LORENZO DA PONTE, MOZARTíS LIBRETTIST


Operas and operettas are usually referred to by the name of the composer alone, the librettist being relegated to a Limbo-like existence. Who, for example, could tell me the names offhand of the librettists of such popular operas as Bizetís Carmen, Verdiís La Traviata or Rossiniís Barber of Seville?

(Answers: Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halevy; Francesco Maria Piave; Cesare Sterbini). Itís more likely that people could identify the authors whose works were adapted into these very popular operas: Prosper Mérimée; Alexandre Dumas fils; Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais.) But even so, the composer reigns supreme. There is even an opera (with music by Antonio Salieri and words by the Abbé Gian Battista Casti) called Prima la musica e poi le parole. And Richard Straussí last opera Capriccio (with libretto, amazingly, by the famous conductor Clemens Krauss) investigates the question of the relative importance of music and text with, it seems, no firm conclusion.

One important exception to the supremacy of the composer in the field of operetta is the tandem of Gilbert (words) and Sullivan (music). But even there, in the Metropolitan Operaís house publication Opera News one always finds G&S operettas listed as by "Sullivan." On Broadway, however, the lyricist and the composer generally share top billing as in "Rodgers and Hammerstein," or "Rodgers and Hart."

There are at least two important composer-librettist collaborations in which, even though the librettist be usually ignored by the general opera-going public, the musically aware concede to the librettist a role almost on a par with that of the composer. First, there is the famous collaboration of Hugo von Hofmannsthal who wrote the libretti for all of Richard Straussí best-known operas (except for Salome). These collaborations included Elektra, Der Rosenkavalier, Ariadne auf Naxos, Die Frau ohne Schatten, Die Aegyptische Helena and Arabella. Arabella premiered in 1933 by which time von Hofmannsthal had already been dead for four years, thus putting the quietus on the collaboration. Although Strauss wrote five subsequent operas including, in 1935, Die Schweigsame Frau to a libretto by Stefan Zweig, none of these attained the greatness of his earlier works. Most operatic musicologists consider von Hofmannstahlís contributions to have been crucial.

But this talk is not about Strauss and von Hofmannstahl. Itís about Mozart and his librettist Lorenzo da Ponte. While Mozart and da Ponte collaborated on only three operas, half the number of Strauss and von Hofmannstahl, these three operas are considered by everybody to be among the greatest ever written. In fact, many scholars of opera consider them 1-2-3, the major argument being their order in this ranking. The operas, in order of appearance, are Le Nozze di Figaro (1786); Don Giovanni (1787); and Così fan tutte (1790). Note how much faster this pair worked than Strauss and von Hofmannsthal: three operas in four years compared to six in 24. (Just by way of comparison, Gilbert and Sullivan wrote 14 operas in 25 years.)

Jonathon Miller, the famous director and Mozart scholar, thinks Don Giovanni is the greatest opera ever written. Victoria Bond, formerly conductor of both the Roanoke Symphony and Opera Roanoke, considers Figaro to be number one. I personally cast my vote for Così. And so it goes; if even knowledgeable people agreed on everything thereíd be no need for an election in November.

So who was this Lorenzo da Ponte, anyway? He was born Emanuele Conegliano in Ceneda, Italy in 1749. Ceneda is about 60 km. north of Venice and was a part of the Venitian Republic which, in 1866, merged with neighboring Serravale and was renamed Vittorio Veneto. If you visit this town you can still find the house where da Ponte lived.

Da Ponte and his family were Jewish and, in fact, Venice was one of the few areas in Europe at that time were Jews were given even token equality with Christians (although they still had to live in a ghetto). But Emanueleís mother died in 1754 and when his father decided to marry a Christian woman, in 1763, the entire family had to convert to Catholicism. The Bishop who baptized the Conegliano family was named Lorenzo da Ponte. As was the custom, the family took his surname and the eldest son his Christian name, Lorenzo.

Our Lorenzo and his two brothers, who had taken the saintsí names Girolamo and Gasparo, were enrolled in the seminary at Ceneda, ostensibly to train for the priesthood. Lorenzo excelled in his studies, learning Latin and Greek and studying all of the important writers of antiquityóAeschylus, Sophocles, Virgil, Ovid etc. etc. as well as the great Italian writers, especially Dante but also Petrarch, Tasso and Ariosto. (He claimed in a period of six months to have memorized almost the entire Inferno.) In 1765 da Ponte took minor orders and, in 1769, entered the seminary at Portogruaro, a town between Ceneda and Venice. He was ordained to the priesthood in 1773, but apparently never worked as a priest.

Even while he was in the seminary he was spending considerable time in Venice where he had taken as mistress a married woman named Angiola Teipolo. After his ordination he moved to Venice on a full-time basis, but after a year he obtained a teaching postion in Treviso, a nearby town. His sexual peccadilloes with Angiola and after their breakup with another married woman, Angioletta Bellaudi, led to his dismissal from his teaching position and, ultimately, to his exile from Venice (in 1779). He was now 30 years old, and living from hand to mouth, basically impoverished. In fact, this was to be his status throughout his entire life. He never had much money, being very poorly paid for the many opera librettos he eventually was to write and failing in all his business ventures. How he managed to survive and even to support the woman who eventually became his common-law wife (not to mention their four or five children) is a complete mystery. He was a devoted son and for many years sent money to his family back in Italy, even when he really didnít have any. This family included his father, stepmother, brothers and a number of half-siblings.

After leaving Venice, Da Ponte knocked around for a couple of years in the Austrian Empire (including Dresden, where he hoped, in vain, to become court poet,

a position which meant that he would write libretti for operas to be performed in the state theater). It is important to remember that in those days operas were pretty much discarded after their initial run of performances. They were written for the occasion, and for the particular singers available. There was no thought of their being handed down to posterity. So for any given opera season the official or court poet might find plenty of work as there were few "revivals." And even "revived" operas usually had to be rewritten to satisfy the local lord and/or the available singers.

Failing to find work in Dresden, da Ponte then headed to Vienna, arriving in 1781. At this time Emperor Joseph II had abolished the Italian opera theater in favor of German singspiel (Mozart provided The Abduction from the Seraglio for this theater in 1782). However, the Emperor changed his mind, and revived the Italian theater a year later. Da Ponte was in the right place at the right time, and managed to get himself appointed poet to this theater. (A recommendation from Metastasio who lived in Vienna and who had become friends with da Ponte didnít hurt.) At this time da Ponte met Mozart, and their collaboration got underway.

The term "court poet" is somewhat misleading. While a librettist needs poetic ability, his skills are entirely different from those of an ordinary poet like Shelly or Keats. The librettist in a sense needs the combined skills of a playwright and a poet, except that his "plays" cannot stand alone nor can his poetry. Of the well-known librettists who come to mind like da Ponte, von Hofmannstahl, Metastasio and W.S. Gilbert, only Gilbert was well known as a poet aside from his libretti, and Gilbert's published poetry is, by and large, humorous doggerel, for example the Bab Ballads. (Gilbert wrote some distinctly second-rate plays as well.) Shakespeare, was both a playwright and a poet, of course, but except for A Midsummer Night's Dream set by Benjamin Britten to an almost verbatim text, Shakespeare's plays had to be rewritten by librettists when they were turned into operas.

But in those years until he left Vienna (in 1791) da Ponte wrote many other libretti besides the "big three." He collaborated with composers like Salieri, Martin y Soler, Pittichio, Paisiello and others too numerous to mention. (For example in 1786 alone he wrote the libretti for six operas.) The only one of these many operas that anyone today has ever heard of is Solerís Una cosa rara (1786). Contemporary opinion was that it was a masterpiece; it was much more popular than any of the Mozart operas. Today, of course, it would have been completely forgotten except for the fact that it is quoted in the final, banquet scene of Don Giovanni. Two other operas are quoted in this scene as well: Figaro and Fra i due litiganti. Since both Cosa rara and Figaro had texts by da Ponte, it is reasonable to conjecture that he also wrote the libretto for Litiganti. (The music was composed by Giuseppe Sarti, and the opera premiered in 1782, but the librettist is officially listed as "ignoto.")

Mozart and da Ponte worked in a true collaborative relationship in producing their three joint operas. For example, during the writing of Don Giovanni, which was premiered in Prague, Mozart and da Ponte occupied apartments on opposite sides of the same street and used to communicate with each other by yelling back and forth. If you visit Prague you can find these two houses which bear plaques commemorating these two men. One of da Ponteís mistresses during his 10 years in Vienna was Adriana Gabrieli, a fine singer with a stupendous range, known as "La Ferrarese." (As usual, she was married.) Mozart hated this woman, but nonetheless da Ponte prevailed on him to cast her as Fiordiligi in Così. However, Mozart got even by writing an impossible aria for her to sing, "Come scoglio." This aria with its wide intervals and absurd jumps from the top to the bottom of the soprano range was intended to poke fun at La Ferrarese who was no favorite of Mozartís, either personally or artistically. There are leaps, for example, from an f above the staff to a d below (a tenth) followed almost immediately with a jump from a g above the staff to a b below. (Thatís a 13th! Who ever heard of a 13th?) Itís followed immediately by an upward leaping 12th!)

It is worth noting that da Ponte and Giovanni Jacopo Casanova were close friends, a relationship which might have colored da Ponteís rendition of the Don Juan legend (Casanova was actually in Prague for the premiere of Don Giovanni.) In fact, there are as many theories as there are analysts as to what Don Giovanni really means. Many of these are studied in a fine book by Jonathon Miller "Myths of Seduction." Some of the theories:

1. Don Giovanni is a proud and arrogant man nobleman who refuses to repentbecause to do so      would demonstrate weakness.

2. The opera is a statement of the Enlightenment, which discarded organized religion and, hence, religionís major tabu, sexual permissivity.

3. The Don is a latent homosexual whose continual seductions are a method of self-denial. (I might mention that Miller, who is an M.D., seems to like this theory.

4.The Don is acting out an Oedipal attachment to his mother.

5. My theory: The play is complete satire, lampooning theViennese nobility by representing them as the shallow nobility of the opera. This theory has credence lent to it by the presence in the banquet scene of Viennese song (the three operas mentioned above) and Viennese wine (Marzemino) as well as Viennese dances in the Act. I finale.

When Joseph II died, in 1790, imperial support of the opera ended. Mozart died in 1791, the same year that da Ponte left Vienna after losing his job as poet to the Italian opera company. He went to Trieste first where in 1892 he met and married (common-law probably) Nancy Grahl, an Englishwoman. In 1793 they moved to England where da Ponte had connections. He managed to get himself appointed poet to Italian opera at the Kingís Theater. His job there continued intermittently until 1804, when he decided to move to New York. (The continual intrigue in London involving withholding of salaries, competition for the poetís jobóda Ponte was fired and rehired several timesóreads almost like a spy story. Eventually da Ponte was forced to declare bankruptcy in order to avoid debtorís prison.)

Da Ponte spent 35 years in the United States, until he died in 1838 at the age of 89. He first settled in New York, where he first tried to earn a living by opening a grocery store in the Bowery. In 1805 he moved with his family to Elizabethville, PA, a small town near the Susquehanna River about 50 miles upstream from Harrisburg and abut 100 miles northwest of Philadelphia. The grocery store he opened failed, and in 1807 he returned to New York. He made one more foray into Pennsylvania; from 1811 to 1818 he lived in Sunbury, another small town near Elizabethville, where his in-laws, the Grahls, had settled. In 1818 he moved to Philadelphia, having been unable to make a living in Sunbury, and finally, in 1819 returned to New York for the last time.

Da Ponte had previously met and become friendly with Clement Clark Moore, the author of A visit from St. Nicholas. Mooreís father was a bishop and the president of Columbia College (now Columbia University) and through the auspices of the Moores da Ponte became the first professor of Italian at Columbia. As this was an unpaid job, he struggled to make a living by teaching; opening an Italian book store, bringing Italian opera companies to the United States and various other enterprises. He brought famous singers to New york, for example Manuel Garcia and his daughter Maria, later Maria Malibran. However artistically successful these opera productions may have been, they lost money and soon the project was abandoned.

Da Ponte, who had become an American citizen in 1828, died ten years later, and was interred in the Catholic cemetery at 11th Street and Fifth Avenue. The planned headstone never materialize, and so da Ponteís burial place, like Mozartís, is unknown. (In 1909 all the bodies were disinterred and moved to Calvary Cemetery in Queens, but efforts to identify da Ponteís body have been unavailing.)

Why were da Ponteís collaborative efforts with Mozart so successful? Many writers, for example Donald Jay Grout in his book A short history of opera give most of the credit to Mozartís music. But neither of the two operas Mozart wrote after his collaboration with da Ponte ended, The magic flute and La clemenza di Tito come anywhere near to his three operas with da Ponte. (The magic flute may contain his most noble music, as many opera lovers aver, but its libretto is so weak that it canít be considered a serious competitor to the da Ponte operas.)

Of course Mozartís music is an essential ingredient, otherwise da Ponteís many operas with other composers would not have moved into Limbo. So we might conclude that the da Ponte-Mozart team displayed a symbiosis akin to that to Gilbert and Sullivan and Strauss and von Hofmannstahl (we have already noted how closely they collaborated). But collaboration was not sufficient. Da Ponte himself was a genius. His deep knowledge of classical and Italian literature is very evident in his libretti; for example, many lines in Don Giovanni come more or less directly from Dante. He was not original in the sense of creating plots, but rather in adapting text from previously published works (as from Beaumarchais, for example). But he had the ability to make beautiful poetry of these adaptations. I want to conclude by reading and playing a portion of the text of Così fan tutte. Even though you may not understand Italian, you still might be able to appreciate the beautiful cadence and imagery of the lines.