Biographer, translator and critic Anthony Holden explores the life of Lorenzo Da Ponte, co-creator of Le nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni and Così fan tutte.
In June 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 debts after numerous stints in jail, he had gambled away during the long voyage. Before dying in New York more than three decades later, in his ninetieth year, he would find New World respectability as the first Professor of Italian in America, at New York’s Columbia University. In the meantime, he set up shop as a grocer.
Had he previously achieved nothing else, Lorenzo Da Ponte would today be remembered as a model immigrant to the fledgling United States, importing Italian literature and music, contributing as much to his adopted homeland as it offered him. But even before his arrival, he had lived a life immeasurably more action-packed than most of the day, much of it shrouded in mystery. Da Ponte was not even his real name.
Da Ponte’s early life
Emanuele Conegliano was born in 1749, the eldest son of a Jewish tanner, in the Venetian hill-town of Ceneda (now the ‘old town’ of Vittorio Veneto). Uneducated, illiterate, the boy ran wild until he was 14, when his widowed father’s determination to marry a 16-year-old Christian girl saw his Jewish family received into the Catholic church. According to custom, the eldest son assumed the name of the bishop who baptized them, 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 was ordained a Catholic priest. Appointed a professor, he soon grew disenchanted with academic in-fighting, and at 24 resigned to seek a new life in Venice, the once mighty imperial capital then partying its way towards becoming merely the most beautiful city on earth. As the French Revolution loomed, its Robespierre was Giacomo Casanova, the prototype libertine, who soon became Da Ponte’s close friend.
But the Abbé was already making too many conquests of his own. After numerous affairs, not least with married women, the indigent poet-priest found himself banished from Venice by its Doge. 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 of the day.
It was in 1783, at a party given by Mozart’s landlord, that Da Ponte first met the young, unemployed and impoverished composer from Salzburg. Mozart was thrilled to encounter the eminent Abbé, six years his senior, and a favourite of the Emperor. ‘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 home. ‘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’ – even though, on the face of it, they 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 fourteen-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 Da Ponte. From such less than kindred spirits, perhaps, are the greatest artistic partnerships formed. The works each wrote with others fall far short of the three works they wrote together, which have stood the test of time as operatic masterpieces, and to which Da Ponte’s poetic skill and theatrical instincts undoubtedly made a vital contribution.
Despite Mozart’s success with Die Entführung, the Emperor’s sole response had been: ‘Too many notes, my dear Mozart, too many notes!’ – to which the composer’s reply had been simply: ‘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 make his mark in Vienna.
The Italian composer Paisiello had recently enjoyed a huge success with an opera of Beaumarchais’ play The Barber of Seville. Now Mozart persuaded Da Ponte to adapt its sequel, The Marriage of Figaro. The Emperor had banned the play as ‘subversive’, so they were obliged to work in secret.
Da Ponte swiftly 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 a startled Joseph sternly reminded him that he had banned the play, Da Ponte reassured his employer that the process of converting it into an opera had obliged him to shorten the piece – omitting those scenes which 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.
Opera comes of age
It was with this work that opera came of age. When Da Ponte was born, Handel reigned supreme; four years after his death, Wagner made his debut. Da Ponte and Mozart were the twin pillars of that historic transition, transforming opera into an art-form exploring everyday human issues in a potent, accessible but above all realistic manner, via characters the audience could recognize, and with whom they could identify.
But Viennese audiences remained stubbornly (and snobbishly) attached to their beloved opera seria. 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 dating back to a 1630 romp by Tirso de Molina, which had since fallen out of fashion. Though regarded with distaste by the Viennese cognoscenti, the tragi-comic theme appealed to the coarser side of Mozart’s sense of humour.
As he set to work on Don Giovanni for Mozart, Da Ponte was also writing libretti for Salieri and Martin. ‘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 tobacco to his left, Da Ponte 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. ‘With only brief breaks, I worked twelve hours a day, ringing the bell to summon the girl in the next room with increasing frequency.’ In such conditions, himself something of a Don Giovanni, Da Ponte completed his work in two months, insisting on a comic element to the tragedy – a dramma giocoso – despite Mozart’s initial doubts.
In the final scene of Don Giovanni, to cap his celebrated ball-scene cry of ‘Viva la liberta’, the Don sings a less political mantra: ‘Vivan le femmine, / Viva il buon vino! / Sostegno e Gloria d’umanita!’. To the French poet Alphonse de Lamartine, quoting Da Ponte’s daily routine while writing Don Giovanni, this suggests that this ‘adventurer, wine-lover, womanizer, … a man without scruple but not without fear of divine vengeance’ was in truth writing the story of his own life.
Flattered as he would have been, Da Ponte would feel obliged to share this laurel with another more entitled to such billing, who also happened to be in Prague at the time. Casanova was there visiting his publisher when Da Ponte arrived to join Mozart in October 1787, only to be recalled to Vienna after just eight days, with rehearsals still in progress and the composer yet to write the overture. The text, of course, was finished, in need only of last-minute adjustments; but recent scholarship suggests that Da Ponte might have handed over this task to his dissolute but learned old friend. In the library of his last home at Dux in Bohemia, long after his death, Casanova’s handwriting was found on drafts of the second act ‘Escape scene’ from Don Giovanni – which could well re-enact one of his own escapades in the alleyways of Venice.
After a triumphant premiere in Prague on 29 October 1787, Don Giovanni suffered the same failure as Figaro in Vienna, where the emperor told Mozart: ‘The opera is divine, but it’s not food for the teeth of my Viennese.’
Fall from grace
‘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, and the sole opera commissioned from Mozart in Vienna. Supposedly given the gist of the plot by the Emperor himself, from some gossip amid his own aristocratic circles, Da Ponte wrote the role of Fiordiligi for his latest mistress, a singer called Adriana del Bene, better-known as La Ferrarese.
First performed on 26 January 1790, this comedy of amorous errors went down better than either of its predecessors in Vienna – but less so with posterity, which considered its subject-matter vulgar, frivolous or plain immoral. Not until the mid-1930s did a celebrated Busch-Ebert production at Glyndebourne win Cosi its rightful place in the Mozart-Da Ponte pantheon alongside Figaro and Don Giovanni. So limited was the success of Cosi in his lifetime that Da Ponte barely mentions it in his vainglorious memoirs. While boasting that it was his words which had enabled Mozart’s music to ring round the world, he uses his own original title when naming La Scuola d’Amanti – ‘an opera that holds third place among the three sisters born of that most celebrated father of harmony’ – only in the context of his love for 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 rivals at court were busy persuading the new emperor, Leopold II, that his poet had been plotting against him. Soon Da Ponte found himself forbidden entry to the Imperial Theatre, to see one of his own operas. Within days, as he had been from Venice ten years before, Da Ponte was banished from Vienna.
Move to London
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 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 Café 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, then dedicated to Italian opera. But the gullible Da Ponte fell foul of the theatre’s wily 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 for debt all of thirty times in three months.
The New World
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 yet again faced arrest. This time Da Ponte decided to run for it. He did a midnight flit to Gravesend, where he boarded the Columbia for Philadelphia.
Da Ponte would never return to Europe. After that false start as a grocer, he found work as a teacher of Italian, and made it his personal mission to infuse the New World with a love and knowledge of Italian culture and cuisine. After a diversion to Pennsylvania, where he ran a millinery and a distillery, he returned to New York in 1825 to take up the Professorship at Columbia which still bears his name. Three years later, as he neared 80, he brought the first Italian opera company to America, not least for a performance of ‘his’ Don Giovanni. In his final decade he built and ran America’s first opera house, in Greenwich Village.
He died in 1838, five months before his 90th birthday, and lies buried in the Catholic Cemetery in Queen’s, the world’s largest, beneath the roar of the jets descending into JFK. This proud if hedonistic aesthete would be as surprised as dismayed to know that those few pilgrims who come to pay their respects do so solely because of his collaboration with Mozart, whom he had known for just seven of his 90 years.
Anthony Holden’s biography of Lorenzo Da Ponte, The Man Who Wrote Mozart, is published in paperback by Phoenix.