Lively biography of the Italian librettist of Mozart’s three most famous operas emphasizes his restless desire for distinction.
Lorenzo Da Ponte (1749–1838) insinuated himself into the elite cultural life of Venice, Vienna, London and New York through the sheer force of his energy, talent and boldness, avers Bolt (History Play, 2005). Born to Jewish parents in the State of Venice, Da Ponte converted to Christianity and seized the new opportunity for education and patronage by becoming a priest, a gifted teacher of seminarians and a poet capable of remarkable improvisations to the accompaniment of a violin or harpsichord. An affair with a married woman forced him into exile in music-mad Vienna; there, under the protection of Emperor Joseph II, he became poet to the court theatre and the newly established Italian opera company. He collaborated with Salieri, Martín y Soler and most memorably with Mozart; Don Giovanni, The Marriage of Figaro and Cosi fan tutte are still staples of today’s repertory. Bolt is at his best examining this high point of Da Ponte’s life, taking us behind the scenes to dissect not only the composition of the operas but also the politicking, backbiting and pettiness of all those involved in this collaborative art. The withdrawal of royal patronage, a new emperor and some political intrigue led to his departure for London, where the vogue for all things Italian meant money to support his new wife and his many siblings still in Venice. As the impresario of the King’s Theatre, he rewrote operas to suit the unsophisticated English audience’s taste. Bad business deals reduced him to bookselling and finally to fleeing for New York to escape his debts. In the New World for his last 32 years, Da Ponte pieced together a life as a grocer, bookseller and teacher (Columbia’s first professor of Italian), serving as Italy’s informal cultural ambassador.
A thorough, well-rendered account of Da Ponte’s unique talents.