Lorenzo da Ponte



Le opere di Lorenzo da Ponte online, qui

July 21, 2006

Books of The Times | ‘The Librettist of Venice’

Lorenzo Da Ponte, a Maestro of Second Acts, in Opera and in Life




The Remarkable Life of Lorenzo Da Ponte, Mozart’s Poet, Casanova’s Friend, and Italian Opera’s Impresario in America

By Rodney Bolt

Illustrated. 428 pages. Bloomsbury. $29.95.


Every now and then history seems to slip a gear and lurch forward in time-machine fashion. How else to account for the fact that Lorenzo Da Ponte, Mozart’s collaborator and the librettist for “The Marriage of Figaro,” “Don Giovanni” and “Così Fan Tutte,” wound up in New York, running a grocery store on the Bowery?

Da Ponte, the subject of Rodney Bolt’s biography “The Librettist of Venice,” took himself very seriously, and yet he led a life that was itself a kind of lengthy comic opera.

To begin with, Lorenzo Da Ponte was not his real name but, rather, that of the bishop who baptized him in 1763. Da Ponte was born 14 years earlier as Emanuele Conegliano, and grew up as a Jew until his father, a leather worker from Cenada, then part of the Venetian Republic, decided that it would be better for business if the whole family converted to Catholicism. He even sent both his sons to the seminary. In 1773 Da Ponte was ordained a priest, though his true vocation was for chasing married women. His record in this regard rivals that of Casanova, who became a lifelong friend and mentor — except that, as Da Ponte claimed later in his memoirs, he lacked Casanova’s talent for fleecing women of their money and was such a romantic that he actually loved the women he slept with.

Da Ponte seems a faintly ridiculous ladies’ man. He was vain, prickly, foppish and, by the time he was in his mid-30’s, practically toothless. A jealous rival, a physician, had given him a supposedly curative liqueur that was in fact nitric acid and rotted his mouth. Nevertheless, women threw themselves at him, and it was finally a flagrant affair that in 1779 caused Da Ponte to be expelled from Venice, penniless, as usual. He fetched up first in Dresden and then in Vienna, where, though he had no experience, the Emperor Joseph II appointed him poet to the emperor’s brand new opera company.

The job was mostly hackwork, but after a disastrous collaboration with Salieri, Da Ponte began to apply himself and made a careful study of opera plots and mechanics. He was a gifted versifier, but his real genius proved to be for shaping stories and delineating characters. Eventually, over a decade or so, he worked with just about everyone — Salieri, Martín y Soler, Paisello — but he particularly hit it off with Mozart.

Though Mozart was seven years younger, the two were a lot alike — not just talented but vain, insecure and hugely ambitious — and they grew so close that while writing “Don Giovanni,” for example, they worked in adjoining lodging houses and hollered back and forth through their windows. Mozart privately believed that in opera the text should always be subservient to the music, while Da Ponte was convinced that without his poetry even Mozart’s music would be an empty vessel, yet their collaboration was harmonious and brilliant.

Mr. Bolt, wisely for the most part, does not serve up a lot of musical analysis, yet one wishes that his descriptions of the three Mozart-Da Ponte operas were even more detailed. He is particularly informative about “Figaro,” describing how shrewdly Da Ponte adapted Beaumarchais’s play, but a little less so about “Don Giovanni” and “Così.”

Success, however, brought out the worst in Da Ponte, or as Mr. Bolt puts it, “The dung of vilification and deceit that underlay the Viennese opera world fertilized an unpleasant, scheming side of his character.” He thought he was a clever operator, but his political instincts were almost always wrong, and after the death of Joseph II he so alienated the emperor’s successors that he was exiled from Vienna too. Da Ponte, still nominally a priest, was married by now, to a much younger and extremely sensible woman named Nancy Grahl, but even she was unable to keep him from going bankrupt first in London, where they arrived in 1792, and again in America, where they moved in 1805 because her family had settled there. Da Ponte had a weakness for harebrained schemes, especially for trying to establish Italian opera companies at a time when English-speaking audiences had no great interest in them.

The grocery business was not a success, and after a stint in Pennsylvania he returned to New York as a teacher, bookseller and would-be impresario. Of all the cities he lived in, New York proved in many ways the most congenial — the most open and liberal — and Da Ponte was adopted by the cultural trendsetters, among them Clement Clarke Moore, author of “A Visit From St. Nicholas.” He lived into his 80’s as a revered eccentric, a charmer and a professional European at a time when that was still a novelty, and became Columbia University’s first professor of Italian. The post was largely ceremonial, but as Mr. Bolt points out, Da Ponte had the double distinction of being the first Jew and the first priest on the faculty.

Regrettably, Mr. Bolt, whose last book was a biography of another shifty character, Christopher Marlowe, has written — or penned, as he would likely say — this operatic life in a somewhat operatic style, with a weakness for metaphors that are either clichéd or, like that fertilizing dung, just plain odd. But he is judicious and well informed, ably sorting out fact from apocrypha (much of it stemming from Da Ponte’s highly unreliable memoirs), and smart enough not to burden the story with a lot of interpretation. It’s a remarkable yarn on its own, and a reminder that the 18th century was in many ways the great age of self-invention, when people were able to refashion themselves, like quicksilver, over and over again.



Lorenzo's Toil
How the son of an impoverished leatherworker came to write Mozart's libretti.

Reviewed by Jonathon Keats
Sunday, July 16, 2006; BW08


The Remarkable Life of Lorenzo Da Ponte,

Mozart's Poet, Casanova's Friend, and

Italian Opera's Impresario in America

By Rodney Bolt

Bloomsbury. 428 pp. $29.95

In 1805, a toothless 55 -year-old immigrant named Lorenzo Da Ponte opened a grocery store in New York City. He wasn't especially skilled at the business, having never before attempted anything quite like it: In Vienna, draped in silks and furs, he'd served as poet and librettist to the Holy Roman Emperor.

That he'd been born in a Jewish ghetto near Venice, the son of an impoverished leatherworker, only makes Da Ponte's story more sensational, as melodramatic as any opera plot. Yet biographer Rodney Bolt admirably avoids the temptation to depict Da Ponte's life in stock operatic terms, delivering instead a nuanced account of an extraordinarily complicated man. He accomplishes this feat by firmly grounding Da Ponte in society: "He lived in four cities," Bolt writes, "Venice, Vienna, London and New York -- at fascinating moments in their histories. . . . Venice, in its splendid last throes, looked back on a thousand years of glory; Vienna was at a peak of eighteenth-century social experiment, and London the height of contemporary fashion; while New York surged into a post-Enlightenment, democratic, industrialized world." Skillfully depicting the librettist's life, Bolt insightfully reveals the poet's world.

Of the four cities in which Da Ponte resided, Vienna was the one that most facilitated his minor claim to immortality, for it was there that, in the employ of Emperor Joseph II, he wrote the librettos for three of Mozart's operas. Created in rapid succession between the years 1786 and 1790, all of them -- "The Marriage of Figaro," "Don Giovanni" and "Così Fan Tutte" -- became, in Bolt's words, "three of the most sublime operas ever composed."

Mozart was already famous as both a composer and a performer when he met Da Ponte, yet the librettist was arguably more prominent because he held the lofty title of poet to the Court Theater, while Mozart was in Vienna essentially as a freelancer. Titles mattered. Nevertheless, the rivalries and intrigues that flourished under Joseph's liberal rule prevented anyone from having lasting job security. Da Ponte's inexperience as both a librettist and a politician had already alienated the court composer, Antonio Salieri, who, following their first joint operatic failure, publicly vowed to chop off his fingers before working with the poet again. If Mozart needed Da Ponte to break into the potentially lucrative field of Italian opera, Da Ponte needed Mozart to preserve his tenuous position there. "Wolfgang Mozart and Lorenzo Da Ponte had much in common," Bolt astutely observes. "Both had a leg in the old world, yet were gingerly reaching with the other to find a foothold in a new territory that offered dignity and independence, but was perilous with pitfalls and threatened poverty and disaster."

Bolt attributes the triumph of their collaboration to similarities in personality -- a claim too vague to amount to more than idle speculation. He's far more convincing on how their common circumstances led to their joint productions. "The Marriage of Figaro" is especially interesting in this respect, since the play from which it was adapted had been effectively banned by Joseph for its satirical critique of aristocratic privilege. That ensured publicity for the opera but made it vulnerable to censorship -- and rendered its creators subject to censure. Why, then, did it succeed? Ever ambivalent toward the aristocracy that enabled yet constrained them, Mozart and Da Ponte interpreted the story of the put-upon servant Figaro in terms more sympathetic than satirical. And ever ambivalent toward the aristocracy that enabled yet constrained him , Joseph endorsed the opera when they presented it to him. "The Marriage of Figaro" was not only a result of Mozart and Da Ponte's ingenuity but also a creation of their era.

The circumstances of Da Ponte's life were likewise shaped by history. He did not move at once from court poet to neighborhood grocer. However, the death of Joseph less than a month after the opening of "Così Fan Tutte" and the ascension of his conservative brother swiftly put the librettist on the path to selling tomatoes and lettuce. Disagreements, tantrums and an ill-advised letter to the new ruler forced Da Ponte to run from Austria to England, where his fortunes didn't improve. Fleeing bankruptcy in London, he quickly found insolvency in the United States. Da Ponte's failures in the new world were not limited to the grocery business (which swiftly went under). He was a professor of Italian at Columbia who couldn't interest the student body in his native tongue. He was an impresario who couldn't sustain New York's first opera company. The combination of commercial ambition and cultural insecurity made young America largely inhospitable to a toothless old man and the courtly erudition he brought with him. His failings were, to an extent, those of the country.

Da Ponte died in New York in 1838. His life may have been as melodramatic as a grand opera, but it has taken Bolt's masterful biography to transform him, 168 years later, from stage character to historical figure. ·

Jonathon Keats is a San Francisco-based novelist and artist



The man behind Mozart's operas

Special to Newsday. Wendy Smith is the author of "Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931-1940."

July 9, 2006

THE LIBRETTIST OF VENICE: The Remarkable Life of Lorenzo Da Ponte, by Rodney Bolt. Bloomsbury, 448 pp., $29.95.

With his boundless charm, his unfailing ability to get into trouble and his sublime disregard for Old Regime strictures designed to keep upstarts like him in their place, Lorenzo Da Ponte bore more than a passing resemblance to the scapegrace heroes of Mozart's operas - and no wonder, since he wrote the librettos for three of the greatest. Figaro's resourcefulness and ingenuity, and Don Giovanni's arrogance, recklessness and womanizing zest were qualities Da Ponte shared. And he was no stranger to the romantic confusion immortalized in "Cosi fan tutte." In a Europe shaken by revolution, the Italian poet made his way on talent, audacity and a prodigious gift for crafting new identities to suit changed circumstances.

Rodney Bolt, who chronicled another chameleon in his biography of Christopher Marlowe, shows Da Ponte reinventing himself almost from birth. Emmanuele Conegliano's first transformation was instigated by his father, a widowed leatherworker who converted the family to Christianity in 1763 to escape the laws that oppressed Italian Jews. Newly christened 14-year-old Lorenzo Da Ponte was bold enough to ask the bishop who baptized him to get him a place at the local seminary - and ingratiating enough to have his plea granted. Entering the priesthood was the only way for a poor boy to get an education in Catholic Europe, but Da Ponte was clearly not cut out for seminary life. He loved vernacular Italian poetry as much as classical verse, covertly read radical thinkers like Rousseau when he was supposed to be studying Christian philosophy, and preferred fiery mistresses to celibacy.

As a student and later a teacher in the provinces and in glittering, decadent Venice, Da Ponte followed what would prove to be a lifelong pattern: he impressed authorities with his brilliance, then alienated them by flaunting his unconventional ideas and behavior. (His friend Casanova had the same problem.) As Bolt shows in cogent background passages, self-made men were on the rise as the egalitarian ideas of the French Enlightenment spread throughout Europe, but they had to be circumspect, which Da Ponte could never manage. When he fled Venice in 1779, it was the second time in six years he had been embroiled in a scandal involving a pregnant lover, and the fourth time in his adult life he found himself homeless and jobless.

Undaunted, he leaped to the forefront in a new city: Vienna. Under the reform-minded Emperor Joseph II, the Austrian capital offered a surprisingly warm welcome to men on the make like Da Ponte. Though he'd never written an opera libretto, in 1783 he talked his way into the coveted post of poet to the emperor's newly established Italian opera company. Bolt's excellent explication shows the initially cocksure Da Ponte quickly realizing there was more to libretto-writing than met the eye - and that most of them were dreadful. When he teamed up with Mozart, another social-climbing artist who loved fine clothes and resented the aristocratic patrons he had to please to get them, the results were three revolutionary operas that defied genre. Bolt nicely explains Da Ponte's blurring of the boundaries between opera seria and opera buffa, the combination of humor and pathos that gave his librettos a human depth equal to Mozart's glorious music. The brisk, readable narrative vividly depicts the flamboyant personalities and nonstop scheming that characterized musical life in Vienna; it also deftly sketches the shift from a narrow, court-based culture to a more commercial climate in which the arts claimed a popular audience.

Da Ponte needed to appeal to that audience, since he was a lousy schemer. A tactlessly egalitarian poem addressed to Austria's conservative new emperor mandated his hasty departure from Vienna in 1791. The only sensible thing he managed to do in this period was to fall in love with Nancy Grahl, 20 years his junior and the daughter of a wealthy Jewish convert with family ties in London. Moving to new territory enabled Da Ponte to quietly shed his tenuous connection to the priesthood and marry Nancy, who remained devoted to her feckless husband through 40 years of fluctuating fortunes. Bolt spends fewer pages on these years in England and America, which contained fewer noteworthy achievements than the miraculous decade in Vienna. But he makes his customary excellent use of quotations from contemporary accounts to capture London's very different cultural scene and Da Ponte's rapid adaptation to it. As usual, it took the poet little more than a year to promote himself to a decent job in English opera - and little more than a decade to blow it.

It seems only fitting that he spent the final third of his long, tumultuous life in the United States. "It was a country custom-made for those who wished to slough off the past," writes Bolt, describing the fledgling republic on whose shores the penniless Da Ponte disembarked in June 1805. "He was among the very first to feel the tug of the American Dream." Still shape-shifting, Da Ponte over the next three decades opened a grocery store, wrote his memoirs, instructed the children of Manhattan's elite in the glories of Italian literature and tried (disastrously) to establish an Italian opera company. At 76, he became Columbia College's first professor of Italian language. He was also, Bolt notes, "the first Jewish-born member of the teaching staff and the first Roman Catholic priest to take up an academic appointment" - not that anyone at Columbia was aware of either fact. Da Ponte had survived a half-century of Byzantine intrigues all over Europe to reinvent himself once again (or rather, many times again) in the New World. Bolt's lively, astute and appreciative biography does full justice to his remarkable life and character.




The dramatic life of Mozart's librettist

By Charles Solomon
Special to The Times

July 17, 2006

The Librettist of Venice
The Remarkable Life of Lorenzo Da Ponte: Mozart's Poet, Casanova's Friend, and Italian Opera Impresario in America
Rodney Bolt
Bloomsbury: 430 pp., $29.95

AS the subtitle of Robert Bolt's engaging biography "The Librettist of Venice" suggests, Lorenzo Da Ponte (1749-1838) had a life as filled with improbable reversals as the plot of one of his operas.

Born into an impoverished Jewish family, he converted to Catholicism, took holy orders and became a priest; after liaisons with a string of women, he married and fathered several children. His charm and intelligence won him wealthy and titled friends; he picked quarrels with almost every one of them. His talent as a poet and dramatist enabled him to write librettos for three of the greatest operas in the history of the art form; he squandered the money and goodwill his triumphs earned on a succession of hare-brained schemes.

It's not hard to imagine his creative partner Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart composing a sardonic melody that would have Da Ponte preparing to outsmart himself yet again.

The son of a poor Jewish leather worker of Ceneda, a small city near Venice, Emanuele Conegliano took the name of the bishop who had just baptized his family. Although he was 14 when he began his education in church schools, Lorenzo Da Ponte acquired a love of Italian literature he would retain for the rest of his life. The dashing swath the young poet cut in Venice lead to his banishment in 1779. He eventually made his way to the cosmopolitan Vienna of Emperor Joseph II, where he worked as a librettist with Antonio Salieri, Vicente Martín y Soler, Vincenzo Righini — and Mozart.

By the end of the 18th century, changes in society were pushing musical entertainments away from the formal court spectacles of opera seria to the livelier, more expressive opera buffa that played to larger, more diverse audiences. Da Ponte played a major role in that transformation when he and Mozart produced "The Marriage of Figaro," "Don Giovanni" and "Così fan tutte."

Bolt's chapters that recount the creation of those seminal works crackle with energy — and provide a welcome counter to the image of Mozart as an "obscene child" that the movie "Amadeus" foisted on the popular imagination. Bolt perceptively observes: "Mozart and Da Ponte were not writing for posterity, but for survival: to earn a fee, to meet a deadline, to fill a slot at the Burgtheater, to flatter specific voices and make use of certain musicians, for the success that ensured the next commission. It is a mark of their genius that these conditions did not produce banality, but three of the most sublime operas ever composed."

Da Ponte was not a particularly original writer: Almost all of his major works were adaptations. "Figaro" was based on the Beaumarchais play; the tale of Don Juan dates back to Tirso de Molina's 1630 "El Burlador de Seville y Convidado de Piedra" ("The Libertine of Seville and the Stone Guest"), which had already been turned into plays, operas and puppet shows. Although "Così" features an original plot, it owes a great deal to the poets Giovanni Boccaccio, Ludovico Ariosto and Ovid. But, as Bolt demonstrates, Da Ponte understood how to streamline and focus a complex story, how to find the underlying human drama and how to write graceful lines that lent themselves to melodies.

If Da Ponte cribbed much of the libretto for "Don Giovanni" from Giovanni Bertati's version with music by Giuseppe Gazzaniga, he vastly improved it, adding wit, drama and vivid characterizations. In the climactic confrontation with the Statue, Bertati's Don declines to give up his dissolute ways to a bland melody. Da Ponte has the Statue repeatedly thunder "Pentiti!" (Repent), while the Don defies the exhortation to Mozart's sulfurous music.

Although Da Ponte thrived on praise and luxury, his perverse nature prevented him from enjoying them. He saw himself as the target of hostile intrigues (some of them real) and found ways to alienate most of his friends and supporters. He managed to patch up a falling-out with Joseph II but was banished by Joseph's successor, Leopold II. Da Ponte moved to London, where his brief success as a librettist and bookseller foundered amid more cabals, debts and ill-advised enterprises.

Weary of bailing him out, his practical, long-suffering wife fled to America. Da Ponte joined her in New York and Pennsylvania, working as a merchant, writer, book dealer, impresario and professor of Italian. But he retained the business sense of Wile E. Coyote: Despite many successes, he died nearly broke.

Da Ponte has a worthy chronicler in Rodney Bolt: This lively biography reads like a picaresque tragicomedy. As his contemporaries knew, Da Ponte can be fascinating. But the reader senses and shares Bolt's impatience with his subject's foolish schemes: "As ever, just as his life was beginning to find an even keel, Da Ponte did something to capsize it."

Perhaps the most fitting summary of Lorenzo Da Ponte's life is his own verse, which Bolt chose as an epigraph to "Librettist":

Chi crede a' sogni è matto; e chi non crede, che cos'è?

"He who believes in his dreams is mad, and he who does not believe in them — what is he?"

Charles Solomon is the author of many books, including "Enchanted Drawings: The History of Animation."


In the shadow of a genius

Michael Dibdin finds much to admire in Rodney Bolt's biography of Mozart's librettist, Lorenzo Da Ponte

Saturday August 5, 2006
The Guardian

Lorenzo Da Ponte: The Adventures of Mozart's Librettist in the Old and New Worlds
by Rodney Bolt (448pp, Bloomsbury, £20)

On Tuesday January 26 1790, posters appeared outside Vienna's Burgtheater advertising the première that evening of a comic opera in two acts called Così Fan Tutte. The line of type immediately below the title proclaimed the author of the work to be the Abbate Da Ponte, poet to the Italian Opera at the Imperial Royal Court Theatre. Still lower lines mentioned that the music was by Herr Wolfgang Mozart, a reward was offered for the return of a lady's gold compact left in the Redoutensaal the previous Sunday, and the show would start at 7pm.

Herr Wolfgang was lucky to get a billing at all. Da Ponte had originally offered his libretto to Antonio Salieri, but after the Italian had fiddled with it fruitlessly and then given up, it was handed on to his rival. In the self-serving and notoriously unreliable memoirs that Da Ponte wrote some 30 years later, he characteristically makes no mention of this fact, or indeed of anything else concerning the work's origins and composition. By the 1820s he was no doubt fed up with people banging on about bloody Mozart all the time and ignoring him. Besides, authorship of a sexy, cynical, fin-de-siècle farce entitled They're All At It would hardly have helped his current attempts to eke out a respectable old age in genteel New York. As it is, both the opera and its composer are dismissed in a single hackneyed phrase before Da Ponte gets on with a story that is unabashedly all about him.

Ever since, it has of course been all about his enigmatic collaborator, so whatever Da Ponte tells us about himself is fatally compromised by everything he doesn't tell us about Mozart. And now that the poet's nuanced blend of earthy colloquialisms, literary allusions, sardonic wit and parodies of opera seria conventions gets boiled down to a crude paraphrase in translation screened above the stage, most people neither know or care about the words to the tunes they go away humming, never mind the man who wrote them. So in marketing terms the anchor has to be Mozart, although the vessel attached to it is not without its attractions. From a biographical perspective, Da Ponte offers the triple gifts of having lived long, travelled widely and been incorrigibly restless, reckless and feckless.

The son of a Jewish tanner who converted to Christianity, Emanuele Conegliano was renamed after the bishop who baptised him. He later took holy orders to secure a seminary education, before going on to become an accomplished seducer and luckless gambler in Venice, then at the height of its delicious delinquesence. Settling into a pattern that would dominate his life, he soon fell foul of the law and had to slip across the Austrian border to Vienna, where he was eventually appointed official scriptwriter to the Italian Opera founded by the reforming emperor Joseph II. Da Ponte made a show of his progressive opinions, but at heart he just wanted to do well out of the existing order, which for a while he did, writing well-crafted texts for hugely successful operas by the leading composers of the day, of whom Mozart was only one. But following Joseph's premature death, Da Ponte - who sounds like a classic paranoiac - made an incredibly gauche and offensive error in his dealings with the new regime and very shortly found himself on the run again.

At this point he was less than half-way through his 83 years, but the remaining four and a half decades in George III's London and Thomas Jefferson's America are for the most part a catalogue of disappointments, the deaths of children and endless self-inflicted disasters, mitigated only by Da Ponte's unquenchable ebullience and the loving steadfastness of his partner Nancy Grahl, herself half-Jewish. The London public may by and large have agreed with Dr Johnson that opera was exotic and unnatural, but New Yorkers decided that it was cruel and unusual, so Da Ponte ended up as a bookseller and honorary (ie unpaid) professor of Italian at Columbia College. It is a tribute to Rodney Bolt's skills that he manages to make even this sad, distracted coda interesting. He has read widely, extracted wisely and for the most part avoids the "As Da Ponte left the theatre in disgust, the melody of Figaro's challenge to the Count may well have been ringing in his head" style of speculative biography. He is generous with background detail and scrupulous with the facts, and enough of these exist to create an entertaining, informative and highly readable narrative.

The real problem is that Da Ponte's life now appears doughnut-shaped. Bolt tells us everything there is to say about the periphery, but the core is still missing. Yes, he lived an interesting life in interesting times. So did countless others. Our specific interest in Da Ponte regards his relationship with Mozart, and on this Bolt has little to offer except some slightly embarrassing amateur psychology (they'd both lost their mums and felt their dads hadn't loved them enough). It is not his fault but Da Ponte's that we have no information about who contributed which idea to the dramatic scenarios of the three operas they wrote together in four years, how negotiations over revisions to the text were conducted, what the composer was like to work with in person, how they relaxed after a particularly intense session, or even which language they spoke. What little we know about Mozart suggests that he was an unremarkable individual given to silly jokes, inane remarks and occasional outbursts of rage. An explanatory gap a mile wide lies between our limited knowledge of the man and the infinite wonders of his music. Da Ponte was of all people best placed to bridge that gap - or at least provide some clues as to what such a bridge might look like - but he chose not to. When all's said and done, it's hard to forgive him for that.

Michael Dibdin's Back to Bologna is published by Faber



January 15, 2006


The Cambridge Mozart Encyclopedia


THE MAN WHO WROTE MOZART: The Extraordinary Life of Lorenzo Da Ponte
by Anthony Holden
Weidenfeld £18.99 pp238

MOZART: The Early Years 1756–1781
by Stanley Sadie
OUP £25 pp640

edited by Cliff Eisen and Simon P Keefe
CUP £95 pp662

The predicted avalanche of Mozart literature (published to coincide with the composer’s 250th birthday on January 27) is likely to overwhelm us. Hard on the heels of Jane Glover’s Mozart’s Women last autumn — an ingenious approach to this most “feminist” of composers and the female influences on his life and art — we have David Cairns’s latest thoughts on Mozart’s operas, a new entry by Julian Rushton in OUP’s Master Musicians series and, from the same publishing house, the first half of a planned comprehensive life and works by the late editor of that series, Stanley Sadie, who died before he could venture beyond Mozart’s first 25 years into his miraculously productive final decade. Sadie’s authoritative work, tragically unfinished, needs to be read as a prelude to Cairns’s wonderfully personal insights into the mature masterworks.

The Cambridge Mozart Encyclopedia, a handsome, lavishly produced volume, offers easy access to all the information most music lovers will need about a favourite composer, but its weighty, in-depth comprehensiveness comes at a hefty price, and most Mozartians may content themselves with Nicholas Kenyon’s modestly priced but still informed and informative Faber Pocket Guide to Mozart (£8.99), which concentrates on the masterpieces we are most likely to encounter in the concert hall and opera house (it can easily be carried around in a reasonably capacious pocket).

These are all fine books by scholarly authors, but the writer who evokes Mozart’s world most vividly — albeit obliquely — is the journalist and music critic Anthony Holden in his slightly opportunistically entitled The Man Who Wrote Mozart: The Extraordinary Life of Lorenzo Da Ponte. It’s a cheeky wheeze, for Da Ponte, whose long life, as Holden points out, spanned the eras of Handel and Wagner (he was born near Treviso in 1749, and died in New York in 1838), worked with Mozart for a mere five years, from 1785-90. Their collaboration as poet-librettist and composer, however, produced three of the most enduring masterpieces of the operatic stage, the sublime comedies The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni and Così fan tutte. Although we would know little — and probably care less — about the baptised, initially illiterate Jewish lad from a provincial Italian town if fate had not brought him into the proximity of the most phenomenal genius music has ever known, Holden rightly points out that the operatic works Mozart and Da Ponte produced together far surpassed those they each produced with other men. His inference, although there is sadly little documentation to prove it, is that Da Ponte’s “genius” — if such it was — served as a catalyst to the even more powerful theatrical imagination of Mozart and stimulated it in a way that his other librettists could not.

The Mozart episode in Da Ponte’s biography occupies the three central chapters of Holden’s well-structured and racily related book. What The Cambridge Mozart Encyclopedia discreetly describes as Da Ponte’s picaresque life — gleaned, it has to be admitted, as Holden frequently does, from the writer’s notoriously unreliable and self-aggrandising memoirs — is filled out with sometimes salacious detail and evident relish by the journalist-critic. Da Ponte’s early life occasionally reads here like an Age of Enlightenment soft-porn novel, as the roving eyes and hands of the voluptuous priest are caught in flagrante by outraged landladies, husbands and lovers, and Da Ponte, like Casanova, flees gambling debtors, rivals and even the oppressive laws of licentious 18th-century Venice, to continue his career as a “poet” and philanderer. (Eventually, at the age of 43, and apparently to his own surprise, he meets a Jewish-English girl 20 years his junior, with whom he spends the rest of his life even though it is by no means certain that they married.)

Da Ponte’s life — if we take his memoirs at face value — is certainly a rollicking yarn. He was a friend and admirer of the 18th century’s most celebrated Don Juan figure, Giacomo Casanova, and Holden implies that Da Ponte saw himself as a younger version of the famous womaniser, to the extent that his depiction of Don Giovanni may have autobiographical resonances. Holden doesn’t labour the point, however, and the romances and conquests, though possibly exaggerated and self-deluding (one might say the same of Mozart and Da Ponte’s Don), are there for all to see. Holden obviously identifies with his subject, even though he isn’t blind to his faults: his love of intrigue, his paranoia about cabals, his cavalier attitude to unwanted pregnancies (his illegitimate children, when he was a priest in Venice, were casually handed to orphanages).

Surprisingly, for a translator of opera into English and propagandist for surtitles, Holden assumes a knowledge of languages, leaving several quotations untranslated. Occasionally he glosses over well-known facts to make his point: his commendation of Da Ponte for delaying the entrance of the prima donna (meaning the countess) of Figaro until Act II, for example, begs a few questions. Only since the middle of the 20th century has this role been considered the most significant female character. Both Mozart and Da Ponte would have regarded the maidservant Susanna as their star — indeed, Nancy Storace, the first singer of the role and the leading lady of the Viennese opera troupe when Figaro was first performed, switched roles from aristocrat to chamber-maid, when it became clear that the latter role had become the linchpin of the drama. And Queen Marie-Antoinette, ill-fated sister of Da Ponte’s patron, Emperor Joseph II, went to the guillotine in 1793, not 1792, as Holden suggests.

I don’t want to nitpick, however, as Da Ponte’s story is a rip-roaring read. Holden takes us on a whistle-stop tour through the backstreets of London and New York, pinpointing the unlikely places where “the man who wrote Mozart” plied his trades, finally as grocer, Italian language teacher and opera impresario to Manhattan high society in the early 19th century.


Mozart: the man and his myths

Lucasta Miller on a quartet of Mozartian biographies from David Cairns, Anthony Holden, Julian Rushton and Stanley Sadie

Saturday January 21, 2006
The Guardian

Mozart and His Operas by David Cairns (288pp, Penguin, £22)
The Man Who Wrote Mozart: The Extraordinary Life of Lorenzo Da Ponte by Anthony Holden (256pp, Weidenfeld, £18.99)
Mozart by Julian Rushton (352pp, Oxford, £18.99)
Mozart: The Early Years, 1756-1781 by Stanley Sadie (672pp, Oxford, £25)

Bounded by his legendary years as a child prodigy and his romantically early death, Mozart's life has offered itself up to myth-makers more than that of any other composer. The disproportionate influence in modern times of Peter Shaffer's brilliant but misleading fictionalisation Amadeus, both as a play and as a film, has imprisoned the composer in the Madame Tussaud's of the popular imagination as a curious chimera, half-god, half-beast. This creature, first created by Pushkin in 1830 in Mozart and Salieri, was a near madman, "an immortal genius inside a buffoon's, an idle hooligan's, skull", whose writing of his own requiem and alleged death by poison at the hands of a musical rival was as unnatural as his weird personality.

 The superficial appeal of these tall stories is obvious, but even as myths they tend to disappoint. The preposterous murder plot, based on unsubstantiated rumour, seems to belong incongruously to the melodramatic world of 19th-century grand opera, rather than the Enlightenment mindset of The Marriage of Figaro or The Magic Flute. Amadeus's foul-mouthed freak is ultimately unilluminating because it dehumanises a composer whose work is so palpably humane. Like Shakespeare - another subject for endless biographical speculation - Mozart succeeded in finding a way of representing human emotions and relationships in art that still feels true and universal today. His great operas do not merely impress by their supreme control of style and form; they seem to reflect our own subjectivity back at us. How he did this is, perhaps, the crux of his genius, yet that question remains a biographical conundrum.

In Mozart and his Operas - one of a clutch of biographies celebrating this year's 250th anniversary of the composer's birth - David Cairns makes the Shakespearean comparison explicit. For him, Shakespeare's linguistic curiosity, urge to ransack others' styles, and "gift for reading or hearing something and unspringing its unrealised potential" (as suggested in Stephen Greenblatt's Will in the World) reflect Mozart's insatiable appetite for the assimilation and imitation of musical ideas, which was established by the time he was four or five.

For some time now the fashion among musicologists has been to put Mozart back into context. Rather than seeing him as a miraculous aberration, whose freakish talent appeared out of nowhere, recent scholars have compared and contrasted his works with those of his predecessors and contemporaries and have attempted to embed his music in the milieu from which he emerged. As Richard Taruskin has recently put it: "The originality we now perceive in Mozart was really a secondary function or by-product of a mastery so consummately internalised that it liberated his imagination to react with seeming spontaneity." Mozart's sheer output - Köchel's catalogue of his works runs to 1,000 dense pages - is extraordinary, but output presupposes input.

The person initially responsible for that input was, famously, Mozart's father Leopold. Maligned by some as a rapaciously pushy parent, he is treated more sympathetically by Cairns. The foreign tours may have been exhausting, but far from being forced to play or compose, little Wolfgang was only with difficulty prised from his clavier. In 1765, in London, when the nine-year-old infant phenomenon was subjected to testing for a report to the Royal Society by Daines Barrington, his passionate commitment was in evidence: when challenged to improvise a "Song of Rage", he "worked himself up to such a pitch that he beat his harpsichord like a person possessed, rising sometimes in his chair" (one wonders whether the boy was ironically offering his views on the examining scientist). For Cairns, the real miracle with Mozart is that a child so schooled in the art of aping adult emotion matured into a psychologist of genuine Shakespearean depth: it was not merely by hard work at his craft, but through extraordinary receptiveness to life experience that Mozart must have achieved his uncanny ability to render humanity in music.

Yet although Cairns argues humanistically that it was Mozart's innate moral nature, over and above his technical skill, that was the key to his success, this argument is slightly undercut by the fact that his musical analyses tend to be more illuminating than any direct connections he makes between Mozart's personal life and the operas. He is impressively accessible to the moderately musically-literate reader when he gets into the details of the scoring, explaining the techniques through which emotional affect is rendered in the operas. It was by emulating - and transcending - his models that Mozart discovered, in The Marriage of Figaro, a revolutionary way of "embodying the interplay of living people, the feelings and passions and thoughts of rounded human beings".

Cairns points out, for example, that the countess's heart-rending "Porgi, amor" was based on an aria written by Paisiello for the same character in his recent opera of The Barber of Seville, Figaro's prequel in the original trilogy of plays by Beaumarchais (they are the same in terms of key, time signature, tempo and orchestration). Yet Mozart's aria stretches musical convention with a new flexibility, so that strict harmonic form is replaced by continuous development: when it returns to the home key of E flat, and the words of the opening are repeated, new music unexpectedly emerges, with dissonance on the bassoon lending an added poignancy. One could extrapolate further on how this works on the emotions through its patterns of tension and release, forward and backward movement: return to the home key should signal release, but the new tune creates further tension, while the repetition of the words pulls backwards, subliminally reminding us of the earlier melody which is now in the past and thus - like the countess's idealism about love, which has been shattered by her faithless husband - lost.

What Cairns doesn't do is broaden his field to take in the wider ramifications of intellectual history. It is in fact possible to construct - as Richard Taruskin does in his magnificent multi-volume Oxford History of Western Music, published last year - a convincing cultural explanation as to why, say, Figaro achieves "a singularly sympathetic representation of humanity".

Here, Mozart is seen as a product of the Enlightenment (it is perhaps no accident that the paying public's fascination with the Wunderkind in the 1760s coincided with the success of Rousseau's seminal work on childhood development, Emile). As far as comic opera was concerned, the Enlightenment's project was to privilege nature over artifice, to present all characters as sharing a universal humanity regardless of rank, and to produce a sense of community in feeling not only between characters but between them and the audience. This, allied to developments in plot construction - in which, conventionally, the initial scenario is tangled into an imbroglio, and then sorted out (the latter expressed by the singers in ensemble finales) - allowed composers to move towards the creation of an art form which could, in the hands of Mozart, achieve a perfect, bittersweet closure, in which the plot strands were satisfyingly tied up, yet whose underlying musical complexity could encompass, rather than deny, the ambiguities of mixed human emotion. This is not completely to relativise the sense of self-recognition, fulfilment and yearning which audiences still feel when the curtain goes down after Figaro, but it does explain how and why, at a given historical moment, such an effect was what opera was overtly aiming at.

In the end, Cairns's faith in Mozart's personal "profound humanity" as the ultimate key to his great creative breakthroughs is not, perhaps, enough. This is partly because it fails to bring in the wider cultural perspective, but also because it remains an unproblematised assumption. Mozart has left posterity very little evidence about his inner nature. He did not explore or analyse himself or others in literary form, so it is only from his music that we can extrapolate, by an act of imagination, the depths of his personality. Wolfgang Hildesheimer put this beautifully in his subtle and still classic biographical meditation of 1977: "We have before us a score consisting of only two staves - the melodic line (Mozart's music) and the bass (his external life). The connecting middle voices are missing - his unconscious, the dictates and impulses of his inner life, that which governs his motives and behaviour. A familiar exercise in music is to compose a third, connecting part ... This is how we must regard the work of biographers."

Although the more lurid myths that have emerged to fill this gap have been dispelled, the inner Mozart remains a mystery. Biographers can reconstruct him in a variety of convincing or unconvincing ways, but they need to acknowledge, as Hildesheimer does, that their work - though it answers so many human needs, both their own and their readers' - is doomed at one level to failure. Cairns gives us a compassionate and elegantly written account, but not perhaps a questioning one.

In Mozart's Don Giovanni, the protagonist is a figure of enigmatic emptiness; seduction is his way of attempting to fill the void at his centre, and Mozart expresses this by making him constantly steal, with virtuoso aplomb, the musical styles of his victims. Mozart himself - whose life's work from earliest childhood was to seduce his listeners - can seem similarly blank: a screen on to which his admirers project their desires. He did not need to mythologise himself; others have done that for him (beginning with Leopold, whose publicity material for his infant son's performances exaggerated the child's youth).

The same, however, cannot be said of Lorenzo Da Ponte, the librettist of Figaro, Don Giovanni and Così fan tutte, whose genius for flamboyant self-mythology was as remarkable as his talent for adapting texts for operas. Like his friend Casanova, Da Ponte was both a self-dramatising autobiographer and (by his own account) a sexual dynamo. His account of working on Don Giovanni, with a bottle of Tokay on one side of his desk, a supply of Seville tobacco on the other, and a nubile 16-year-old serving-wench on call to service his needs at the ring of a bell, is a masterpiece of fantasy-memoir, especially as he claims to have written the libretti for two other, non-Mozart operas during that intense period. He may or may not be exaggerating his capacity to get through a superhuman workload, but, despite his brilliance, he never had Mozart's capacity for arduous, single-minded concentration. During his picaresque, chameleon career, he was always on the move. Jew and Catholic, priest and womaniser, poet and bankrupt, shopkeeper and university professor, he began his long life in and around Venice and ended it in New York. It is hard to imagine a more flamboyant personal history, a gift to the biographer Anthony Holden, who relishes his subject's sheer exuberance.

It is disappointing that Holden's book lacks proper reference material, consigning it to an ephemeral market. This is certainly not true of two other bicentenary offerings, both by academic musicologists: Professor Julian Rushton's compact and rather technical Mozart, and the late Stanley Sadie's vast Mozart: The Early Years, 1756-1781. The latter will undoubtedly prove a lasting monument to scholarship. Sadie amasses an awesome quantity of descriptive detail on the works, taking into account, for example, new research on the dating of certain compositions garnered from a study of the watermarks on the manuscript paper. Yet his resolutely unpsychological approach may leave the nonspecialist reader emotionally unsatisfied (so afraid is he of the perils of psychobiography regarding Mozart's attitude to Leopold that he bizarrely claims that the father-son relationship in Idomeneo, an opera about child-sacrifice no less, is "normal, uncomplicated, and predictable"). Such a wealth of documentation in one volume will offer an invaluable resource, yet it cannot in the end dispel the sense of wonder and enigma Mozart still engenders, despite the efforts of biographers, cultural theorists and musicologists to pin him down.

Lucasta Miller's The Brontë Myth is published by Vintage



The phoenix

A poet, priest and womaniser, who ended his days as a grocer, he also wrote the words to some of the greatest operas. On the eve of Mozart's 250th anniversary, Anthony Holden looks at the colourful life of his librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte

Saturday January 7, 2006
The Guardian


On June 4 1805, a 56-year-old Italian immigrant disembarked in Philadelphia from the transatlantic packet Columbia, carrying only a violin. The little money on him when he left London, fleeing his many debtors, he had gambled away on the voyage. Before dying in New York 33 years later, in his 90th year, he would find new-world respectability as the first professor of Italian in America. For now, he set up shop as a grocer. 

To those who knew him in the American denouement of his long European life, there was always an air of mystery about the Abbé Lorenzo da Ponte. A scholarly poet and teacher, he was also an ordained Catholic priest, rumoured to have been born Jewish. Although he had a devoted wife, he also had a reputation as a womaniser. With his flirtatious eyes and mane of white hair, Da Ponte charmed all he met. But his self-assurance also excited mistrust. When one of the first Italian operas was performed in New York in 1825, he had the nerve to claim he had written it. He had, so he said, known Mozart. Not to mention Casanova.

Was Lorenzo da Ponte even the professor's real name? Some begged leave to doubt it. Like the memoirs he had recently written, to pay off more debts, the old man was so full of tall stories ... The many lives of Lorenzo da Ponte - librettist of Mozart's three great operas, The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni and Cosi Fan Tutte - begin in Venice and hurtle eventfully across Europe before winding up in New York, where today he lies buried in the world's largest cemetery, beneath the flight path into JFK Airport.

Born in 1749, in the Venetian hill town of Ceneda (now Vittorio Veneto), his real name was Emanuele Conegliano, eldest son of a tanner. Uneducated, illiterate, he ran wild until he was 14, when his widowed father fell in love with a 16-year-old Christian girl. Before he could marry her, the family had to be received into the Catholic church. It being the custom for the eldest son to assume the name of the bishop who baptised them, Emanuele became Lorenzo da Ponte.

With Bishop da Ponte as his sponsor, the boy's fortunes took a turn for the better. He received a classical education, began to write poetry, and became a Catholic priest. Appointed a professor, he was soon disillusioned by academic in-fighting; at 24, he resigned to seek a new life in "the permanent fancy-dress ball that was Venice".

As the rest of Europe looked to its future via the ideas of Kant, Rousseau and Voltaire, once mighty Venice was partying its way towards becoming merely the most beautiful city on earth. As the French Revolution loomed, Venice's Robespierre was Casanova, the prototype libertine, soon to become Da Ponte's friend. But first, the Abbé had to make some conquests of his own. After numerous affairs, not least with married women, the poet-priest was banished from Venice. Wandering west across Europe, he arrived in Vienna in 1781 with a letter of introduction to the court composer, Antonio Salieri, who persuaded the emperor, Joseph II, to appoint Da Ponte his theatre-poet. Soon he made his name writing libretti for Salieri and other leading composers.

It was in 1783 that Da Ponte met the young, unemployed and impoverished composer from Salzburg. Mozart was thrilled to meet the eminent Abbé, six years his senior. "We have a new poet here, Abbé da Ponte," he wrote excitedly to his father in Salzburg.

In the wake of Die Entführung aus dem Serail, Mozart yearned to abandon the German tradition for Italian opera. "In opera, the poetry must be the obedient daughter of the music," he wrote. "The best thing is when a good composer, who understands the stage enough to make sound suggestions, meets an able poet, that true phoenix."

In Da Ponte, Mozart had met his "true phoenix". On the face of it, the pair were singularly ill-matched. Beneath his equally playful exterior, Mozart hid an essential seriousness Da Ponte lacked. Most of Da Ponte's life so far had been play; all of Mozart's had been work. By the time the illiterate 14-year-old Da Ponte had been received into the Catholic church, the seven-year-old Mozart was already giving concerts, winning awards and writing early masterpieces.

How ironic, in the light of their respective talents and posthumous reputations, that the struggling Viennese Mozart should have been so thrilled to find his "able poet" in the wayward but much better-known Abbé da Ponte. From such less than kindred spirits, perhaps, are the greatest artistic partnerships formed. The works that each wrote with others fall far short of the standards of the three works they wrote together, which have stood the test of time as mighty operatic masterpieces. And Da Ponte's poetic skill and theatrical instincts made an indispensable contribution. Without his "able poet", Mozart might not have reached the full heights of which he was capable, in the genre that meant most to him.

Despite Mozart's success with Die Entführung, the emperor's sole response had been: "Too fine for our ears; and too many notes, my dear Mozart, too many notes!" - to which the composer's sardonic reply had been: "Just as many notes, Your Majesty, as are necessary."

Joseph preferred the less complex music of Salieri, Paisiello and Martin y Soler, telling the director of his court theatre, Count Orsini de Rosenberg, that "Mozart's music is much too difficult to sing". Mozart may not have known of this, but he did know that he had to write Italian opera to stand a chance of popular success in Vienna.

The Italian composer Paisiello had recently enjoyed a huge success with an opera of Beaumarchais's play The Barber of Seville. Now Mozart persuaded Da Ponte to make a libretto from its sequel, The Marriage of Figaro. The emperor had banned the play as "subversive", so they were obliged to work in secret. By November 1785 Da Ponte had delivered a draft to Mozart, who wrote the music in six weeks. Not until then did the court poet inform the emperor what he and Mozart had been up to. When Joseph sternly reminded his poet that the play was banned, Da Ponte assured him that the process of converting it into an opera had obliged him to shorten the piece - removing the political content in those scenes that might give offence. "As to the music," he added, "it is remarkably beautiful." Once Joseph had discovered this for himself, he sanctioned Figaro for performance.

It was with this work that opera would come of age. When Da Ponte was born, Handel reigned supreme; four years after his death, Wagner would make his debut. Da Ponte and Mozart were the twin pillars of that crucial transition, transforming opera into an art form exploring central human issues in a potent, accessible but above all realistic manner, via characters the audience could recognise, and with whom they could identify.

Opera buffa was Da Ponte's speciality, Mozart's aspiration. Popular in Vienna because it encapsulated bourgeois taste rather than aristocratic pretension, it portrayed people from everyday life rather than abstract ideals - the man or woman familiar from the family or the street rather than gods, heroes or classical archetypes. With different characters of whatever social status sharing similar views and aspirations, opera buffa reflected the Enlightenment ideal of the similarity of all human beings, regardless of birth or rank. As yet, however, it was regarded by the cognoscenti as an inferior form to seria.

This was soon to be shown up as mere snobbery. But Figaro enjoyed only nine performances in Vienna before being dropped from the repertoire. In the second Habsburg city of Prague, however, it proved a triumph - so much so that Mozart was commissioned to write another opera, for which Da Ponte suggested a reworking of the old Don Juan legend. As he set to work on Don Giovanni for Mozart, Da Ponte was also writing libretti for Salieri and Martin y Soler. "You won't succeed!" laughed the emperor. "Perhaps not, but I shall try," he insisted. "In the morning I shall write for Martin, in the evening for Salieri, and by night for Mozart."

Settling down to his tasks with a bottle of Tokay to his right, an inkstand in the middle, and a box of Seville tobacco to his left, he was further distracted by the serving girl, his landlady's daughter, briefed to supply his every need - including some her mother had not bargained for. In two months, nonetheless, Da Ponte delivered his manuscript to Mozart, who set it to music in time for a triumphant Prague premiere on October 29 1787. Again, the piece failed in Vienna, where the emperor told Mozart: "The opera is divine, but it's not food for the teeth of my Viennese."

"We'll give them time to chew it," was Mozart's answer. But the end of the 1788 season saw the emperor close down the opera - costly and inappropriate while the nation was at war with the Turks. Faced with ruin, Da Ponte hatched a plan to keep it going at no cost to the emperor - who himself commissioned their third collaboration, Cosi Fan Tutte, one of only two original works among Da Ponte's 50-plus libretti. The role of Fiordiligi was written for his latest mistress, a singer called Adriana del Bene, better-known as La Ferrarese.

Joseph II never saw the opera he had commissioned. By its first night, he already lay dying. As Da Ponte composed an ode in his memory, jealous enemies at court were busy persuading the new emperor, Leopold II, that his poet had been plotting against him. Soon he found himself forbidden entry to the Imperial Theatre, to see one of his own operas. Within days, as he had been from Venice 10 years before, Da Ponte was banished from Vienna. Kicking his heels in Trieste, he met a beautiful English-born girl named Nancy Grahl, whom he promptly married - to the astonishment of all who knew him. Via a visit to his friend Casanova in Bohemia, the couple headed for Paris. In Da Ponte's pocket was a letter of introduction to Marie-Antoinette from her late brother, Joseph.

Casanova saw Da Ponte off with some memorable advice: "Don't go to Paris, go to London. Once there, never visit the Cafe degl'Italiani, and never sign your name." When Da Ponte heard of Marie-Antoinette's imprisonment, he took Casanova's advice and headed for London. Here, for the next decade, he was poet to the King's Theatre, Haymarket, now (as Her Majesty's) home to Andrew Lloyd Webber's Phantom of the Opera, then dedicated to Italian opera. But the gullible Da Ponte fell foul of the theatre's roguish manager, William Taylor, ignoring Casanova's advice by signing his name to some business documents. As the scale of Taylor's mismanagement became clear, Da Ponte was arrested and imprisoned 30 times in three months.

Unable to support his wife and children, he put them on a boat to America, where Nancy had relatives. After nine more wretched months in London, he was warned that he again faced arrest for debt. This time Da Ponte decided to run for it. He did a midnight flit to Gravesend, where he boarded the Columbia for Philadelphia.

The rest of his life would be spent in the young United States. After that false start as a grocer, Da Ponte found work as a teacher of Italian, founding the Manhattan Academy for Young Gentlemen. Prospering at last, he made it his personal mission to infuse the new world with a love and knowledge of Italian culture, particularly music and literature. After a diversion to Pennsylvania, where he ran a millinery and a distillery, he returned to New York to become the first professor of Italian in the United States, at Columbia College (now University), in 1825.

Running a bookshop on the side, Da Ponte presented Columbia and the New York Public Library with volumes of Italian literature that form the nucleus of their collections to this day. In 1828, as he neared 80, he also brought the first Italian opera company to America, not least for a performance of "his" Don Giovanni. In his last decade, he built and ran America's first opera house in Greenwich Village.

On 17 August 1838, five months before his 90th birthday, Da Ponte died amid his large American family. His original burial place, New York's Roman Catholic cemetery, was subsumed in 1903 into the Calvary Cemetery in Queen's. Da Ponte's remains were lost in the process, but a tombstone was finally erected in 1987 beneath the jets roaring into JFK.

Da Ponte had proved an archetype of the ideal American immigrant, contributing as much to his adopted homeland as it had offered him. But his name will live on as that of Mozart's librettist - and his poetry will be heard in opera houses all over the world, every night of every year, for as long as the civilised world turns.

Anthony Holden's biography of Lorenzo Da Ponte, The Man Who Wrote Mozart, will be published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson for £18.99 on January 26, the day before the 250th anniversary of Mozart's birth


BLOOMSBURY £20 (428pp) £18

Lorenzo da Ponte, by Rodney Bolt

Words to a music of chance

By Susan Tomes

Published: 18 August 2006

In case the name of Lorenzo da Ponte isn't immediately recognisable, this enjoyable biography provides a subtitle: "the adventures of Mozart's librettist in the old and new worlds". Rodney Bolt got my attention right away with a remark in the preface: "It is curious that in the world of the musical, lyricist and composer receive equal billing - we speak of Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Loewe, Rice and Lloyd Webber. Yet in opera, the writer is all but ignored." He adds that writers "not infrequently quote words from Don Giovanni, Figaro or Così fan tutte, and attribute them to 'Mozart'. Da Ponte railed against this unfairness."

In Mozart's 250th anniversary year, Bolt has shrewdly widened the arc of the spotlight to fall also on the librettist, whose turbulent life more than equalled his opera plots. Da Ponte's career intersected with Mozart's only for a short while, but his adventures are a window onto a fascinating century. He was born when Handel was in vogue and lived almost long enough to see Wagner's debut. Along the way he was ordained as a priest, expelled from Venice for scandalous behaviour, became a friend of Casanova, a favourite of the Austrian Emperor Joseph II, creative partner of numerous opera composers, the first professor of Italian at Columbia University, and a founder of New York's first opera house. Between his successes, he slid down the ladder with amazing regularity, climbing back from spells of bankruptcy and periods behind the counter of groceries or bookstores.

Da Ponte was born Emanuele Conegliano in the Jewish ghetto of Ceneda near Venice. Exhausted by the repressive laws that restricted Jews, the whole family converted to Christianity. Following tradition, the 14-year-old Emanuele took the name of the bishop who received him into the church.

The law forbade recent converts to move back to the ghetto or associate with former Jewish friends, and as his widowed father had taken a young wife, Da Ponte had to strike out vigorously in search of a new identity. One can't help wondering whether this early experience of forced dislocation from his own community fired his life-long taste for high living, plots, schemes and debauchery. Everything must have seemed unreal, the opportunities too sudden and overwhelming.

In his quest for fame and employment as a theatre poet, Lorenzo was amazingly enterprising. He worked in Venice, Trieste, Dresden, Prague, Vienna, London, finally Philadelphia and New York. Everywhere he pursued tirelessly, indeed obstinately, the promotion of Italian language and culture, never accepting that Italian might be far down the list of local priorities. Even in America, he remained convinced that society would leap forward if only its leading men would take Italian lessons and learn to love Italian opera.

He seemed to have equal talents for making friends and enemies. Just as his pupils were devoted to him, his creditors and business partners pursued him with a vengeance. He always thought his enemies' dislike was completely unjustified, and perhaps his ability to forgive himself was the source of his inexhaustible appetite for new schemes.

In his eighties, Da Ponte took the chance to puff up his successes and settle old scores in five volumes of memoirs. But Bolt has meticulously followed his trail, checking both contemporary sources and modern scholarship to create a wide counterpoint of supplementary information and new perspectives. He does so with a travel-writer's eye and a light touch. The depth of his reading emerges in many delightful details, letting us know en passant where the best hot chocolate was to be found, how far 300 gulden would take you in 1783, and what other travellers said about the places Da Ponte visited. Bolt is sympathetic to Da Ponte but not blind to his faults, and the old poet would have enjoyed his biographer's sparkly turn of phrase.

Da Ponte's life spanned a period of great social change. He was a living example of the intersection between the falling curve of royal patronage and the rising curve of the self-made man. Beginning as a sycophant who did not dare to gainsay the idle Venetian nobles who tossed gold coins into his pocket, he grew proud enough to write an astounding letter (in Italian) to Leopold II of Austria, addressing the monarch with the informal "tu". Ostensibly he was requesting a post, but couldn't resist informing Leopold that "My destiny does not depend on you, because all your power and that of all possible kings has no rights over my soul. I can love your name and your virtues, but I cannot fear you." For this effrontery he was banished from Vienna, but characteristically failed to understand why.

Susan Tomes is the pianist of the Florestan Trio; her book 'A Musician's Alphabet' appears from Faber next month



An adventure story with musical interludes

(Filed: 27/08/2006)


Jonathan Keates reviews Lorenzo Da Ponte: The Adventures of Mozart's Librettist in the Old and New Worlds by Rodney Bolt.

The subtitle of Rodney Bolt's biography of Lorenzo Da Ponte says it all. Here is an adventure story pure and simple, the stuff of those rambling, picaresque novels beloved of 18th-century readers, crammed with amorous intrigues, narrow escapes, comic mishaps and last-minute rescues, seasoned throughout by the hero's infinite resilience and copper-bottomed conceit.

It's true that when Da Ponte, in his last years, wrote the whole thing down, he chose to cast his narrative in the form of an autobiography, but this, many might argue, is just another kind of fiction. Bolt, wise enough to accept these memoirs at face value, offers his personal likeness of Mozart's finest librettist, missing none of the verve in Da Ponte's self-portraiture while sharpening its outline with an extraordinary empathy for his period, even at its most bizarre or grotesque.

Lorenzo was born to wander. A baptised Jew, originally named Emmanuele Conegliano, from the ghetto of a small town in the Veneto, he entered a seminary and was ordained a priest - not before fathering a child on Angela Tiepolo, wife of an impoverished patrician. Quitting the college for 'dear, beautiful Venice, scene of harmony and love', the Abbé Da Ponte, as he was now known, grew further infatuated with Angela, while attracting unwelcome attention for his satirical verses from the government censors. 'Too many incidents, Abbé, too many incidents,' warned his patron, and soon enough a fling with another married woman had doomed him to perpetual banishment for outraging public morals.

The process repeated itself in Dresden, where, after learning the craft of theatre poet from the court librettist, he began an affair with a demure teenager and was bounced back on to the road. Only in Vienna, under the enlightened if increasingly eccentric Emperor Joseph II, could the renegade abbé find space to reinvent himself, amid a society whose fondness for gossip and masquerades made the place a kind of Germanic Venice. Italians and their music dominated the artistic life of both court and town, and it needed only a few years for Lorenzo to become a leading operator in this busy expatriate subculture.

The collaboration with Mozart, resulting in three operatic masterpieces, is an obvious focal point in Rodney Bolt's book, but he is keen that we should see the creation of these works in the wider context of late 18th-century Italian opera buffa, its singers and its audiences. Hence, thank goodness, Mozart appears not as some twinkle-toed musical cherub, but as a hard-nosed, envious competitor in a tough professional world. Antonio Salieri, far from being the demon mediocrity of Peter Schaffer's dramatic vulgarisation, figures as a talented contemporary master, for whom Da Ponte had genuine respect. It was to him, rather than Mozart, that the librettist originally offered Così fan tutte.

Burning his wings yet again, Da Ponte eventually ended up in New York. By now a redeeming angel had arrived in the shape of an English wife, Nancy Grahl, whose coffee room became a fashionable rendezvous during Lorenzo's otherwise disastrous spell as a bookseller and theatre poet in London. Decamping with their children to Philadelphia, she helped him set up shop as a grocer, turning her elderly husband into the sort of respectable citizen he had spent nearly 60 years trying not to be. In New York the reformed libertine was made Columbia University's first professor of Italian and helped to found the city's earliest opera house, ancestor of the 'Met'.

In a year of official Mozart celebrations, Bolt's Lorenzo Da Ponte is an ideal tribute to the composer's brilliant if erring librettist. Without a hint of plodding, the author has examined Da Ponte's voluminous oeuvre almost to the last sonnet and clearly feels at home everywhere in the poet's multiple worlds, from a Venetian casino or a Tyrolean mail-coach to the hog-rootled streets of 1800s Manhattan. Above all, Bolt encourages us to admire the man himself, for all his sins of omission or commission, as an irrepressible survivor with more than a touch or two of pure genius.


November 16, 2007

Paperback: Lorenzo Da Ponte: The Extraordinary Adventures of the Man Behind Mozart by Rodney Bolt

Bloomsbury, £9.99

Reviewed by Ross Leckie

The subject of this biography was born into poverty in Italy in 1749, and died in poverty in New York in 1838. “Like his friends Mozart and Casanova, Lorenzo Da Ponte was buried in an unmarked grave.” Had fate been kinder, his numerous achievements might have merited a mausoleum.

Among other things, by the time he was 40, Da Ponte had been a Catholic priest (although he was born a Jew), a poet, a libertine and a scholar. He pursued all these things with passion. To understand the man, seek the child. Rodney Bolt is especially good on his juvenile formation. “His years in the ghetto had taught him tenacity... He secretly composed, and burned, more than 2,000 verses, imitating styles, practising metre, echoing phrases he found beautiful until he felt ready... to present a sonnet in public.” Such was the genesis of the man who became the librettist for three of Mozart's greatest operas. But that wasn't his end. Bankrupt despite his artistic triumphs, and luckless in love despite his skills as a Lothario, Da Ponte emigrated to America, where he became a university professor and founded New York's first (unsuccessful) opera house.

This is a rattling good yarn, well told, and proof that the truth can be stranger than any fiction. It also shows how important it is to persevere. Only in 1987 did New Yorkers raise to Da Ponte the monument that he has long deserved.









April 29, 2005


Unsung Hero

Behind the music of 'The Marriage of Figaro' is Lorenzo da Ponte



Say "The Marriage of Figaro" to your average arts fan, and two names leap to mind: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who wrote the music to the opera; and Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais, who penned the controversial play on which it was based. Few think of Lorenzo da Ponte, the poet who adapted Beaumarchais' text into the libretto for Mozart's opera.

"Opera is a combination of art forms," says Richard Buckley, artistic director of Austin Lyric Opera, whose production of Le Nozze di Figaro opens Friday, April 29. "It is music, but not without drama, and similarly not without specific words expressing the situations. Da Ponte, working from the play, was able to give Mozart a libretto that truly communicated the play." Buckley admires da Ponte for the poetic power of his language, which gave Mozart a "vehicle" to drive the story forward yet allowed room for his music. But just who was this man behind the words behind the music?

Lorenzo da Ponte was born neither a Lorenzo nor a da Ponte, but Emanuele Conegliano, the eldest son of Jewish parents living in Ceneda, Italy, in 1749. After his mother died, his father remarried, but to a Christian woman, which required the entire family to convert to Catholicism. The custom of the day was for a newly baptized family to adopt the surname of the presiding bishop; thus the Coneglianos became the da Pontes, and as eldest son, Emanuele, took the bishop's first name, Lorenzo, as well.

Da Ponte tried to make a career of Catholicism by enrolling in the seminary. But though he was ordained a priest in 1773, the vow of chastity proved too difficult for him; Da Ponte's numerous dalliances with married women enraged his superiors, who exiled him from Venice in 1779.

Eventually da Ponte arrived in Vienna, where he acquired the position of court poet to Emperor Joseph II and met Mozart. In 1786, they collaborated on Le Nozze di Figaro, which, due to the controversial nature of the material – Beaumarchais' play had been banned from the stage for its criticism of the ruling class – had to be written in secret. Da Ponte himself took the finished product directly to the emperor, insisting that he had "cut anything that might offend good taste or public decency." A few selections of the piece were played for the emperor. The royal ear was pleased with Mozart's music, and the opera allowed to proceed.

Mozart and da Ponte repeated the success of Figaro twice more, with Don Giovanni (1787) and Così Fan Tutte (1790), forming a group that many consider the finest operas of Mozart's career (if not all opera). During the composition of Don Giovanni, Da Ponte and Mozart lived in apartments across the street from each other in Prague and would shout out the window to each other as they worked. This fruitful partnership ended prematurely, however; in 1791, Mozart died and da Ponte lost his position as court poet.

From Vienna, da Ponte's life follows an even more curious route. In Trieste, he met an Englishwoman, married her, and moved to London, where he wrote for the Drury Lane Theatre, lost and regained his position several times, and finally declared bankruptcy. Impoverished, he set sail for the United States, where he pursued assorted dead-end jobs – New Jersey grocer, Pennsylvania medicine merchant – before settling into a life as a teacher of Italian language and culture. He was awarded a professorship at Columbia University, and his personal library became the core of its Italian collection. In 1833, he founded the Italian Opera House in New York City. Five years later, da Ponte died in New York. His body, like that of his friend and greatest collaborator, Mozart, was buried in an unmarked grave.