Magazine article Musical Opinion

Lorenzo Da Ponte: Mozart's Finest Librettist

Magazine article Musical Opinion

Lorenzo Da Ponte: Mozart's Finest Librettist

Article excerpt

Operas and operettas are usually referred to by the name of the composer alone, the librettist being relegated to limbo. One exception, in operetta, is the tandem of William Schwenck Gilbert's words and Arthur Sullivan's music. But even there, in the Metropolitan Opera's house publication Opera News, we always find G&S operettas listed as by Sullivan".

However, there are two operatic composer-librettist collaborations in which the musically aware concede to the librettist a role almost on a par with that of the composer. First is Hugo von Hofmannsthal, who met Richard Strauss in 1900 and first collaborated with him in Elektra, first produced in Dresden in 1909, four years after Salome had made its sensational premiere. There followed Der Rosenkavalier, Ariadne auf Naxos, Die Frau ohne Schatten, Die Aegyptische Helena and Arabella, on the libretto of which Hofmannsthal was working at the time of his death in 1929. Strauss' five subsequent operas certainly missed the chemistry between writer and composer which was explored in the last, Capriccio, which was written to a libretto by the conductor Clemens Krauss, who also conducted the 1942 Premiere. Its subject is the relative importance of words and music in an opera.

But this article is not about Strauss and von Hofmannstahl, but Mozart and 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 most opera buffs to be among the greatest ever written. The operas, in order of appearance, are Le Nozze di Figaro in 1786; Don Giovanni in 1787 and Così fan tutte in 1790. Note how much faster this pair worked than Strauss and von Hofmannsthal: three operas in four years compared to six in 24. In fact, Gilbert and Sullivan wrote 14 operas in 25 years.

So who was Lorenzo da Ponte? He was born Emmanuele Conegliano on 10 March 1749 in Ceneda, a town about 60 km north of Venice. In 1866 Ceneda merged with neighbouring Serravale and was renamed Vittorio Veneto. If you visit this town today you can still find the house where da Ponte lived.

The Coneglianos were Jewish but Emmanuele's mother died in 1754. In 1763 his father, Geronimo, a tanner and leather dealer, wished to marry a Christian woman, Orsola Pasqua Paietta, which meant that Geronimo and his three sons had to convert to Catholicism. The Bishop of Ceneda, who baptised the family, was named Lorenzo da Ponte and, as was the custom, they took his surname, Geronimo became Gasparo and the eldest son's Christian name became Lorenzo.

Lorenzo and his brother, Girolamo, were enrolled by the Bishop in the Seminary at Ceneda, to train for the priesthood. Lorenzo excelled in his studies, learning Latin and Greek and studying all of the important writers of antiquity, such as Aeschylus, Sophocles, Virgil and Ovid, as well as the great Italian writers, especially Dante but also Petrarch, Tasso and Ariosto.

In 1768 the death of the Bishop of Ceneda left Lorenzo without financial support and in 1769 he entered the Seminary at Portogruaro, a town between Ceneda and Venice, becoming a Professor of Literature in 1770 and Assistant Director on 14 April 1772. During this period he was writing poems in both Italian and Latin, including one in praise of wine! He was ordained to the priesthood in 1773, administering the sacraments for the first time on 27 March.

Even while he was in the Seminary Lorenzo spent a considerable time in Venice, where he fell in love with a married patrician woman named Angiola Teipolo. After his ordination he moved to Venice on a full-time basis and became Professor of Humanities in the Seminary in nearby Treviso. However, his sexual peccadilloes with Angiola and with another married woman, Angioletta Bellaudi, led to his dismissal from his teaching post in 1776. His views led to him being forbidden to teach within Venice, finally being expelled from the City for adultery on 17 December 1779 for 15 years. …

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