Sunday 18 August 2019

Classical: Tale of Mozart's wordsmith - worth an opera in itself

Life in Vienna: Lorenzo da Ponte worked with Mozart on his greatest operatic successes
Life in Vienna: Lorenzo da Ponte worked with Mozart on his greatest operatic successes

George Hamilton

Down all the years, the people who've made musical theatre have tended to work in twos. From Rice and Lloyd Webber, back through Gilbert and Sullivan, all the way via Verdi to Handel and Vivaldi - one did the music, there was somebody else to write the book. Only Richard Wagner stands as an example of one who both composed the music and provided the words to go with it.

Three of Mozart's greatest operatic successes - The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Cosi fan Tutte - drew on the literary inspiration of one man. And what a man he was.

Lorenzo da Ponte was born north of Venice in 1749, some seven years before the composer himself. His birth name was Emmanuele Conegliano, and the family was Jewish. So far, so unremarkable.

But then his father, who had been widowed, declared his intention to marry a Christian woman, and that could only be done if he converted.

Emmanuele, by now a teenager, changed religion with him, taking the surname of the bishop who carried out the ceremony, and, at his expense, went to the local seminary to study.

When the bishop died, Lorenzo, as he now was, had to move to another college nearby where he'd have to study to become a priest, something he described as being wholly contrary to his temperament and principles.

He was duly ordained, but that temperament clearly held the upper hand, for somehow, along the way, he discovered the pleasures of the flesh. For his unseemly womanising, he was banned from Venice for a period of 15 years. His parallel evolution into an anti-establishment poet can't have helped his case.

Eighteen months later, he turned up in Vienna, keen to get involved in the developing opera scene there - which was much more fluid that the staid traditional Italian version.

He fancied he could write and talked his way into a position as house librettist at the court of the Emperor, Joseph II.

Once in that door, a meeting with Mozart was inevitable, and sure enough, the pair began to collaborate. The three operas they produced together would come to be regarded as masterpieces of the idiom.

He worked, too, with Salieri, and the popular Spanish composer Vicente Martín y Soler - who was based in the imperial capital at the time. It was with Martín y Soler that da Ponte had his biggest contemporary success with the opera Una Cosa Rara.

His gilded existence in Vienna came to an abrupt end with the death of Joseph II in 1790, which left him out of work, so he headed for London where he became involved at the King's Theatre in Haymarket and resumed his collaboration with Martín y Soler.

But an extravagant lifestyle led to a pile of debts and, ultimately, a move to the United States, not uncommon at the time when creditors were arriving at the door. There, this extraordinary tale veered off on a few more twists and turns.

He would make his home in New York. He ran a grocery store, then he set up a distillery. But the best was yet to come.

Another bishop entered the equation. The Protestant Bishop of New York, Benjamin Moore, in his role as President of Columbia College, installed da Ponte as its first Professor of Italian Literature - the unlikeliest conclusion to the story of the Jewish boy who became a Roman Catholic priest and provided the words for the most magnificent of Mozart's operas.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Saturday and Sunday

Indo Review

Editors Choice

Also in Entertainment

Back to top