical name, Mgr. Lorenzo Da Ponte, Bishop of Ceneda. This sole revelation gave rise to much peculiar gossip, which was not to be straightened out for nearly a century.
For Da Ponte, sublime egotist that he was, knew how to mystify his American friends as well as satisfy them—a satisfaction not felt by the following generations, particularly when it was gradually discovered what lay behind his casually expressed contacts with the great Moreover, his [Memoirs] written, rewritten, amplified, modified and polished in various editions from 1823 until the Autumn of 1830, showed that the writer was much more interested in his own fate than he was in the fate of empires—in the pretty daughter of his land-lady than in an Empress with whom he might have been conversing a few moments before. While he was living in Venice, Vienna and London the French Revolution gathered and broke, but he only mentions it because it prevented him from going to Paris with a letter to Queen Marie Antoinette. In England the threatened invasions of Napoleon meant no more to him than did the Emperor's expansion of power, his fall, exile and death, which took place while Da Ponte was in the United States. Napoleon, who remade Italy, is mentioned once—an anecdote told in 1798 by Da Ponte's father of General Buonaparte's visit to Ceneda two years before.
As has been said, knowledge in regard to Da Ponte has been cumulative:
Mr. Sheppard . . . incorporates in his introduction one important discovery. Just as Edouard Maynial in his "Casanova et son temps" demolished the tale of the greater adventurer's robbery of the Marquise d'Urfé as related with feverish gusto in the lesser adventurer's memoirs, so the latter's story as to how he left Venice is demolished by Mr. Sheppard with the aid of Fausto Nicolini working among the State archives of the old Adriatic republic. Da Ponte himself and all his biographers say that he was obliged to leave Venice purely on account of political reasons, against the background of which the widow Bellaudi, at whose house Da Ponte lodged; her daughter, Caterina, and her son, Cario, with his wife, Angioletta, move like shadows.
According to the Venetian archives, Da Ponte made love to Angioletta, forged a letter in her husband's hand which induced her to go away with him, and continued to harass the unfortunate Cario untili the latter dropped a renuncia, lion into the famous Lion's Mouth, which the Council of Ten received on May 28, 1779. Then the Esecutori contro la Bestemmia (Warders Against Blasphemy) began an investigation which lasted until September. Meanwhile Da Ponte, although feeling his once powerful friends alipping from him, continued to live with Angioletta in Venice until July, when he went to Treviso. On returning in September he learned that a warrant was out for his arrest and fled to Austrian territory. In December he was sentenced by default to the alternative of fifteen years' banishment or seven in prison.
It is fortunate that the enemies of Da Ponte in England and America, who even resorted to falsehood in order to blast his reputation here, did not have access to the Venentian archives. All the same, this "correction" is duplicated by episodes quite as romantic, if not quite so reprehensible, in other parts of the memoirs. Still, Lorenso was only 30 when he had to flee Venice. What is that in the life of a nonagenarian?
He now has a conspicuous place among those other Venetian erudite adventurers, Antonio Longo, Pietro Antonio Gratarol and Cario Goldoni, even with the famous Giovanni Jacope Casanova de Seingalt, his ever-suspicious friend, and, thanks to American scholarship, his memoirs are a distinctly valuable addition to Americana.
Harry Morgan Ayres (review date 1929)
SOURCE: "A Crowded Ninety Years," in New York Herald Tribune Books, December 15, 1929, p. 7.
[In the following excerpt from a review of Memoirs of Lorenzo Da Ponte, Ayres offers a summary of the work, nothing that the focus falls recurrently upon Da Ponte's recognition of himself as a besieged genius brought low by his calculating inferiors.]
If Da Ponte could have lived to be 180 instead of but a little less than half that span he would count this a wonderful year—n gala performance of his (and Mozart's) Don Giovanni at the Metropolitan, a professorship named after him in the university that furnished him alive neither stipend nor pupils, and finally his Memoirs done into an English he would admire. Here at once and at last come proper recognition of his literary talent (he did not claim to be a great poet, but he did know literature and the practicalities of the theater); recognition of his undoubted talents as a teacher, which he displayed in his earliest youth in the seminaries of the Veneto and again in his old age among his private pupils in New York; recognition of how grievously a sensitive, artistic soul may be made to suffer by the wicked of this world. Its cheats and its calumniators, until a man is all but beside himself and scarcely to be kept in his wits and in his pocket by the kindness of those patrons, all too few, who win immortal praise by recognixing his merits. Here in the Memoirs they are all set down—the calumniators who secured his expulsion from Venice, who caused his loss of imperial patronage at Vienna, who in New York impugned the purity of his Italian and disparaged his claim to be the first to reveal the beauties of Italian literature to Americans; the oheats, William-Taylor, the London impresario, whose notes Da Ponte indorsed, paid, bought in at ruinous discount, and on them recovered nothing; and sundry grocers and traffickers in small wares in Elizabeth, N. S., and Sunbury, Pa.; and the adored patrons, Joseph II of Austria, Thomas James Matthias, the London amateur of Italian letters, and Clement Moore in New York, generous as the Santa Claus of his own creation.
It was a crowded ninety years. Born in the ghetto of Ceneda (Vittorio Veneto), Da Ponte became the clever protege of the bishop who baptised him and whose name he assumed; thence to the seminaries, where he took orders and rapidly became an original and successful teacher of literature and an academic administrator, and then a Venetian amorist and gambler, till at the age of thirty even Venice cast him forth. So much for the first part of the Memoirs.
For the second the brilliant years at the Italian theater in Vienna, for the third his marriage to Ann Grahl a clever and attractive English Jewess, and the years in London, with its opera, with bookselling and its usury, ending in disaster and flight to America. The fourth part recounts his ill-starred attempts to trade with the "Yankees" of New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and the fifth the serener years as a teacher in New York, exponent of European culture to a more innocent age. A sixth part, not added to the Memoirs, would have told of the attempts of an indomitable old man of eighty-three, now with no Ann to sustain or restrain him, to establish Italian opera in New York.
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