For “The marriage of Figaro” to be created, there seems to have been in the stars a strange “geniuses unite” alignment. I am talking of Mr de Beaumarchais, Mr Da Ponte and of course Mr Mozart.

We already spoke of the incredible Mr. de Beaumarchais, the original author of the play on which the libretto of “The Marriage of Figaro” is based, now let’s look into our 2nd genius, the great librettist  Lorenzo Da Ponte. 

Our Mr. Da Ponte had quite the extraordinary life, and was also a remarkable, brilliant and multifaceted mind of his time.

Lorenzo Da Ponte was born Emanuele Conegliano  on March 10, 1749.  He  wasn’t born in Venice City proper but in Ceneda, now called Vittorio Veneto, Italy. Ceneda was at the time a part of the republic of Venice. Lorenzo da Ponte was the eldest of three sons, and his father, Geronimo Conegliano, was a wealthy Jewish leather merchant. A widower, Conegliano Senior,  had the whole family converted to Catholicism in 1764 in order to remarry. Following the custom, Emanuele was given the name of the local bishop who baptized him, Lorenzo Da Ponte.

And here starts a wild life of adventures for young Da Ponte, thanks to the bishop, all three brothers were able to study at the seminary of Ceneda. After the bishop died he moved to a different seminary at Portogruaro where he took orders in 1770 and became literature professor. About three years later he was ordained priest, and that same year he moved to Venice where he taught Latin, Italian and French. During that same period, he also began writing poetry in both Italian and Latin including an ode to wine called “ Ditirambo sopra gli odori”

Before we move forward with our genius friend’s life, a little bit of context about Venice and the environment in which young Lorenzo lived.

Venice was an incredibly artistic lively pulsating with excess kind of place. It was filled with commerce, merchants, exotic fare, and famously, Courtesans. It was in a way the original city that never sleeps. Flamboyant ceremonies came out of countless public festivals. The city had a long history of legalized prostitution and a flourishing sex trade. Its topography, which now leads any modern visitor to dream as it is incredibly beautiful unexpected and exotic, provided opportunities for clandestine meetings and the likes. The ubiquitous venetian gondolas where originally famous for the fact that Venetian gondoliers sold erotic services to both male and female clients, and according to Casanova himself, gondolas were primarily used for “sex acts on water” I assume that must have been the case only for people who do not get seasick!

 The tradition of wearing masks, so famous to this day, started in the 13th century during Carnival festivities that preceded lent. During these festivities all social barriers would be lifted. In disguise people mingled freely, played out every single fantasy, and indulge in illicit activities. Carnival was called a democracy of sin. 

By the 18th century people had grown so accustomed to wearing masks that they did so perpetually. Venetians wore them in public places and in private homes alike. Foreign ambassadors and state officials, including the head of the Venetian government the Doge, put on masks during ceremonies and negotiations. I would tell you all about Venetian history unfortunately this would become so long it would have to be printed into a book! There is so much one can put in a little blog! I will say this, before returning to the life of our friend Mr. Da Ponte, Venice has been known by quite a few names here are some: “La Dominante” “La Serenissima” “Queen of the Adriatic” “City of Water” “The Floating City” these names express very clearly the appeal of the magical place. The lagoon of Venice and parts of The city  are listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for a good reason. There is almost a shortage of superlatives to express the awe that Venice can inspire. In fact the tiny city on the water, filled with canals and bridges, has been a source of inspiration long before its name was whispered on the Silk Road and remains an inspiration still. 

Now back to Mr Da Ponte!

Settled in Venice Lorenzo was a young priest at the church of San Luca. It seems like young Da Ponte quickly grew fond of venetian masks himself, jumping with both feet into all the temptations the city had to offer. An inveterate gambler, he had an affair with a married woman named Angioletta Bellaudi, with whom he had two children and apparently ran a brothel! He was friends with Giacomo Casanova and Pietro Zaguri, spending much time with them at Palazzo Zaguri in Campo San Maurizio. That’s when trouble started for Mr. Da Ponte in Venice, which led to his being defrocked and banished from the city for 15 years. He was accused of “concubinage” and of the abduction of a respectable woman, leading to his trial in 1779 on these accounts, followed by a guilty verdict and eventually his banishment. However himself and his friends sustained that it was not so much his lifestyle but his writing that made him an outlaw. There might indeed have been an underlying reason for his troubles anchored in an increasingly unstable political situation. Venice had established a fairly liberal government that encourage trade and the arts, but during the 1770s those glory days were slipping. As with many European cities, reports on the American revolution electrified the political scene. By 1775 translations of Benjamin Franklin‘s work circulated freely in Italian universities. The old regimes of Europe felt nervous at the widely praised and emerging notions of transatlantic solidarity by the “Sage of Philadelphia”. Very mindful of the rising tensions, venetian governors increased social control. Da Ponte’s enthusiasm for the American cause was then seen as a threat. Trouble started to churn for our Author with an elegy inspired by the rebellion entitled “the American in Europe”. Then later, a privately circulated poem attacking corrupt authorities was leaked and widely read. His enemies attached themselves to his libertine and free ways to besmirch his name, leading to the courtroom and sadly away from his beloved Venice. 

He then moved to Austria, making his way as a writer. Mr Da Ponte was eventually introduced to no other than Antonio Salieri, gaining employment at the Italian theater of Vienna, and acquiring the patronage of the banker Raimund Wetzlar Von Plankenstern. His new patron was an avid benefactor of artistic minds, amongst which was included no other than Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The rest is history with a capital H, as it was only a matter of time before Da Ponte and Mozart crossed paths. An incredible partnership developed between the young composer and the brilliant librettist. It evolved into the most successful collaboration in operatic history. Da Ponte wrote the librettos for Mozart’s three greatest operas: Don Giovanni, Così fan Tutte and Le Nozze di Figaro, “the Marriage of Figaro” which brings us here today.

He also penned the libretto for Salieri’s “Axur, Re D’Ormus” ( king or Ormus). Though largely forgotten today, upon its premiere in Vienna in 1788, it became the most favored Opera at the time, being performed more frequently than Mozart’s Don Giovanni. 

In February 1790, a month or so after the premiere of Da Ponte and Mozart’s collaboration Così fan Tutte, the Emperor Joseph II, who had been the great supporter of his favorite institution the Italian theater of Vienna, succumbed to a fever. Not a year later and overworked and impoverished Mozart died at the age of 35. Within a short period Da Ponte lost both his patron, and his incomparable partner and friend. The art loving emperor was succeeded by his brother Leopold II, who it seems had his own circle of favorite artists and bootlickers. Heartbroken and resentful Da Ponte lost his standing in court becoming once more an outsider.

His enemies began telling tales of misdeeds and scandals, history repeating, he was dismissed from his post and ordered to leave Vienna. In his memoirs he declares: “Sacrificed to hatred, envy, the profit of scoundrels!” 

Here is the “resume” of our Mr Da Ponte up to the point which brought us here, and where The Marriage of Figaro is concerned.

Now a little bit about the creation of “The marriage of Figaro” itself from the librettist perspective.

 Here is in the writer’s own words, the beginning of his relationship with Mozart , Da Ponte was at the time the famous one! 

“Before long several composers turned to me for libretti. But there were only two in Vienna deserving of my esteem: Martini (Martin y Soler) and Mozart, whom I had the opportunity of meeting in just those days at the home of Baron Wetzlar, his great admirer and friend.

Though gifted with superior talents to those of any other composer in the world, past, present, or future, Mozart had, thanks to the intrigues of his rivals, never been able to exercise his divine genius in Vienna, and was living there unknown and obscure, like a priceless jewel buried in the bowels of the Earth. I will say boldly, and I think myself entitled to support my assertion, that to my exertion alone, the world is indebted for those fine vocal compositions which he afterwards composed. I consider my success in forcing him into notice, as an imminent composer for the voice, as the most agreeable circumstance of my life. As a writer for the stage, I had gained the entire confidence of the Emperor, and was determined to use my favor at court for the interest of Mozart.

(…) I was at a loss for some time to find a mode of showing his [Mozart’s] abilities to advantage, without risking the displeasure of my imperial patron who was prejudiced against him as a composer of vocal music, by the evil reports of those who were fearful of his rising into notice. Under these difficulties, I paid Mozart a visit, and asked him whether he would undertake to compose the music for a piece which I had some thought of writing.” 

Mozart proposed The Marriage of Figaro and so it is that the magic started.

If you have read the previous installment of the blog on the Beaumarchais play that led to the opera, you already know that the play had been censored and banned in Vienna by then, and that Mozart and Da Ponte had to fancifully navigate the somewhat flammable political environment of the time to get the libretto approved and the music written. Mozart having been the one who originally brought the play to his friend, Da Ponte used his standing with the Emperor to push things through. In his preface to the libretto Da Ponte hints at his technique and objectives in libretto writing, as well as his close collaboration with the composer himself.

“ I have not made a translation of Beaumarchais, but rather an imitation, or let us say an extract. (…) I was compelled to reduce the 16 original characters to 11, two of which can be played by a single actor and to omit, in addition to one whole act, many effective scenes.

(…) In spite, however, of all the zeal and care on the part of both the composer and myself to be brief, the opera will not be one of the shortest.

(…) Our excuse will be the variety of development of this drama,(…) to paint faithfully and in full color the diverse passions that are aroused, and (…) to offer a new type of spectacle. (…)”

Of course the scandalous life of Mr. Da Ponte does not end with his exit from Vienna. The truth is somebody should definitely think of writing an opera about Lorenzo’s many escapades and fanciful feats of genius. After leaving Vienna he filled another almost 50 years of intense life. Since we can’t possibly write about all of it, here are a few main points:

  • Following his departure from Vienna, he settled for a while in Trieste.
  • In Trieste he fell in love with his future wife and they would have four children.
  • In 1792 Lorenzo and his wife Nancy set off for Paris, but with news of the arrest of the king of France and his wife Marie Antoinette, instead headed to London where they would live for 12 years.
  • In 1804, with bankruptcy looming, Lorenzo sent his wife and children to join her parents who had settled in Pennsylvania. A year later to avoid debtors’ prison, he boarded the boat Columbia and sailed to America himself.
  • His first business attempt in America to support his family was running a grocery store in New Jersey. The venture failed. Let’s just say that business was not in his nature and he repeatedly failed at becoming a businessman.
  • He then moved to Pennsylvania joining his family.
  • He eventually moved back to New York, invited to teach at Columbia college where he inaugurated a famous lecture series on Dante’s Divine Comedy.
  • In September 1825 he was appointed America’s first professor of Italian at Columbia.
  • In 1828 he became a naturalized American citizen.
  • During that time he met Manuel Garcia who was bringing his troop of singers, including his daughter Maria who would become famous as Maria Malibran, and convinced him to produce the first full American performance of Don Giovanni with Maria starring in the role of Zerlina.
  • Da Ponte’s final libretto, “L’ape Musicale” ( the musical Bee) coincided with the passing of his beloved wife Nancy.
  • Pushing on with his many projects in 1833 he founded the Italian Opera House on the corner of Leonard and Church Streets, in lower Manhattan, the first purpose-built opera theater in the United States.
  • In following with his lack of business acumen, the house lasted a couple seasons before bankruptcy and in 1836 the Opera house became the National Theater, sadly three years later, it burned to the ground. It was however the predecessor of the New York Academy of Music and the Metropolitan Opera.
  • Da Ponte, everyone’s favorite Cosmopolitan intellectual who lived his life as if it were libretto, died on the 17th of August 1838 at the age of 91 in his home on Spring street in Manhattan.

He is forever immortalized by his works with Mozart, in which his sharp characterization, humor and satire, brought out all the composer’s marvelous strengths.