Saturday, August 04, 2007


Most people are vaguely aware that Da Ponte was the writer of the "libretti" of Mozart's most famous three Italian operas ("Le Nozze di Figaro", "Don Giovanni" and "Cosi' Fan Tutte"), but would be hard pushed to say much more about the Venetian poet. In fact the story of his life would itself have made a fine opera. Born in Veneto in 1749 ( and so seven years older than his most famous collaborator, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart) into a Jewish family as Emanuele Conegliano, Da Ponte took his name from the Bishop that baptized his family into the Roman Catholic faith. Subsequently he trained as a teacher and later was ordained as a priest, However, he was unable to live his life in a way that was suitable to either profession and, as a consequence, Da Ponte found his way blocked to making a living in these careers. In consequence, he happily gave himself up to the creative muse that was most congenial to him and, after a move to Vienna, he was appointed court librettist to Joseph II. During this period, Da Ponte spent most of his time writing libretti for Mozart's chief rivals on the Vienna scene, Antonio Salieri and Martin Y Soler. Da Ponte had an excellent reputation in Vienna as a fine poet who could take an original drama from the French or Spanish and quickly turn it into elegant and dramatic Italian poetry.

Of course it as the librettist of Mozart's mature operas that Da Ponte is best remembered and it seems that the two men had a close and congenial working relationship. During the composition of "Don Giovanni" Da Ponte and Mozart hired adjacent rooms in a rented house and developed the opera together amongst much laughter and horse play. "Le Nozze di Figaro" was based on an earlier play by the French dramatist, Pierre Beaumarchais and Da Ponte quickly changed the barbed French social satire into a depoliticized love story full of exquisite Italian poetry. The only original story that Da Ponte wrote for Mozart was "Cosi' Fan Tutte" a somewhat sour tale of the frailties of women in love that some believe to be Mozart's very finest opera.

After the death of Mozart in 1791, Da Ponte continued working as a librettist for other composers for more than another decade but the rewards, due to a decline in European patronage of the arts, became fewer and fewer. Finally, in 1805 at the age of 56, Da Ponte moved himself and his whole family to New York City where he initially set up a grocery shop and later a book store in order to make a living. Later, he was to become the first Professor of Italian Literature at Columbia University (he was also the first faculty member to have been born a Jew and the first to have been ordained as a Catholic priest). In 1828, at the age of 79, Lorenzo Da Ponte became a naturalized citizen of the United States. Ten years later, in 1838, he died and was buried in a Catholic cemetery in Manhattan. Interestingly, this cemetery was later moved due to building work and all the bodies were hopelessly mixed up together. Ironically then, like the great composer Mozart himself, Da Ponte now rests in an unknown and unmarked grave.

Who could possibly imagine today, listening to Da Ponte's almost perfect and perennially fresh collaborations with Mozart, the strange and dramatic story of the poet's own life which took him from Jew to Christian, from priest to poet, from grocer to university lecturer and from book store owner to early American citizen? Of one thing we can be sure: like Mozart himself, Lorenzo Da Ponte was a one off: we will not see his like again.


Anonymous PAPAGENO said...

Wonderful to read about Da Ponte here.

4:17 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

quite interesting post indeed.

1:28 AM  

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