Sunday, November 19, 2006

in a direct contrast to the previous post...

Title: The Librettist of Venice - The Remarkable Life of Lorenzo Da Ponte, Mozart's Poet, Casanova's Friend, and Italian Opera's Impresario in America
Author: Rodney Bolt

Few people really think about the fact that Mozart didn't really write the librettos to his operas, including some of his best known works, like Cosi fan tutte, Don Giovanni, and . As it turns out, they were written by an Italian poet named Lorenzo Da Ponte who had little to no operatic experience at the time. But that's not where the story starts.

This book is an incredibly detailed biography, showing all sides of Da Ponte, many of which were not too flattering, from boyhood through his death at age 89. Born in a Jewish ghetto in Venice (the country, not the city); his family converted to Catholicism when he was a teen, in order to increase their financial opportunities. At that time, Da Ponte could barely read and write. He and a few of his brothers ended up studing at various seminaries, where he fell in love with Latin and, more particularly, Italian prose and poetry. He ended up being forced to take minor orders in order to continue his studies, and was known for many years as Abbe Da Ponte. Of course, that didn't stop him from running off to Venice and having a few affairs while establishing a reputation as a poet. He also met the infamous Casanova there, establishing a lifelong friendship/rivalry. Eventually, his affairs got him run out of town, and he headed off to Vienna.

Working as a poet there, he gained the favor of the court, and wrote the libretto for one of Salieri's operas (which didn't go over too well). Then, he hooked up with Mozart (Salieri's arch rival...) and found success once again. Then the prince died, and the new queen was not so much a fan of Da Ponte's style.

The recurring theme of this life is how he dreams big, but doesn't execute well - Da Ponte was constantly either fabulously rich or feeling the after-effects of throwing all his money to the wind for a pipe dream and being destitute, running off to a new city and hoping for the best. Throw in a few semi-scandalous affairs and no judgement of people's character, and repeat.

After Vienna, Da Ponte moved to London, where he helped to establish the first Italian opera company/house there.

He met and fell in love with Nancy, and somehow married her - simultaneously converting back to Judaism because she was Jewish and ignoring his Catholic orders and history (um, the past 25 years of his life...). Interesting how that works. She was incredibly patient, and saved his sorry behind from financial ruin on more than one occasion...

Da Ponte was incredibly flexible - when things went poorly with the opera, he opened a bookstore, and ended up having immense success (at least briefly) selling Italian books to the fashionable Londoners.

At some point, he decided to move to America (Nancy's family was already there). They went to New York City for a few years - he ran a grocery store and tried to push the Italian opera scene. Then they moved to Pennsylvania, closer to her family. Then back to NYC. At one point he opened an Italian opera house. At another point, he sank all kinds of money into bringing a touring company from Europe, but, unfortunately, they weren't very talented. At one point he and Nancy ran a finishing school, where they taught all kinds of subjects, including Italian, which was just becoming fashionable to learn. Eventually, he became the first professor of Italian at Columbia University (while in his 70's!).

He always had a high opinion of himself, and blamed all failings on people being jealous of him and trying to keep him down. He wrote various memoirs throughout his life, and very few people appeared in a flattering light, because they were always in some way responsible for him not being an incredibly famous and successful poet. Da Ponte was a fascinating person, and though I would have hated actually interacting with or knowing him, reading about his life was really neat. He was friends with (or at least acquainted with) every well-known person alive during his lifetime - Casanova, Mozart, Salieri, even Clement Moore ('Twas the Night Before Christmas...). Highly recommended to anyone who can find it at their local library. :-)

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posted by ket at 1:03 PM


Blogger Elizabeth said...

An excellent choice of reading material given your performance this afternoon! Cool!

Can I borrow this, or is it a library book?

11/19/2006 10:16 PM  
Blogger ket said...

Come on, you know I don't actually purchase books.

However, it will be returned to the library within the next few hours (overdue, as usual - I swear I fund all the new book purchases with my overdue fines...), so you can always track it down there.

11/19/2006 10:25 PM  

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