For nearly 150 years after his death the name of Lorenzo Da Ponte (1749-1838) languished in relative obscurity. It was only in the 1980s that he began to be recognized as one of the greatest librettists who ever lived. Of his 89 years, fewer than 20 were devoted to writing opera texts. Yet during this period, as poet first to the court of Joseph II in Vienna and then to the King's Theatre, the home of Italian opera in London, he wrote or adapted nearly 50 libretti for 19 different composers.
Lorenzo Da Ponte was born on March 10, 1749 in the Italian city of Ceneda, near Venice. His family was originally Jewish, but converted to Catholicism when Lorenzo was a young child. Da Ponte studied at the Ceneda Seminary and the Portogruaro Seminary, where he later obtained a teaching position (1770-73). He was ordained as a priest and administered sacraments for the first time in 1773. Da Ponte was a professor of rhetoric at Treviso from 1774 to 1776. He moved to Venice in 1776 but was banished for adultery three years later. In 1782, Da Ponte became the official poet to the Imperial Theater in Vienna, where he met and worked with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. He moved to London in 1793, becoming poet to the King's Theatre for the next five years. Da Ponte moved to the United States in 1805, where he taught Italian in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and ultimately at Columbia College in New York (1825). He died in New York on August 17, 1838.
Da Ponte's texts can be divided into four categories: translations, of which there are only a handful; adaptations from "straight" plays, especially those of Goldoni; adaptations from existing libretti ( Don Giovanni, partly based on a text by Bertati, is the best-known example); and original texts, of which there were few (for example, L'arbore di Diana, to music by Martín y Soler, and Così fan tutte, set by Mozart).
In his memoirs and in other writings, Da Ponte lists the many qualities that, in his view, were needed to make a good librettist: among them were feeling and heart, liveliness of affection, truth of characterization, grace of language, poetic imagery, and an understanding of how to alternate "the gentle and the fierce, the light-hearted and the pathetic, the pastoral and the heroic." He was a born versifier, turning out rhymes as easily as he could breathe, and he had a vast knowledge of classical and contemporary literature to which he could turn for inspiration. He also had an ear attuned to verbal and musical harmony.
One of Da Ponte's favorite composers was Martín y Soler, for whom he wrote the text of Una cosa rara, which was among the most popular and successful operas of the last quarter of the eighteenth century. This was an opera buffa, like most of the works put on at the Burgtheater during the reign of Joseph II. Another excellent collaboration with Martín y Soler was L'arbore di Diana, though some critics lambasted it as being indecent. One of the few serious operas he wrote was Axur, re d'Ormus, based on a play by Beaumarchais, and set to music by Antonio Salieri, director of music at the court. The text is at its best when the action involves intrigue, disguise and misunderstanding; nevertheless, Da Ponte's adaptation is typically skillful and dexterous. Whether writing seria or buffa texts, one of his greatest skills was his versatility and his ability to adjust to the needs of his composer.
It was in his partnership with Mozart that Da Ponte produced his best libretti. Almost nothing is known of how the two men worked together. It is clear from Mozart's letters to his father how exacting the composer was in what he required from his collaborators, and that he liked to have a large hand in the libretti he set. It is, therefore, revealing that the texts of Le nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni and Così fan tutte all, in important respects, contradict his views. He believed, for instance, that Italian opera should be as comic as possible, whereas Da Ponte was convinced that changes of mood were essential if the listener's sympathies were to be engaged. Such changes occur in all three operas, and it is partly this that has made them immortal, giving us the feeling that we are watching human beings with real emotions rather than stock characters. Mozart felt, too, that the comic element in opera buffa should be violent and often absurd, as it is in Die Zauberflöte, whereas Da Ponte never forgot the literary and cultured tradition which was so fundamental a part of his being.
Mozart detested rhymes for their own sake. "Verses are indeed the most indispensable element for music," he wrote to his father, "but rhymes, solely for the sake of rhyming, the most detrimental." Yet rhymes abound in all three operas, and to accompany them Mozart composed some of the most ravishing music that has ever been written. In Cosìfan tutte in particular, the complex rhyming pattern is so skillful that the words almost sing themselves.
All three Da Ponte librettos for Mozart show an intimate knowledge of literary and theatrical Italian tradition which Mozart can hardly have possessed. From the time he was fourteen, Da Ponte had read voraciously, including the Italian classics, Latin and French masterpieces, modern dramatists such as Goldoni, prose, poetry, and history. To help him in his search for source material he had also read hundreds of opera libretti. He knew some of the greatest writers of the day, including Gasparo Gozzi, famous as one of the ablest critics in Italy, as well as one of the purest and most elegant stylists. Thus all the evidence seems to show that Mozart was influenced by him to an extent which the composer would never have tolerated from any of his other librettists.
That the two men were friends outside their professional collaboration is improbable, so unlike were their personalities; but as working partners they had an extraordinary empathy. For indifferent composers Da Ponte sometimes wrote indifferent texts; but for "the divine Mozart," as he called the composer in later years, he wrote libretti which are miracles of skill, poetry, and knowledge of the human heart.
Further Reading on Lorenzo Da Ponte
Fitzlyon, April. The Libertine Librettist: a Biography of Mozart's Librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte. London, 1955; 1982.
Hodges, Sheila. Lorenzo Da Ponte: the Life and Times of Mozart's Librettist. London, 1985.
Livingston, A. Da Ponte in America. Philadelphia, 1930.
Russo, J.L. Lorenzo Da Ponte, Poet and Adventurer. New York, 1922.
Smith, P.J. The Tenth Muse: a Historical Study of the Opera Libretto. New York, 1970.
Music and Letters 46 (1965): 316.
Music Review 4 (1943): 171.
Opera Quarterly 1/no. 2 (1983): 79; 8 (1991): 9.