Lorenzo Da Ponte Librettist of Mozart in Venice (1749-1838)

Portrait de Lorenzo da Ponte
Lorenzo da Ponte
His real name was Emanuele Conegliano, also known as Lorenzo Da Ponte.

Mozart's librettist

An operatic genius, he wrote the librettos for the following operas for Mozart:
The Marriage of Figaro in 1786.
Don Juan in 1787.
Cosi Fan Tutte in 1790.

Da Ponte's incredible career

Da Ponte was born in Ceneda (today Vittorio Veneto) in 1749.

Son of a widowed Jewish tailor, who converted in order to marry a 17-year-old Catholic girl.

The father and his three sons then received the patronymic of Da Ponte from the Bishop of Ceneda at the same time as their baptism.

And so, in 1763, Emanuele Conegliano became... Lorenzo Da Ponte.

He studied at the Seminary and was ordained a priest in 1773.

From Priest to... Libertine and Gambler

1776: the writing of a Rousseauist-leaning opuscule forces him to resign from his teaching post at the seminary.

He was then sent to Venice, where he discovered... all the pleasures of life in society: bon mots, poetic improvisation, women and... gambling!

Here's what he has to say about it:
“At this time existed in Venice the famous gambling house known as Ridotto, in which rich nobles had the exclusive privilege of keeping the bank with their own money, and poor nobles with that of others, most often that of Abraham's descendants.

We spent every night there, and almost always, when we went home, we cursed the game and those who had invented it.”
Lorenzo da Ponte

For the Beautiful Eyes of Angela Tiepolo

Portrait of Lorenzo Da Ponte
Lorenzo Da Ponte
At the same time he falls under the spell of the beautiful Angela Tiepolo, whom he describes ainsixx:

“Small, delicate, charming, white as snow, with two languidly gentle eyes, and two dimples adorning her cheeks like roses [...]

In the effervescence of age and passions, gifted with a pleasing physique, drawn by the fascination of example, I gave myself over to all the seductions of pleasure, and entirely neglected literature and study.

I had conceived a violent passion for one of the most beautiful, but also the most capricious sirens of this capital; all my moments were absorbed in the customary follies and frivolities of love and jealousy, in parties and debaucheries.

Apart from a few hours stolen from sleep and devoted to reading, I don't know that during the three years of this affair I added anything to what I already knew. anything to what I already knew.”
Lorenzo da Ponte

The Scandal and Expulsion from Venice

One can imagine the scandal, this young priest with the daughter of the patrician Tiepolo!

He was expelled from Venice and then went to Dresden in 1780 where he discovered the theatre and learned his future profession as a librettist by collaborating with Mozzolo, poet laureate at Court.

1783: Vienna, Salieri and Mozart

In Vienna he begins working with Antonio Salieri and becomes poet at the Théâtre Impérial, he met Mozart in 1783.

Portrait of Giacomo Casanova
Giacomo Casanova

In Vienna Da Ponte reunited with Casanova

But it was a rather diminished Casanova that he found again:

“I see not far from me an old man staring at me, and whom it seems to me I do indeed know.”

Between Freemasons

Da Ponte had known Casanova in Venice and one can guess under what circumstances!

In Vienna, in 1784-85, Casanova and Da Ponte often met and conversed while strolling together on the Graben, in Vienna.

Two Venetian Freemasons with much in common: libertinism, gambling, adventure, their literary tastes, music and the spirit of the Enlightenment.

But even as they socialised, they didn't hesitate to criticise each other: rivalries between Italians, gambling debts, and most serious of all between seducers... jealousy.

Casanova, now a mere librarian at the castle of Dux, is over 60 and he envies this "Poet of Record of the Imperial theatre" , whose mistress is a great singer, a Venetian named Adriana Gabrielli, known as the Ferrarese.... who is Da Ponte's pride and joy!

Adriana Gabrielli, before becoming the famous Ferrarese, had made her debut in Venice, and in particular in the hearts of the Ospedaletto dei Derelitti

La Ferrarese, according to jealous Casanova, not pretty and gifted with a dreadful temper, would leave poor Da Ponte, who had fallen into disgrace on the death of Joseph II in 1792, without remorse.

Lorenzo Da Ponte and Mozart's Don Juan

Manuscript booklet of Mozart's Don Giovanni
Manuscript booklet of Mozart's Don Giovanni
It was from 1786 that he composed librettos for the operas of Mozart: The Marriage of Figaro in 1786, then Don Juan in 1787 and Cosi Fan Tutte in 1790.

Da Ponte recounts writing the libretto for Don Juan

“I would sit down in front of my work table around the midnight hour: a bottle of excellent Tokay wine was on my right, my escritoire in front of me, a snuffbox full of Seville tobacco on my left.

At that time, a young and beautiful person of sixteen, whom I would have liked to love only like a father, lived with her mother in my house.

She would come into my room for the little services inside, whenever I rang to ask for something; I abused the doorbell a little, especially when I felt my verve drying up or growing cold.

This charming person would then bring me, sometimes a biscuit, sometimes a cup of coffee, sometimes just her beautiful face, always cheerful, always smiling, made on purpose to soothe the tired spirit and to revive poetic inspiration.

So I forced myself to work twelve hours in a row...
Lorenzo da Ponte

Casanova wrote part of Mozart's Don Juan!

Portrait of Giacomo Casanova aged by Johann Berka in 1788
Giacomo Casanova
From July onwards, Casanova made frequent trips to Prague to oversee the printing of The Story of His Escape from the Leads of Venice and to prepare for the printing of Icosameron.

In September, Mozart and Da Ponte arrive to work on Don Juan.

They stay in inns so close together, they can talk to each other from their bedroom windows....

But Da Ponte is called back to Vienna by Salieri who needed help with the libretto for Axur Roi d'Ormuz.

Portrait of Giacomo Casanova, a pastel painted by his brother Francesco Casanova in 1750-55
Giacomo Casanova
At this point, the libretto for Don Juan was not quite complete and Mozart had not yet written the overture.

Da Ponte therefore left for Vienna and Mozart moved in with friends, the couple Duschek, who locked him in his room so that he could finally compose the overture to Don Juan.

Casanova is received in the home of the Duscheks, where he tells Mozart of his escape from Venetian prisons.

While Da Ponte was away, Casanova was involved in finalising the libretto, drawing on his knowledge of theatrical performance, and drawing on his personal experiences...

Two sheets preserved in the archives of château de Dux attest that Casanova made two changes to scene 9 of act two of the libretto of Don Juan.

Leporello reviewed by... Casanova

Portrait of Giacomo Casanova
Giacomo Casanova
For each of the changes Casanova made, these are variations on the character of Leporello.

Casanova's pen intervenes at the moment when Leporello is unmasked in the costume of Don Juan.

In the first Casanovian modification, the aria in the second act in which the valet begs for mercy when he is captured in Don Giovanni's clothes is replaced by this very lively quintet:
“LEPORELLO: - Uncertain, confused, discovered, deceived, I do not know how to defend myself. I will beg your pardon.

DONNA ELVIRA, OTTAVIO, MASETTO, ZERLINA: - Forgive you? I can't forgive you!

LEPORELLO: My fatal fate depends on you alone. On you my palpitating heart awaits grace.

ZERLINA: I'm going to eat your guts.

MASETTO:I will devour your soul.

Portrait of Giacomo Casanova by Anton Graff
Giacomo Casanova
OTTAVIO: Hanging from a gallows.

ELVIRA: You won't be so proud.

All Four: Infamous traitor!

LEPORELLO: My fatal fate depends on you alone. From you my palpitating heart awaits grace.

ALL FOUR: To the gallows! (three times)

LEPORELLO: Alas! What an ugly death!

ALL FOUR: To prison! (three times)

LEPORELLO: Paddle, strike, austere life!

All Four: Go sweep the square!

LEPORELLO: I am of illustrious race!

All Four: Then he'll go and pull the boats!

LEPORELLO: No, my lords, out of charity!

All Four: What then shall we do with the treacherous impostor?

LEPORELLO: My fatal fate depends on you alone. On you my palpitating heart awaits grace ”
Lorenzo da Ponte - Libretto for Mozart's Don Juan, corrected by Giacomo Casanova

“I am of illustrious stock!”

Portrait of Giacomo Casanova by Raphaël Mengs in 1760
Giacomo Casanova by Raphaël Mengs
This phrase from the libretto is in fact said to be a projection of Casanova's personality, who according to some sources was the natural son of a certain Grimani, a Venetian nobleman who owned the theatre where his mother was an actress.

Casanova's personality is also reflected in the second variant of his rewrite of the libretto, at the point where Leporello blames the women for Don Juan's faults:
“LEPORELLO: Don Giovanni, and he alone, forced me to disguise myself.

Of all these misfortunes he is the only reason.

I deserve forgiveness. I am not guilty.

All the fault lies with this female sex that fascinates his soul and enchains his heart.

O seductive sex! O source of pain!

Let a poor innocent go in peace. I am no rebel. I cannot offend you and I will prove it.

It was he who stripped off and took my clothes to thrash Masetto.

With Madame Elvira I only did my duty, because that was what she wanted. What I am telling you is true.

Don Juan, and he alone, deserves your disdain.

I will punish the unworthy. Let me escape. (He flees.)”
Mozart's libretto of Don Juan by Lorenzo da Ponte and corrected by Giacomo Casanova

Portrait of Giacomo Casanova
Giacomo Casanova
Leporello, the “double” of Don Juan, his plebeian and reasonable version, accused of both imposture and complicity with his master explains his misdeeds by his submission to a double authority.

He could be expressing Casanova's judgement here, measuring his own conduct against the yardstick of reason and morality, while finding excuses in Nature: that female sex that fascinates the soul (so it can no longer look elsewhere) and enchains the heart...

In short, man is nothing but Mother Nature's servant. The power of desire defies all laws.

The influence of the Venetian libertine may not have been limited to variations on a few scenes.

Let us not forget the long conversations in Vienna where Casanova and Da ponte exchanged ideas and experiences as seducers.

The Premiere of Don Juan in the presence of Casanova

The Première of Mozart's Don Juan was given in Prague on 29 Ocbobre 1787:
“The poetry is by Abbé Da Ponte poet/of the Imperial Theatres of Vienna/The music is by M. Wolfgang Mozart, German Kapellmeister.”
Casanova, the Venetian Don Juan, attends the performance. His conversations with Da Ponte and his participation in the drafting of the libretto must certainly have provided food for thought when writing “l'Histoire de ma Vie”.

Lorenzo da Ponte in New York

Portrait of Lorenzo Da Ponte by Michel Pekenino
Lorenzo Da Ponte

Loss of Honours, Encounter with Love

Da Ponte, in 1791 finds himself without a protector.

It has to be said that Europe was particularly in turmoil at the time.

He left for Trieste hoping to find favour with Leopold II but failed.

But it was there that he fell in love with the beautiful Nancy Grahl, the daughter of an English Jewish merchant, and married her.

Together they moved to London where Da Ponte, from 1793 to 1805 became an appointed librettist at the King's Theatre where he reworked some twenty librettos, notably for Martin y Soler.

1798: Return to a Venice in a Sad State

Da Ponte returned to Italy to recruit singers and of course travelled to Venice at every opportunity.

But what he then sees of Venice, a Venice that Napoleon had brought down, boasting that he would be its Attila.

Here, from Da Ponte's pen, is what became of poor Venice in those dark years:

“I had heard many things about the sad state in which this city was; but everything I heard was a joke next to what I saw in one night and one day.

The libretto of Cosi Fan Tutte by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Lorenzo Da Ponte
Cosi Fan Tutte
I wanted to see St. Mark's Square, which I hadn't seen for over twenty years....

Let the reader judge my surprise and my affliction when in this vast enclosure, where in happy times one was accustomed to see only the contentment and joy of the immense affluence of the vast people, I saw... only sadness, silence, solitude and desolation.

There were only seven people there when I entered the square...

I strolled under the famous Procuraties of St. Mark and my surprise was heightened by the fact that even the coffee shops were empty. In eleven of them I counted barely twenty-two people...”
Lorenzo da Ponte

His Encounter with Old Tiepolo

The story is told by Alvise Zorzi in his book La République Du lion - 1. L. Da Ponte, Memorie, Bari, 1918, vol. 1, p. 216 ff.
“The adventurer then recounts that he went to the Pescheria, the fish market (then in the Terranova, where the giardinetti Reali are today).

Approaching a bench, he saw a pale, emaciated, filthy little old man who offered to take the fish home for a little money.

This face is nothing new, he had the impression...

But that's for sure! He is a patrician, Tiepolo, the nephew of a State Inquisitor, the great-nephew of an ambassador, the brother of a woman he, Da Ponte, had loved passionately twenty years earlier.

Portrait of Lorenzo Da Ponte
Portrait of Lorenzo Da Ponte
What a state he's in!

Tiepolo recognised this too, and gave him a somewhat fanciful version of his ruin, which he attributed to gambling rather than political vicissitudes.

Even if the story is romanticised, the encounter is plausible.

The decadence of a Venice reduced to a shadow of its former self is due to the catastrophic economic situation, but also to the exodus of a large part of the patriciate of the patriciate to the mainland, closer to their estates and in an atmosphere less archaic and less tied to the demands imposed by the particular structure of the lagoon city. structure of the lagoon city.”
Lorenzo da Ponte

Little Glorious Journey to America

In 1805: Da Ponte left for New York to... escape his London creditors.

It was also in the United States that Da Ponte wrote his Memoirs, which were published in four volumes.

Don Juan in New York

Portrait of Lorenzo Da Ponte
Lorenzo Da Ponte
In New York, on 23 May 1826, Da Ponte had Don Giovanni performed.

He recounts the triumph of Don Juan at the premiere:

The opera pleased from one end to the other: words, music, execution, actors, everything was admirable and especially the Malibran in the role of Zerlina.

Thus, as early as 1826, and thanks to Da Ponte, Mozart entered American stages.

Da Ponte died in New York in 1838.

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