October 25, 2006
There's Rogers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Loewe, Gilbert and Sullivan, George and Ira, and so it goes, but what about librettists? How come in opera only the composer gets major billing? Mozart and . . . ?
Rodney Bolt fills the gap with a fascinating biography of a fascinating character — Lorenzo Da Ponte, whose sparking words inform Le Nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni, Cos' Fan Tutti, among numerous other pieces he wrote for Mozart and for others, including Salieri, becoming one of the most prolific, remarkable and bizarre characters in musical history. But he was undoubtedly Wolfgang Amade (yes, that's the way he spelled it) Mozart's best collaborator. Librettists often get ignored, Bolt notes, because of the "sorry quality of the libretto, but at his best, Da Ponte warrants praise and attention."
Da Ponte's story, so incredible, seems right out of opera buffa. A poor Jewish boy from Ceneda, in the province of Treviso, his father, an impoverished leatherworker, converted the family a year after Emannuele Conegliano's bar mitzvah (the new name, Da Ponte, came from the presiding bishop).
Lorenzo, who became a priest (a sure-fire way to get an education and obviously no impediment to love affairs and resulting progeny), was a superb linguist, charmer, manipulator, impresario and poet. He also, in time, became a founder of Italian opera in provincial America and a memoirist, writing five egoistic volumes full of scandal and intrigue.
All through his life, when he was not self-destructing, he took places by storm — Venice, Vienna, London, and, eventually, Lower Manhattan, where he became a grocer and then, failing at that, a bookseller, tutor of Italian and teacher, Columbia College's first professor of Italian, in fact.
He died in New York in 1838 at the age of 89, having been at turns admired, banished, impoverished, enriched, feted, attacked and loved. Bolt aptly calls him a "serial romantic."
Said to have been extremely handsome, even after he became virtually toothless (the result of a cuckolded rival's giving him a so-called balm for sore gums), he managed to attract in midlife the steady affection of Nancy, a wealthy English woman who became his wife of sorts for 40 years and stood by him as he kept blowing advantages on improbable schemes.
Despite his often impolitic and temper-ridden behavior, he was admirably constant in his love of Italian letters and literature and his humor and wit made him a natural for Mozart. Bolt fairly shows Da Ponte as the vain, often venomous and reckless libertine he was, with a gift for exciting the worst in others, but he also shows Da Ponte to have been a successful charmer, able to wheedle significant positions with the aid of significant friends.
In New York he became a favorite of high society, including the aristocratic Clement ("Twas the Night Before Christmas") Clarke Moore, who became a generous advocate and financial supporter.
Rodney Bolt, an award-winning theatre director and writer, has a big book here, replete with endnotes, appendices and index. Scrupulously researched, it is not only a fine biography but an engaging history of the times, and what times they were! Bolt brings to life not just the carnival that was Venice in the 18th-century — in all its sights and smells, rivalries, gossip and intrigue — but also sniffs out the new political stirrings in Hapsburg Europe, particularly Enlightenment ideas, inspired in no small part by the American Revolution.
That some of this revolutionary fervor could be found in the breast of Emperor Joseph II, brother of Marie Antoinette, is ironic: a highly literate and cultured ruler, the emperor took a chance on the as-yet-untried Da Ponte and appointed him opera poet to his court. The story of Da Ponte and his times is, as Bolt says, a story of four eras and four cities. Never the hero or left entirely in the wings, Lorenzo Da Ponte was, in his own words "one of the leading players."
His disastrous lack of business sense never seemed to have dimmed his innovative and creative drive at a time when censorship and lack of copyright made those whose livelihood depended on being recognized dependent upon favors. Da Ponte, like everyone else, borrowed freely for plots and motifs, but no doubt also exploited source material close to home. Mozart's Lorenzo Da Ponte — it's hard to believe that his bones lie in an unmarked grave somewhere in Calvary Cemetery in Queens.
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. Photos.