A Night at the Opera

A recent lapse of memory is the only reason for this post. As I was enjoying Così Fan Tutte on YouTube, I remembered that Mozart’s adventurist librettist Lorenzo da Ponte (pictured here) had been a friend of Casanova’s and had died in New York in 1838, nearly half a century after Mozart’s death – after writing his memoirs without saying very much about Mozart. I also remembered that he was Jewish and had been nominally converted as a child by a bishop who gave him his name “da Ponte,” as was customary under the circumstances.

To refresh my memory I looked up Joan Acocella’s superb essay in The New Yorker of January 8, 2007.

Here are some quotes:

…Prior to his conversion, he had had almost no education. But Bishop Da Ponte looked after his new Christians. At his expense, Lorenzo, with his two brothers, was sent to the local seminary, and there he caught up fast. After two years, he relates in his Memoirs, he could write a long oration in Latin, together with fifty-odd lines of Latin verse, in half a day. He also acquired Hebrew and Greek. But his great passion was for Italian literature. In less than six months, he says, he memorized much of Dante, Petrarch, Ariosto, and Tasso. Poetry became his obsession. In class, when he and his best friend got bored, they would compose verse, one writing one line, the other writing the next. In his own poems – of which, he says, he wrote and burned two thousand during his early years in the seminary – he emulated his classical models, “trying my hand repeatedly at every style of meter and composition, striving to imitate the most beautiful thoughts.” These years of playing with poetry – translation, adaptation, collaboration, speed, joy – were his training for the notably impure, improvisatory job of eighteenth-century libretto writing….

One evening, Da Ponte encounters a beautiful, mysterious young lady. “My name is Matilda,” she says, “daughter of the Duke of M___a.” Her father had tried to force her to marry “an old man of horrible aspect.” When she refused, she was imprisoned in an ancient castle, from which she escaped in the dark of night. Now she has arrived in Venice, and, after two meetings with Da Ponte, she begs him to run away with her. They’ll be fine, she says; she has a casket of diamonds. He says he’ll think about it. When he gets home, Angiola meets him at the door with a stiletto. Still he can’t decide, and, while he is pondering the problem, Matilda is carried off by the Inquisition. “My grief knew no bounds,” he writes, and then Matilda drops out of the narrative. Similar episodes follow, and they lend the book a kind of giddy causelessness. Never does Da Ponte try to connect the events of his life to his own character. This may be the least introspective autobiography ever written….

Soon after he took up his post [at the Burgtheater in Vienna], he met Mozart. Mozart was a celebrity, but he had never written an opera buffa. He longed to, and he got Da Ponte to agree to write him a libretto. But Da Ponte was busy with his cut-and-paste jobs. What time he had for whole librettos he gave to well-known buffa composers, like Antonio Salieri, the court composer, and Vicente Martín y Soler, not to beginners, like Mozart. Eventually, however, the two men got back in touch, and in the space of four years they produced The Marriage of Figaro (1786), Don Giovanni (1787), and Così Fan Tutte (1790)….

The final proof [for da Ponte’s alleged lack of profundity] is supposedly Così Fan Tutte, with its tale of two friends, in disguise, wooing each other’s fiancées to test their fidelity and watching the women as they fail the test. This story, we are told, was too nasty for Mozart to have had any hand in it. It was Da Ponte’s, the scholars say. As everyone agrees, however, the libretto contains one very important non-satirical element. The two pairs of switched lovers are different from each other. Dorabella capitulates quickly and gladly to Guglielmo. But Fiordiligi is tortured by her new love for Ferrando. She suffers and delays. In her aria “Per pietà,” the high point of the opera, she begs the absent Guglielmo’s forgiveness for what she knows is going to be her betrayal of him. “You deserved better,” she sings. Actually, he didn’t – he’s having a fine time with Dorabella – but that irony only makes her grief more moving.

This wrenching business is generally attributed to Mozart, because he gave it such lovely music. When Mozart got to Fiordiligi and Ferrando, the theory goes, he couldn’t stand Da Ponte’s low, cackling libretto anymore, and soared off in his own, idealistic direction. In the words of Joseph Kerman’s “Opera As Drama,” Mozart’s score is a “joke on Da Ponte.” The joke ripped the opera apart, leaving the shallow librettist on one side and the great-hearted composer on the other. Still, Kerman says, “it was worth it.”

There are some problems with this argument. If, in the earlier operas, Mozart is seen constantly guiding Da Ponte’s pen, why, in Così, is he suddenly absolved of any responsibility for the main thrust of the libretto? Also, what is the likelihood that Da Ponte, who created the wonderful contrasts among different pairs of lovers in Figaro and Don Giovanni, did not engineer the contrast between Dorabella/Guglielmo and Fiordiligi/Ferrando? As for Fiordiligi’s struggle, are we supposed to think that the lyrics of “Per pietà,” so beautiful and sad, were written by Mozart? And who is the person who slyly scored them for horns, meaning cuckolding? Was that Da Ponte?…

Enough quoting. All I can say in conclusion is that this was one of my most enjoyable lapses of memory in recent memory.

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3 responses to “A Night at the Opera

  1. To think of da Ponte living in New York is surprising, but New York was already a biggish city in his time and he found suitable work there teaching at Columbia University and producing operas. What is more surprising is where da Ponte lived — and what he did — before going to NYC. I used to live about 15 miles from a town called Sunbury, Pennsylvania, and was told by a (reliable) native of the place that for seven or eight years in the early 19th century da Ponte made a living in Sunbury selling groceries. Imagine buying your sugar and potatoes in a small town in Pennsylvania from the librettist of Don Giovanni and Cosi Fan Tutte!!!!

  2. You had a lapse of memory…?