Simanaitis Says

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OPERA COMPOSERS get all the compliments. Seemingly, librettists either crib the tale from an earlier source or just come up with words that match the composer’s notes. But there was at least one librettist who led a life as adventurous as his characters. Here, today and tomorrow in Parts 1 and 2, are tidbits about Lorenzo Da Ponte, priest, poet, professor, womanizer, grocery store proprietor, bookstore owner, and, oh yes, librettist.

Lorenzo Da Ponte, 1749–1838, born Emanuele Conegliano. Italian, later American, opera librettist, Roman Catholic priest, college professor, adventurer. Engraving by Michele Pekenino after Nathaniel Rogers.

Growing Up in the Venetian Republic. Emanuele, the eldest of three sons, was Jewish by birth, but his widowed father converted to marry a Catholic. Emanuele was given the name Lorenzo Da Ponte, because of a custom of taking the name of the bishop officiating the baptism.

Seminary-trained, Da Ponte took Minor Orders in 1770, became a professor of literature, and was ordained a priest in 1773. Wikipedia notes “He began at this period writing poetry in Italian and Latin, including an ode to wine….” He also took a mistress, with whom he had two children.

A Rake’s Progress. In 1779, Da Ponte was charged with concubinato pubblico, public concubinage, and rapimento di una donna rispettabile, abduction of a respectable woman. He was allegedly living in a brothel at the time and organizing the entertainments there. Da Ponte was found guilty and banished from Venice for 15 years.

Da Ponte’s Operas. Living in Austria, and as Wikipedia put it, “attaching himself to the leading noblemen and cultural patrons of the city,” Da Ponte got gigs translating theater libretti. He met composer Antonio Salieri and banker Raimund Wetzlar von Plankenstern, benefactor of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, 1756–1791. Detail of a portrait by Johann Nepomuk della Croce.

In time, Da Ponte would write libretti for 27 operas. Six of them, obscure today, were for Salieri. The three Mozart operas are anything but obscure: Le Nozze di Figaro, 1786; Don Giovanni, 1787; and Cosi fan Tutte, 1789-1790.

Da Ponte cribbed the Figaro tale from playwright Pierre-Augustin Beaumarchais, another guy who picked up his moniker en passant, this time through marriage, not baptism.

Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais, 1732–1799, French polymath. Portrait after Jean-Marc Nattier.

Don Giovanni was based on an earlier opera Don Giovanni Tenorio, also 1787, composed by Giuseppe Gazzaniga with libretto by Giovanni Bertati. According to Wikipedia, “Da Ponte was loath to admit this in memoirs written decades later.”

You know how it is, writing memoirs decades later….

Tomorrow in Part 2, we’ll share some Cosi tidbits, old and new, and learn what happens when one’s patron bites the dust. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2020

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