Memoirs of Lorenzo Da Ponte (New York Review Books Classics)

February 27, 2019 - Comment

Plot and counterplot lie at the heart of Don Giovanni, Così fan tutte, and The Marriage of Figaro, the three brilliant libretti that Lorenzo Da Ponte prepared for Mozart. They were also central to Da Ponte’s own extraordinary life. His Memoirs record a fantastic variety of romantic, political, and professional intrigues, and tell of meetings

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Plot and counterplot lie at the heart of Don Giovanni, Così fan tutte, and The Marriage of Figaro, the three brilliant libretti that Lorenzo Da Ponte prepared for Mozart. They were also central to Da Ponte’s own extraordinary life. His Memoirs record a fantastic variety of romantic, political, and professional intrigues, and tell of meetings with a host of remarkable men. In a life that took him from the canals of Venice to the streets of New York, Da Ponte was at different times priest, professional gambler, proprietor of a bordello, political agitator, court poet, impresario, grocery store owner, and the first professor of Italian literature at Columbia University. His Memoirs, a minor classic of Italian literature, are the picaresque and engrossing story of a man of enormous talent and unsurpassed flair who was, above all, an indefatigable survivor.

“I shall speak of things . . . so singular in their oddity as in some manner to instruct, or at least entertain, without wearying.” —Lorenzo da Ponte”It was as though Providence had willed that I should ever, all my life long, keep falling into the hands of knaves,” writes Lorenzo da Ponte. Certainly, this remarkable narrative documents a life beset by a vicious world, but also one of insuppressible energy. Da Ponte is known for his librettos to three Mozart masterpieces: Le nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Così fan tutte. He wrote much else for the opera company of Emperor Joseph II in Vienna (until his enemies got him dismissed), going on to be a bookseller in London, a grocer in New York, a general-store owner in Pennsylvania, and, finally, a professor of Italian at Columbia University. His life, stretching from 1749 to 1838, practically defines the term “picaresque.”

Don’t expect a trustworthy account, though. One reason to write memoirs is to tell your side of the story, and Da Ponte spends a lot of time settling scores. As a businessman, he’s involved with a procession of false friends, who sink him with debts and slanders. At the Italian Opera in London, on the way to being forced out of another position, he juggles the egos of two rapacious divas: “The Lord help you if Morichelli gets a better reception in Martini’s opera than I do in mine!” says one. His philosophy grows bitter–“I trusted in him blindly and was, as usual, barbarously tricked by him”–yet he always has another idea for making cash and, in later years, spreading the gospel of Italian literature in the New World.

Da Ponte doesn’t interrupt his tale to ask probing questions. The most important period, his association with Mozart, passes with disappointing brevity. Though he salutes the composer’s genius, he offers no insights into Mozart’s personality or their collaboration. Da Ponte was busy at the time, however. He says he wrote Don Giovanni simultaneously with two other librettos: one in the morning, one in the afternoon, one at night.

This annotated version is a little short on notes. Da Ponte’s many phrases in Latin and the untranslated Italian expressions could use some commentary. The notes do inform us when the author is mixing up his facts, which is fairly often. The 1929 translation by Elisabeth Abbott, blending 18th-century elegance with 20th-century crispness, has previously been available only in an expensive hardcover edition. This paperback is part of the New York Review of Books Classics imprint, an invaluable series that republishes worthy but hard-to-get titles. Da Ponte’s book fills the bill admirably. –David Olivenbaum

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