Sunday, April 12, 2009

FIGARO’S Fathers & Films: Lorenzo Da Ponte

The man who wrote the words to Le nozze di Figaro was a sort of Forrest Gump for the eighteenth century. Successively banished from his native Italy, Austria, and finally England, da Ponte, who eventually settled in America, embodied so many contradictions it is hard to believe he was only one person: both Jew and Catholic, both playboy and family man, da Ponte was a friend of emperors and a wagon-driver among pioneers, a benevolent teacher and a villainous intriguer, a mediocre poet and one of the most important opera librettists who ever lived. Although his fame rests entirely on the three great operas he created with Mozart—-Le nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Così fan tutte-—da Ponte’s tireless efforts to introduce Americans to European art paved the way for much American high culture of this century.

Originally named Emanuele Conegliano, da Ponte was born to a Jewish tanner living in a tiny village in the Italian Alps. When his widowed father remarried, the entire family converted to Catholicism. And when it became apparent that Lorenzo (renamed upon his baptism) was brilliant, his father packed him off to seminary. In those days, the best way to get a good education was to become a priest. Lorenzo da Ponte took orders, learned Latin, became a teacher, and for the rest of his life ignored his priestly obligations.
He spent his twenties in Venice—-the eighteenth-century Italian equivalent of Las Vegas-—drunk, in debt, and caught up in a string of wild affairs. But eventually da Ponte’s free-wheeling lifestyle and radical politics caught up with him, and he was ordered to leave the city on penalty of life imprisonment.

I’m sorry to say I don’t know of any movie on the life of Lorenzo da Ponte. (If any Hollywood producers are reading this blog, what a great pitch I have for you!) But I do have a charming movie set in the world of da Ponte’s Venice: Casanova, directed by Lasse Hallström and starring Heath Ledger (came out back in ’05) as a Don Giovanni-esque Venetian rake lost in a romantic-comic-anachronistic plot. Da Ponte was in fact friends with the real-life Giacomo Casanova, and if you believe the memoirs of either writer their lives were much in keeping with what you see here:



I enjoyed that movie for its terrific soundtrack (Roy Prendergast arranged a lot of great Baroque music, and Alexandre Desplat wrote flawlessly integrated original material), sumptuous visuals, and amusing cast. A good bio-pic of Lorenzo da Ponte would ideally FEEL like this movie; but it would have to range far beyond Venice.


After fleeing La Serenissima, da Ponte ended up in Vienna, where his favorite poet, Pietro Metastasio, was the aging Caesearian Poet to the Emperor of Austria. When Metastasio died, da Ponte, who was by this time a poet himself, applied for his job. The stingy Emperor, Josef II, didn’t fill Metastasio’s job; instead, he gave da Ponte the same responsibilities, but used a different title and paid him much less. The 1780s were da Ponte’s glory days; writing opera libretti for Mozart, Salieri, Martin y Soler and every other composer in Vienna; partying with the singers and actors who made up the Viennese theater scene; and playing politics with the Emperor and intriguing against Count Rosenberg, who ran the Imperial Theaters. But after Mozart and Josef II died, things in Vienna turned sour for da Ponte; he had angered too many people with slander and conspiracy and once again he was forced to leave the city.


The middle-aged man now did something completely unexpected: he got married. Da Ponte--the rakish priest who had seduced innumberable ladies of Venice, the sexist poet who had penned some of the most misogynistic lyrics in all opera--became a family man! Da Ponte moved to London with his wife, who was British. They spent several years trying to make enough money to stay afloat--da Ponte wrote libretti and ran an Italian bookshop and his wife ran the concession stand at the theater--but with time da Ponte’s debts were gaping before him once again, and a friend advised him to escape before he was thrown in debtor’s prison.


Da Ponte’s wife had relatives in New York, so the family relocated to America, where da Ponte spent the remainder of his days. He had some lucrative years as a grocer in Sunbury, a suburb of Philadelphia (above), but da Ponte was a city-boy by nature who found American pioneer morality (still based on Puritan ethics) boring and American culture nonexistent. He returned to New York City, where he was made the first Italian professor at Columbia University. Da Ponte and his wife also taught European languages, culture, and cuisine to young New Yorkers, and da Ponte was instrumental in first bringing a touring opera company to New York and later in building America’s first opera theater. He had been a priest, a teacher, a poet, a bookseller, and a grocer; at the end of his life he became a pioneer in the field of arts education.

A great librettist like da Ponte can make recitative a delight in the theater, as witness this delicious scene, following the sextet in Act Three. Figaro has just figured out that Marcellina and Bartolo are his parents, and therefore he'll be able to marry Susanna. All four rejoice in a scene which veers from sweet to silly to touching and back to silly, in less than one minute:
MARCELLINA (a Bartolo): Eccovi,
o caro amico, il dolce frutto dell'antico amor nostro...
BARTOLO: Or non parliamo di fatti sì rimoti,
egli è mio figlio, mia consorte voi siete;
e le nozze farem quando volete.
MARCELLINA: Oggi, e doppie saranno.
Prendi, questo è il biglietto
del danar che a me devi, ed è tua dote.
SUSANNA: Prendi ancor questa borsa.
BARTOLO: E questa ancora.
FIGARO: Bravi, gittate pur ch'io piglio ognora.
SUSANNA: Voliamo ad informar d'ogni avventura
madama e nostro zio. Chi al par di me contenta!
FIGARO, BARTOLO e MARCELLINA: Io!
TUTTI: E schiatti il signor Conte al gusto mio.








MARCELLINA: (to Bartolo) See, dear friend, the sweet fruit
of the love affair of our youth...
BARTOLO: Let's not dwell on the past.
He is my son, you'll be my wife.
We'll be married when you like.
MARCELLINA: Today! Make it a double-wedding.
(gives the contract to Figaro) Here,
the money you owe me is your dowry.
SUSANNA: (gives him another purse full of money)
Take this money, too.
BARTOLO: (does the same) And this one.
FIGARO: Great! Keep throwing, and I'll keep catching!
SUSANNA: I want to tell my lady and our uncle
what happened. Who could be as happy as me?
FIGARO, BARTOLO, MARCELLINA: I could!
ALL: And if the Count is furious--fine with me!

(Hilde Rossl-Majdan, Fernando Corena, Hilde Gueden, Alfred Poell; Erich Kleiber, Vienna Philharmonic; Decca "Legends" 466 369-2)

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