• When I was an undergraduate music student, there were two pieces of New York-related classical-music trivia guaranteed to reduce the most unruly class to stunned (if short-lived) silence. One was that Leonard Bernstein was listed in the Manhattan phone book, and the other was that Lorenzo Da Ponte was buried in Queens. Bernstein has since acquired a new number, but Da Ponte’s bones can still be found in a common grave within the city limits of New York. From time to time this fact comes to the attention of a local newspaper editor, who thereupon commissions a feature story about the complicated life of the man who wrote the libretti for Don Giovanni, Le Nozze di Figaro and Così fan tutte.
I humbly confess that until last week, everything I knew about Lorenzo Da Ponte could easily have been crammed into the compass of a shortish feature story. Now, however, I know enough to fill a book. The book in question is Rodney Bolt’s The Librettist of Venice: The Remarkable Life of Lorenzo Da Ponte, Mozart’s Poet, Casanova’s Friend, and Italian Opera’s Impresario in America, a fully sourced biography that is nonetheless intended for the edification of a non-scholarly audience. Bolt is a director-turned-travel writer who has a lively style, a good eye for detail, and a fabulous story to tell, all of which add up to an exceedingly readable book.
It would, I suppose, be all but impossible to write an unreadable book about Da Ponte. He was born a Jew, became a Roman Catholic priest, and married at 43, having hitherto conducted his private life along lines not unlike those of his old friend Giacomo Casanova, in evidence of which I offer these two deliciously characteristic sentences from his Memoirs:
A beautiful girl of sixteen (I should have preferred to love her only as a daughter, but . . . ) was living in the house with her mother, who took care of the family, and would come to my room at the sound of the bell. To tell the truth, I rang the bell quite often, especially at moments when I felt my inspiration flagging.
A famously charming fellow far more interested in writing poetry than performing his priestly duties, the Abbé Da Ponte was duly expelled from Venice and made his way to Vienna, where he somehow contrived to become the Emperor Joseph II’s house librettist. There he began his collaboration with Mozart, for whom he wrote what are now generally regarded as the first great opera libretti. He also continued his friendship with Casanova, who was, believe it or not, present at the first performance of Don Giovanni, a coincidence that is almost too good to be true.
Bolt writes very well about the Mozart-Da Ponte collaboration, especially the creation of Così, a worldly, startlingly modern comedy of disillusionment and acceptance whose emotional complexities are no more easily unraveled in 2007 than they were in 1790:
Mozart and Da Ponte created a work that would have critics arguing for centuries, berating it then rescuing it, damning it for its cynicism and triviality, lauding it for its complexity . . . Mozart’s music enriched Da Ponte’s libretto with shades and further ambiguities, softening crueler edges, adding lacquer-layers of meaning and affection, pointing moments of satire. As before, composer and poet delicately stitched the comic and the serious together, and made their mix even more complex by an interplay of real and faked emotions, histrionic bombast and moments of transporting beauty . . . Così fan tutte was Les Liaisons dangereuses with heart.
From Vienna Da Ponte made his way to London, then New York, where he became Columbia University’s first professor of Italian after having run a grocery store and a bookshop whose customers included Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. (Presumably he was the only person to have known Longfellow, Mozart, and Casanova.) All these adventures and many others like them are skillfully recounted in The Librettist of Venice, and if Rodney Bolt occasionally fails to make them especially plausible-sounding . . . well, sometimes real life is like that.