THE LIBRETTIST OF VENICE
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.