- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 12, 2006

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, $29.95, 428 pages

REVIEWED BY MARION ELIZABETH RODGERS

In this 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birth, you may hear words from the opera “Don Giovanni” attributed — unfairly, as it turns out — to Mozart. In the world of popular musicals, lyricist and composer receive equal billing. In opera, the writer is all but ignored.

Now, Rodney Bolt redresses the imbalance in his colorful new book, “The Librettist of Venice: The Remarkable Life of Lorenzo Da Ponte,” a lively portrait of a poet, priest and womanizer who wrote the words to some of the greatest operas in history — and ended his days as a grocer in New York City.

Born in 1749, in a Jewish ghetto, Emanuele Conegliano was the eldest son of a tanner. His family sought acceptance in Venetian society by converting to Catholicism. Rechristened Lorenzo Da Ponte after his sponsor, Bishop Da Ponte, the boy received a classical education at seminaries, where he became an ordained priest and professor.

But the temptations of 18th-century Venice, in the throes of a seductive, fancy dress-ball, proved to be too much for this dashing young abbe. Like his friend, the philanderer and adventurer Giacomo Casanova, Da Ponte spread scandal and illegitimate children in his wake. One of the strengths of this book is Mr. Bolt’s ability to interweave the time and place of four cities — Venice, Vienna, London and New York — at fascinating moments of their histories.

Yet the raucous whirl that enveloped Da Ponte in Venice reads less like Tom Jones and more like a jumpy, fast-paced edited film, with enough breathless asides in parentheses to be annoying. It is with some relief that Da Ponte’s numerous affairs come to an abrupt (albeit temporary) end when he is banished from Venice and finds himself without home or work.

Lorenzo Da Ponte, however, was a man who knew how to live on his wits. Eventually he arrived in Vienna in 1781, armed with a letter of introduction to the court composer, Antonio Salieri, who persuaded Hapsburg Emperor Joseph II to appoint Da Ponte his theater-poet.

Here Da Ponte met a young, impoverished composer from Salzburg. Wolfgang Mozart was ecstatic at meeting the eminent abbe. Opera buffa was Da Ponte’s speciality and Mozart’s aspiration. Instead of portraying abstract ideals, Mozart wanted to explore issues in a realistic manner, with characters with whom the audience could identify. In a letter to his father, Mozart emphasized the importance of meeting “an able poet, that true phoenix” who could craft words to his music.

One can see them now: Mozart, a thin, pale prodigy with fleshy hands, and Da Ponte, the robust poet, seven years his senior. In personality, the two were similar. As dandies, both enjoyed stylistic finery; both were tremendous flirts who craved affection but who were also “as touchy as gunpowder” to the most innocuous slights. Both were seeking fame and fortune.

Together, they collaborated on three operas: La Nozze de Figaro (1786), Don Giovanni (1787) and Cosi fan tutte (1790) — three masterpieces in four years. In those days, operas were written for a special occasion, often discarded after their initial run. Although Mozart and Da Ponte were writing to meet a deadline and trying to ensure enough success to secure their next commission, as Mr. Bolt points out, “It is a mark of their genius that the conditions did not produce banality, but three of the most sublime operas ever composed.”

In Da Ponte, Mozart had met his “true phoenix.” Theirs was a model of give-and-take. (During the rehearsals of “Don Giovanni,” the two men occupied apartments at opposite ends of the street and communicated by yelling to each other back and forth; the two houses in Prague still bear plaques.)

Together composer and librettist displayed a symbiosis akin to that of Gilbert and Sullivan, Strauss and von Hofmannstahl. Mozart’s music enriched Da Ponte’s libretto with shades of satire and affection. Da Ponte, in turn, was able to mold each aria to suit Mozart’s music. With their talent for structure and pace, in alternating moments of parody and beauty, the pair transformed opera into an art form.

Mr. Bolt is at his best at exploring the relationship between composer and librettist. He takes us behind the scenes of the composition of each of these three operas, with all of the intrigues and backbiting. Especially interesting is the back story behind “La Nozze de Figaro,” and how Mozart and Da Ponte triumphed in getting the emperor to endorse a notoriously banned work.

Unfortunately for Da Ponte, his life was, as Mr. Bolt puts it, “a continued series of calamities,” in part of his own making. His inexperience as a politician alienated many, including Salieri and the emperor. His next stop was London, where he worked as poet to the King’s Theater in Haymarket.

Bad business deals, however, plagued him. In three months, Da Ponte was arrested and imprisoned 30 times. Forced to declare bankruptcy to avoid debtor’s prison, Da Ponte decided to make a run for it — to New York. His sole possessions were items for resale, among them a violin and a trunk of cherished Italian books.

Da Ponte’s voyage across the Atlantic was disastrous. Horrendous gales overwhelmed passengers on board, human and animal; even the livestock went reeling and spewing across the deck. At the end of 57 miserable days, Da Ponte arrived to the New World on June 4, 1805.

The image of a penniless immigrant trying to reinvent himself on American soil has become a cliche; in Da Ponte’s life it is downright operatic. As Da Ponte stepped ashore the world’s newest democratic nation, he was infused with optimism at finding “happiness in a country which I thought free.” As he said, “He who believes in dreams is mad; and he who does not believe in them — what is he?”

But fulfilling the American Dream in his adopted homeland was not so easy. For the next 30 odd years, Da Ponte struggled. In New York City, he opened a grocery store. Even he was bemused by the irony: The poet who had once enjoyed the company of nobility in Venice, Vienna and London was reduced to weighing out ounces of tea to cobblers and coachmen. To supplement his income, he tried bookselling; that, too, failed. (Eventually, Da Ponte donated many of his Italian books to the New York Society Library.)

Ever the optimist, Da Ponte opened New York’s first opera company — but was unable to sustain it. At the end of his life he returned to academia, becoming Columbia University’s first professor of Italian, but found the student body disinterested in what he had to share. He died in 1838, at age 89. Decades later, his bones were dug up and transferred to a cemetery in Queens.

Nonetheless, like the phoenix of myth, Da Ponte has risen from the ashes. In 1987, a monument was erected to his remains, even though it was not clear they really were his. Currently, a glittering new exhibition on “Lorenzo Da Ponte, Challenging the New World” is being shown until September 17 in Vienna, at the Palais Eskeles. And now, with this dramatic new biography, Da Ponte’s remarkable life and his place in posterity seems assured, as a reminder, in the words of the dedication, of the value of “those who shine in small corners.”

Marion Elizabeth Rodgers is the author of “Mencken: The American Iconoclast.”

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