Academic journal article The Hudson Review

Lives and Misfortunes of Lorenzo Da Ponte

Academic journal article The Hudson Review

Lives and Misfortunes of Lorenzo Da Ponte

Article excerpt

How many lives was Lorenzo Da Ponte able to live in the eighty-nine years that took place between his birth in a Jewish ghetto outside Venice in 1749 and his death in New York? The mere outline of dates and places is already somewhat astonishing: for someone to reach such longevity at a time when the median life expectancy was under forty years, and also to be able to travel so far in a world of difficult and unsafe paths, of archaic and closed societies in which the immense majority of people grew old and died either in the same place where they had been born or not very far from it, leading a life that was identical to that of their most remote ancestors. But Lorenzo Da Ponte escapes habitual categories as audaciously as he used to escape the cities and countries where life was starting to become difficult, which in one way or another would be almost all of them, or as he would abandon jobs and even identities, possible futures in which he would have undoubtedly liked to get settled. A scarcely exhaustive enumeration already provides somewhat of a frame: he was a seminarian; he was a gambler; he taught Hebrew, classical languages, Italian literature; he was a shopkeeper in Pennsylvania and a bartender in Newjersey; he was a librettist, editor, bookseller, opera impresario; he successively practiced Judaism, Catholicism, Anglicanism; he bowed down in the antechambers of emperors, archbishops and princes and then scribbled clandestine pamphlets against them. Reading his memoirs is as agitated an experience as witnessing the exploits, ruses, escapes, jolts, strokes of daring or of shamelessness that take place in the three Mozart operas whose librettos he wrote,1 generally with utmost speed, and during a time of his life that turns out to be quite brief in comparison to the length and variety of his disorderly biographies. Historians often say that, as a memoirist, Da Ponte is not very trustworthy. Charles Rosen observes that he usually fails to remember precisely what we would most like to hear. But if the words in these memoirs are not too exact, their music immediately becomes familiar, and in it there is no room for deception: as we read pages more replete with adventures than the wildest serial, we have the feeling of recognizing some of Don Giovanni and Leporello's tricks and the conspiracies that baleful Bartolo and resentful Marcellina plot against Figaro and Susanna, and the games of masks and impersonations to which the couples of symmetrical lovers devote themselves in Cost fan tutte no longer seem so implausible.

Loves and symmetries: running away from Venice, where he has acquired the double reputation of freethinker and libertine, young Da Ponte crosses the border to the imperial land of Austria, and in the first inn where he stops there is already a young and passionate innkeeper who falls in love with him; some time later, escaping those excessively warm ties, he encounters a pretty widow and her two daughters, with whom he simultaneously falls in love, with equal ardor, which sinks him into a state of anguished sentimental confusion, and yet does not prevent him from favorably considering the sensual charms of the mother. Loves and masks: in Venice, a woman who covers her face with a mask signals to him from a gondola and then goes away, and it seems that he will not see her again. But soon after a messenger arrives at the café where Da Ponte remains waiting without much hope and guides him through alleys and dark canals to a palace where the young lady in the mask finally shows him her radiant beauty and tells him the secret story of her misadventures, which could be the plotline of one of those thick novels of captivity in crypts, forced marriages and lugubrious convents that were then being published in Europe.

Occasionally, Da Ponte reminds us of Casanova: not for nothing were they friends, and his compatriot's memoirs likely served as a model for his own. Sometimes a whining note also surfaces, approximating a persecution complex, that delivers echoes of Rousseau's Confessions. …

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