City Journal Home.      
Spring 2001
City Journal Spring 2001.
Click to visit City Journal California
Get the Free App on iTunes
NEW BOOK:
The Voodoo That They Did So Well: The Wizards Who Invented the New York Stage
by Stefan Kanfer
The Voodoo That They Did So Well: The Wizards Who Invented the New York Stage.
 
  U rbanities

A Little Touch of Mozart in New York
Stefan Kanfer
EMAIL
RESPOND
PRINT
SHARE

Amid the braying of car alarms, the thud of radio rap, the squeal and grinding of garbage trucks, New York's stony canyons and grimy streets seem a universe away from the magic and moonlight of Mozart's operas, with their harmony and balance, their moments of aching tenderness, their delicacy and subtlety, their urbane and transfiguring understanding of the human heart. But the world always turns out smaller than we think. And at Calvary Cemetery in Flushing, Queens, a stone memorial facing out toward Laurel Boulevard links these Mozartean masterpieces more closely to New York than anyone sitting in Lincoln Center, swept up by the music, could possibly imagine. For the stone tells us that buried somewhere in the cemetery—where, exactly, no one knows—is the man who wrote the libretti to The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Così Fan Tutte: Lorenzo Da Ponte, New Yorker.

Unlikely, yes: but Da Ponte's whole life seems like a total fabrication. Here is a figure who rose from obscurity to create masterworks with the greatest musical mind of all time. Here is a poet who abandoned his vocation to sell tobacco. Here is a Jew who turned Catholic and worshiped at Anglican services. Here is a priest who seduced women, a teacher without pupils, a famous Italian who became an obscure American, a reverse Midas who tried to go for the gold and lost money at whatever he touched. And here, too, no less improbably, is Columbia's first professor of Italian.

According to his argumentative, self-defensive memoirs, Lorenzo Da Ponte is always correct and almost everyone else catastrophically mistaken. "I believe," he writes, "my heart is made of a different stuff than other men. I am like the soldier who, spurred on by the longing for glory, rushes against the mouth of the cannon; like the ardent lover who flings himself into the arms of a woman who torments him." Alas, "I dreamt of roses and laurels; but from the roses I had only thorns, and from the laurels bitterness! So goes the world!" An over-the-top assessment? No doubt. Then again, this was an over-the-top personality.

It is in 1783 that the name Da Ponte first crops up in the correspondence of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. "A certain Abbé has promised to write a new libretto," the composer informs his father. "But who knows whether he will be able to keep his word or will want to." In fact, the librettist was better than his word. The first collaboration of this extraordinary pair was The Marriage of Figaro. How that marriage was arranged could provide the plot for a comic opera.

Lorenzo Da Ponte was born Emanuele Conegliano on March 10, 1749, in a little town near Venice. His widowed father, a Jewish leather dealer, took a second wife when the boy was 14. The elder Da Ponte adopted his young bride's religion, and in accordance with custom Emanuele was baptized in the name of the local bishop, Lorenzo Da Ponte. Young Lorenzo did more than genuflect to Roman Catholicism; he embraced his new faith with zeal. Quickly rising from acolyte to seminarian, he mastered Greek, Hebrew, and Latin, and became a fluent versifier in both Italian and Latin.

Church authorities recognized Lorenzo's lively intelligence, ordained him a priest, and promoted him to professor. These elevations would have sated any ordinary arriviste. Not Lorenzo. For him this was merely the on-ramp to the Main Chance. For an ambitious Italian of the 1760s, Venice was the high-voltage place to be. Fashion had created a strange democracy in that city. The highly stylized masks worn in the daytime as well as at night made a newcomer always uncertain whether he was saluting a duke or a nobody. And Venice was truly an all-night town. Well past midnight, large oil lamps lit up its streets, and its bustling cafés stayed open into the small hours. Moreover, military victories, weddings, signings of treaties, religious occasions—all sparked colorful, noisy ceremonies, making the place always seem an unending party. Hard for a lively young man to resist such an arena.

Without bothering to ask permission, Da Ponte took off for Venice, anxious to rub shoulders, as well as other body parts, with Europe's glitterati. Once there, the dashing young poet-priest donned his mask, wrote reams of verse, gambled, met aristocrats, and absorbed the counsel of his new friend, Giovanni Casanova. ("The easiest way to overcome a woman's virtue is to assume it is not there in the first place." "Praise the beautiful for their intelligence and the intelligent for their beauty.") He gave ear to the music that filled the public squares from dusk until dawn. It was like walking onto an opera stage. "If two of the common people walk together arm in arm," wrote a contemporary visitor, "they are always singing, and seem to converse in song; if there is company on the water, it is the same; a mere melody, unaccompanied with a second part, is not to be heard in this city; most of the ballads in the streets are to be sung to a duo."

Da Ponte's life rapidly took on aspects of a libretto. Contemporary descriptions show him as striking: elegant in stature, witty in presentation, with abundant black hair and deep-set, glowing eyes. Confuting the adage, he was lucky in cards and in love. His memoirs recall the day that he loaned a fellow gambler a handful of gold coins; in gratitude, the man offered his stepdaughter's hand in marriage. Da Ponte the man-about-town magnanimously refused; Da Ponte the memoirist neglects to mention that he had already acquired a mistress. The woman's name was Angioletta Tiepolo, and she told prying neighbors that she was Lorenzo's sister. Masked or not, the couple's deception fooled few; behind her back the neighbors whispered of "the priest's whore." Even in a place of licentiousness, the notion of a man of the cloth involved with a demimondaine was scandalous. For a time, Lorenzo was obliged to lie low.

What finally undid him, however, was not sexual transgressions but political ones. Among the objects Lorenzo couldn't keep sheathed was his pen. He circulated a signed poem criticizing the corrupt Venetian government. In September 1779, orders went out for the arrest of a Signor Da Ponte for the crime of sedition.

Just in time, the prudent accused bade farewell to Venetian wagering and Venetian women and headed for the safety of the Austrian Empire. In Vienna, a well-connected fellow seminarian gladly gave him a letter of introduction to a composer at the court of Emperor Joseph II. "Friend Salieri," it stated, "my good friend Da Ponte will bring you these few lines. Do for him everything that you would do for me. His heart and his talent merit whatever help you can give him."

Despite the buffeting that Antonio Salieri has received from playwright Peter Shaffer, the villain of Amadeus was a respected musician, whose pupils included Beethoven, Schubert, and Liszt. Salieri looked over Da Ponte's portfolio of poems, measured the young man's ready wit, presentable appearance, and exquisite manners, and helped get him a job adapting the works of other writers at the Italian Theater of Vienna, the emperor's favorite cultural institution.

Before long Da Ponte was collaborating with Salieri and with a young Spanish composer, Martín y Soler. But not until Mozart entered the scene did the fledgling librettist find a creative soulmate. Never inclined to modesty, Da Ponte claimed in his memoirs: "Although Mozart was gifted with talents greater, perhaps, than those of any other composer in the world, past, present or future, he had never been able, thanks to the cabals of his enemies, to exercise his divine genius in Vienna. . . . He remained unknown and obscure, like a precious stone that, buried in the bowels of the earth, hides the brilliant prize of its splendor. I can never remember without a sense of exultation and satisfaction that Europe and the world owe in great part the exquisite vocal compositions of this wonderful genius solely to my perseverance and firmness." 

Da Ponte's braggadocio was exaggerated but not false. Joseph II regarded Italian opera as superior to all others, and Mozart's rivals were quick to condemn the Salzburger wunderkind as incapable of writing arias, buffa or seria. Lorenzo lobbied long and hard to convince Joseph that Wolfgang Amadeus was the right man for the vocation of court composer. The emperor, who argued that Mozart wrote pieces with "too many notes," finally gave way.

Figaro was not a whimsical choice. Seeking to establish himself in Vienna with a major statement, Mozart suggested basing an opera on the Beaumarchais comedy not in spite of, but because of, its controversial plot. The play satirized the nobility and made a commoner—a haircutter, no less—the protagonist. Louis XVI had been so put off by this theme that he forbade a production on the French stage. "We should have to destroy the Bastille," he declared, "if a performance of this play was not to be considered a dangerous blunder. This writer mocks everything that must be respected in a government."

Though he felt less insecure than Louis, the emperor was mindful of Voltaire's perception that "we live in curious times and amid astonishing contrasts: reason on the one hand, the most absurd fanaticism on the other." Joseph was torn between clinging to the ways of his forefathers and accommodating the new spirit of the age that could not long be resisted without violence. At last, in 1786, he gave permission to the musician Mozart and the poet Da Ponte—a remarkable gesture, considering that the American Revolution was less than a decade old and the French one was less than three years away. But the emperor's approach was more than amply rewarded. His country remained stable, and his place in history gains luster because he sponsored one of opera's signal achievements.

The two collaborators reinvigorated the Gallic farce about a servant, a maid, and a count. The count plots to exercise his droit de seigneur, the right of titled men to deflower the brides of lesser folk. The countess discovers his plan and decides to teach him, in collusion with the maid, a lesson about marriage and fidelity, a lesson that belongs not to the ancien régime but to the new era struggling to be born—as do the opera's attitudes about the dignity and inviolability (the rights, one might say) of all persons, regardless of rank. The proceedings, despite their charge of new moral and political attitudes, unfold as a wry and effervescent comedy, filled with charm and improbability—and with music whose beauty and joie de vivre have since made Figaro the world's most frequently performed opera. The debut was a sensation; audiences demanded encores from the performers—and from the authors. Da Ponte and Mozart were only too happy to comply. Over the next three years, they wrote two more operas, one dramatic, one comic, and both immortal.

Their second effort was based on Giovanni Bertati's one-act comedy about the legendary Don Juan. Without destroying the original, Da Ponte darkened it. If, under the comedy of Figaro, the audience can't help recalling at moments that, in real life, such a situation would have turned out much less happily, Don Giovanni so inextricably mixes the comic and the tragic that some singers have interpreted the Don as a frightening monster of egoistic cruelty, and others have portrayed him as a much more comic embodiment of appetite and lust. As in Figaro, here too Da Ponte and Mozart added to their meditation on sex also a meditation on class. The collaborators' attitude is encapsulated in the Don's greeting to guests he has treated cruelly: "Viva la libertà!" It is a freedom he has used to take advantage of others, a freedom soon to be denied the ruling class, in events that unleashed, as it turned out, even greater abuses of freedom.

Doubtless Da Ponte had a specific voluptuary in mind: "I felt myself born for the fair sex," wrote Lorenzo's friend Casanova in his autobiography, "and I have been loved by it as often and as much as I could"—precisely the feelings of the Don, who declares, "I need women more than the bread I consume or the air I breathe." But Lorenzo must also have looked into the mirror when he considered the great roué, whose smooth approach and good looks make him a master of seduction. Many years later, the librettist rationalized his numerous romances by proclaiming that he only conducted one at a time: "I have never said to a woman 'I love you' without knowing that I could love her without any breach of honor. Often my attentions, my glances and even compliments . . . were taken as declarations of love; but my mouth never sinned, and never without the consent of heart and reason did I try . . . to awaken in an innocent or credulous breast a passion which could only end in tears and remorse." The fact that Da Ponte was a serial womanizer was only one characteristic that separated him from Casanova. Unlike the elder man, the younger one had to earn a living, and he pursued his task with diligence.

Da Ponte and Mozart fashioned an opera of psychological insight and dramatic power—with that rarest attribute of opera, an alleviating sense of the absurd. Because the protagonist was no longer merely a comic object, both playwright and composer felt free to give the Don big moments and long, expressive arias that rivaled any stage drama. But whatever comedy Da Ponte took away from the Don, he gave to his sardonic servant, Leporello, who comments wryly on his master's doings and demonstrates that in art, as in life, every tragedy needs its counterweight. Da Ponte left no record of how he and Mozart collaborated. Did the tunes come first, or the lyrics? We will never know; Lorenzo was always more interested in recounting court politics than he was in describing the creative process. But a glimpse of the relationship can be found in the notes of a visitor, August Gottlieb Meissner, who was present when Mozart's friends importuned him for God's sake to finish the overture to Don Giovanni. With only 24 hours to go, the composer had still not written a note. Some sopranos enticed him indoors, then locked the room from the outside. Through a window, they told him that he would be a prisoner until he produced the required pages. Mozart, Meissner recalled, "broke into laughter, despite himself, as he saw the three women singers march up in line. They had shared out the long poles from the vines, which lay in a corner of the courtyard, and to each of them had tied the various requisites that the prisoner would need for the night.

" 'Here are two lamps—and a couple of bottles of wine—and cakes and sweets!' they called out as the various objects were balanced on the edge of the window-sill. Da Ponte, more down to earth than the others, appeared with a rake to which a chamberpot was attached, and cried, 'You'll need this too. Take it, divine maestro.'

" 'A pity it's empty,' Mozart retorted, 'otherwise it would be the worse for you.'

" 'Good night, Mozart. Tomorrow morning early we'll come and see if the overture is ready.'

" 'Yes, yes, all of us!' the ladies echoed. 'Good night, dearest Mozart, good night! Set to work.'"

The divine maestro set to work with Da Ponte one last time in 1790. Their opera, Così Fan Tutte ("They All Do It") remains our culture's wisest farce. Two young bravos swear that their girlfriends love them with unshakable fidelity. Their cynical, worldly-wise older friend scoffs and proposes a bet: let them pretend to go off to war, and then return, disguised as Albanian dignitaries, to attempt seductions—of each other's girls. Then they'll see that their inamoratas cannot remain faithful.

The men accept the wager, and the results, as all opera buffs know, are a hilarious and poignant acknowledgment of human frailty. As the canny and tolerant older friend watches the endearing Fiordiligi and Dorabella fall for two "strangers," he comments, "Everyone accuses females, but I understand if they change their affections a thousand times a day. Some call it a vice, others habit; but to me it seems a need of the heart."

Così's double understanding—that from one point of view one handsome boy is interchangeable with any other handsome boy, while from another point of view the person we choose is unique and special and the only one in the world for us—goes to the heart of the human condition, and the fondness and comic forbearance and harmony with which Mozart and Da Ponte express it is irresistible and redemptive. Da Ponte and Mozart didn't wallow in Weltschmertz. They knew that life was filled with tragedy, sorrow, and injustice, but it was irradiated with moments of humor, glory, hope, and love.

Through the years many critics, among them Beethoven, have taken Mozart to task for squandering his gifts on what they considered "trivia." But the trivia abides; it is the very pinnacle of man's comic genius, thanks not only to the composer's matchless music but to the librettist's sophisticated dialogue and his credible and sympathetic characters.

Alas, the magic was running out for both men. In the winter of 1790, after Così had been staged only five times, Emperor Joseph succumbed to a fever. The following year Mozart, overworked and impoverished, died at the age of 35. In a double blow, Da Ponte had lost his noble patron and his peerless colleague. The new emperor, Leopold, smiled on new favorites. Depressed that his standing in court had abruptly slipped, Lorenzo grew wary, then resentful. Once again he became his own worst enemy. A letter in blank verse circulated, defying the authority of the crown. Someone attributed it (correctly) to Lorenzo Da Ponte. Leopold gave Lorenzo a few months' severance pay and fired him. He decamped to Trieste, where he argued his case in letters, carried on a love affair with a leading soprano until her husband lured her back, and waited impatiently for an imperial pardon. Passing through, one of Leopold's courtiers gave him the final word: "Seek your living in Russia, in England or in France."

Da Ponte plunged into despair. But when spring came round, he met a young woman known around Trieste as la bella inglesina. This, it turned out, was to be the love of his life. Ann "Nancy" Grahl was the daughter of a German merchant who had spent many years in London. (Scuttlebutt said that he, like Da Ponte, had been born Jewish; whatever the case, the Grahls now worshiped at an Anglican cathedral.) Nancy was Lorenzo's junior by 20 years. She was taken with this older man, worn smooth by experience and still a celebrity of sorts; he was beguiled by her youth and beauty. In August of that year, her father gave permission for them to wed. According to Da Ponte's lively biographer, Sheila Hodges, rumor had it—as Casanova later heard in Venice—that "Lorenzo Da Ponte threw away his priestly collar in Trieste, married a cook and fled to America."

In truth, Nancy was not a cook; she was the tutor to the children of a prosperous Dutch family. Da Ponte did not throw away his priestly collar, because he wasn't wearing one. And he and Nancy may never have exchanged official vows. His memoirs only state that they lived together "after social ceremonies and formalities." As for fleeing to the New World, that is what Nancy's parents did. Lorenzo and Nancy headed for London, where Lorenzo felt certain that he could recoup his fortunes.

The sojourn was not a triumph. He wrote comic operas and—a financial catastrophe—became an impresario. He became a publisher of libretti—his own and others'—and when that business failed, he operated a bookstore, which also proved a financial disaster. He fathered two daughters. With bankruptcy looming ahead, in 1804 he encouraged his wife to take the children to the elder Grahls, now settled in Pennsylvania, while he stayed behind for one last try. In 1805, as creditors circled, he boarded a ship for Philadelphia and never saw Europe again.

John Grahl, after profitably speculating in land in rural Pennsylvania, had come to the familiar conclusion that the business of America was business. Regarding his son-in-law, he asked himself: What would be a suitable occupation for a lyricist and playwright who had revitalized Italian opera, collaborated with Mozart, dealt with Salieri, negotiated with emperors, and jested with Casanova? Why, running a general store in the City of Brotherly Love, of course. Da Ponte drily comments on this period: "Anyone with a grain of sense can imagine how I laughed to myself every time my poetical hand weighed out two ounces of tea, or measured half a yard of plug tobacco for a cobbler or a carter, or a morning dram costing three cents."

Lorenzo was now in his late fifties and the father of two girls and three boys, the eldest 13, the youngest in swaddling clothes. Grimly acknowledging that buying and selling might not be his forte, he relocated to New York City. Here he planned to become an Italian and Latin tutor. That was not to be. New Yorkers held the Da Pontes at arms' length. Lorenzo feared that he'd have to throw himself on the mercy of Nancy's father, who had made no secret of his doubts about his son-in-law's competence.

But fortunately, one day in 1809, Da Ponte dropped into Riley's bookstore on lower Broadway and happened to overhear the proprietor discussing European culture with a learned young gentleman. They were speaking of Metastasio, and Lorenzo dared to interrupt. "I knew the poet personally," he declared. "And as for Mozart. . . . " He went on dropping names and telling stories. His mesmerized listeners begged him to go on.

The young gentleman introduced himself. He was Clement Moore, who would one day enter history (perhaps spuriously, a recent scholar contends) as the author of "The Night Before Christmas." Clement had distinguished himself by becoming, at 19, the valedictorian of his class at Columbia College—the college presided over by his father, Bishop Benjamin Moore. At the moment he was a dilettante, scholar, and occasional versifier on such subjects as yellow fever and the hazards of alcohol. Unlike most prosperous New York burghers, Clement had no bias against newcomers to the city, respected the work of foreign writers, and couldn't wait to introduce Lorenzo to his friends.

The Da Pontes became the catch of the social season. At the Moores' house they mixed with distinguished company, chatting of the Old World and the New. Nancy charmed the company by speaking English without an accent. Lorenzo, Mozart's co-worker—Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart!—went on about the extravagances of Dante, the conceits of Petrarch, the plagiarisms of Boccaccio. He quoted the Bible in Hebrew and Latin; he quoted Virgil, Horace, Dante. His eyes still glowed, his bearing was elegant, aided by the cane he carried as a swagger stick. His courtly mien and soft, sibilant accent were as irresistible here as in Europe—except that in America he used them to win friends rather than to charm females.

The trouble was that this enchanting couple was stony broke. Something, the guests decided, simply had to be done. And so it was. With their encouragement and a little financial assistance, Lorenzo opened the Manhattan Academy for Young Gentlemen, and, as it would not do for males and females to mix in the classroom, Nancy founded the Manhattan Academy for Young Ladies. With a position and an income, Da Ponte regained his footing. He not only taught class, but also began to import and sell Italian books. He built a small theater and staged Italian plays. He wrote poems, including one urging his fellow Americans to support England in its fight against Napoleon—the enemy, it goes without saying, of his native country.

But after several years of this, Lorenzo began to feel caged and restless. The tyros in the classroom were too raw, too . . . American. They knew nothing of opera and next to nothing of Mozart, the Italian court, poetry, the classic tongues. They must have found their teacher too sophisticated, too full of recondite allusions for them to follow. Lorenzo abandoned the classroom and the city for a big spread in Sunbury, Pennsylvania, not far from John Grahl's dwelling place. There he could get away from the glazed stare of students and relax amid quarries and waterfalls, deer and pheasant. To fill up the days, he palavered with neighbors and sold liquor and medical supplies.

But this too failed to satisfy. The woods would always be foreign turf to an homme du monde, and when New York beckoned two years later, Lorenzo changed his mind and locale yet again. This time he responded to an invitation from the ever-patient Clement Moore, who promised that he would recruit bright, interested pupils to sit at Da Ponte's feet and learn of Italy's great literature.

The 75-year-old Da Ponte was to roam no more. He became Manhattan's ambassador without portfolio for Italian culture, pointing out that in practically every city in the United States, "one finds the wines and grapes of Sicily, the oil, the olives, and the silk of Florence, the marble of Carrara, the gold chains of Venice, the cheese of Parma, the sausages of Bologna, and even the macaroni of Naples and the plaster figurettes of Lucca. Yet, to the shame of our country, there is not, in the whole of America, a bookstore kept by an Italian! All the books in this city, aside from the volumes I introduced myself, have either been brought casually by travelers, or have been sold at auction with other books on the death of some foreign inhabitant." The indefatigable booster established an Italian library within the New York Public Library (where the 600 volumes still reside).

In 1825, Clement Moore persuaded his father, the bishop, to make room for the 76-year-old Signor Da Ponte as Columbia's first professor of Italian. Lorenzo would be paid according to the number of pupils who took his course. In the first year, 28 students turned up. For the next 13 years, not a single freshman, sophomore, junior, or senior registered for Italian at Columbia. The philosophical Da Ponte took to referring to himself as Professor Sine Exemplo, meaning both an unprecedented professor and a peerless professor—a pun that contrasts in typical Da Ponte fashion his lack of success with his incomparable merit.

As such, he carried on outside the university, lecturing on Dante, composing more verse, translating Italian writers. The Da Pontes had become a shabby genteel pair, guests rather than hosts, with the 70-something Lorenzo still attempting to play the star at parties, Sunset Boulevard-style ("I am big; it's the operas that got small"). To define his importance, Da Ponte began to issue his memoirs in installments. These gave him a chance to drop names, review an adventurous life, and get in a few cracks about the ignorant press. "This one writes a three-page article in praise of the wrinkled throat of a eunuch; that one announces the arrival of an elephant and two monkeys in such-and-such a town; and a hundred similar things of no account; and in more than 20 years not one charitable writer has been found who has deigned to put down in black on a small piece of paper, so that the literary world, and in particular the Italians, may learn about it, what I have done in America!"

In 1831, his beloved Nancy suddenly died of pneumonia, and Lorenzo sensed the chill of mortality in his own bones. There was still much to do. He borrowed funds in order to bring over a company of Italian singers. They performed many arias, including two by a relative newcomer, Gioacchino Rossini. But with no head for business, Da Ponte, as before, lost money, even though he hawked libretti in the lobby himself. Undeterred, he raised more funds from New York philanthropists, including former mayor Philip Hone, and oversaw the building of the city's first Italian opera house, a Greek Revival building on the Bowery. It was, Hone later noted in his diary, "the neatest and most beautiful theater in the United States and unsurpassed in Europe," with its boxes hung with crimson silk, its emblematic medallions and octagonal panels of crimson, blue, and gold, and its dome embellished with paintings of the Muses.

The opera house opened in the fall of 1833 to universal acclaim. A contemporary ticket holder recalled Da Ponte's "tall figure and handsome face at the opera . . . infecting others with his enthusiasm, and serving as a vital bond between the musical strangers and the fascinated public." That public had a short attention span, though, and over the next several years Da Ponte personally lost $4,000. His investors went in the hole for much more. (Despite an attempt to depose Boston as America's cultural center, New York City was still a provincial arena, unready for Mozart or Gluck; the first profitable opera house was not to rise on Astor Place for another 25 years.) The management changed hands, the Italian Opera House became the National Theater, a venue for legitimate productions, and three years later it burned to the ground. Given these circumstances, Lorenzo's rhyming reproach to his Yankee public, if ungracious, is surely understandable:

    Yet to the hand which has those treasures given
    Ye have refused the cimbal and the lyre;
    And from this brow the laurel crown have riven
    Whose name has set the proudest stage afire!

He pushed on, regardless. Now that Nancy was gone, the old man, sans teeth but with an abundance of gray hair and undiminished energy, invited young intellectuals to his run-down home to debate the virtues of the New World and the Old. One of his guests left an impression of those encounters: "It was my pleasure to dine at Da Ponte's place and hear furious discussions of Italian politics and delectable praise of composers and vocalists or pictorial critiques—transported by magic from Broome Street to the Piazza Vecchia or the Via Condotta. . . . Corned beef versus macaroni, was the problem he loved to state and to solve."

Still arguing and advocating, still trying to fuse culture and commerce, Da Ponte died of consumption in 1838 at 89, an extraordinary age in the early nineteenth century. Those who had short-changed or betrayed him were no longer on the scene in Europe or America—every man jack of them had passed on, he was pleased to note. All the same, Lorenzo could not claim to be truly fulfilled. Toward the close of his life he wrote: "If, when I was young, I had read the story of a man to whom the things had happened which have happened to me, and whose conduct was more or less similar to mine, how many mistakes I should have been able to avoid, the consequences of which have cost me so many tears and are still afflicting me so greatly in my old age! Thus I can and must say with Petrarch, 'I know my faults and do not excuse them,' but the damage, at my age, cannot be remedied, and all that remains to me is repentance."

What are we to make of Da Ponte's fate? Did he deserve obscurity? Didn't the librettist merely ride a whirlwind? Couldn't Mozart have set Euclid's Elements of Geometry to music and magically have turned the mathematician into a profound and lyrical poet? Almost two centuries later, Lorenzo's defenders could provide a definitive answer, when Igor Stravinsky pronounced himself pleased with the libretto for The Rake's Progress provided by W. H. Auden and Chester Kallman. It was, the composer said, the finest since those three works Da Ponte had written with Mozart. Maestro Stravinsky understood that the first-rate librettist must write characters and think music, a profoundly difficult task that Da Ponte did peerlessly.

Let his ghost take note: at last one charitable writer has deigned to put down in black on a small piece of paper what Da Ponte had done in America, as well as in Venice and Vienna—and to celebrate the achievement. Bravo, Lorenzo, bravissimo!

 

 


Home |  About City Journal |  City Journal Books |  Archives |  Links
Contact Us |  Subscribe Print |  Subscribe Online |  RSS |  Advertise |  CJ Mobile

CONTACT INFO:

subscriptions: (800) 562-1973 • editorial: (212) 599-7000 • fax: (212) 599-0371

Copyright The Manhattan Institute