There seemed nothing remarkable about the Italian passenger who stepped off the packet boat Columbia as it docked in Philadelphia on June 4, 1805, except that he was tall and, for a man in his mid-50s, prematurely toothless. During the two-month crossing from London, the Columbia's captain had not even bothered to learn his name, addressing him as "Signor Italiano." The man spoke adequate English and had courtly manners, but he was broke and had to beg a loan from a fellow passenger to pay the duty on his few possessions: a violin, some violin strings, a carpet, a tea urn and a trunkful of books.
Although his identity meant nothing on the docks that morning, the stranger was no ordinary immigrant. His story, had he told it to customs officials, would have struck them as fantastic—beyond belief.
He was Lorenzo Da Ponte, the librettist who, with Mozart, had created three of the greatest operas ever written: The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni and Così fan Tutte. He was a priest, a poet, a freethinker and a friend of Casanova's. He had flourished in the royal courts and glittering societies of Europe, conducted notorious love affairs and collaborated with some of the leading writers and musicians of the age. He had also, at times, endured catastrophic flops, suffered betrayal and defeat in backstage intrigues, been hounded by scandal and fallen into bankruptcy.
And now, having left London one step ahead of a constable who sought to arrest him for bad debts, he had arrived in America to do what he had already been obliged to do several times in his tumultuous career: start over.
During the 33 years that Da Ponte would spend in the aptly named New World, he would need to put forth vast exertions of persistence, resilience and deft improvisation in order to make his way. Fortunately, as recounted in Rodney Bolt's lively new biography, The Librettist of Venice, he had displayed these qualities in abundance from the beginning. He was born Emanuele Conegliano, the son of a Jewish leather worker in a small town in the Venetian Republic. When he was a teenager, his father converted to Catholicism, and in accordance with custom Emanuele was baptized in the name of the local bishop, Lorenzo Da Ponte.
He went on to seminary, where he mastered Latin, Greek and Hebrew and showed a flair for writing verse. He was ordained and taught briefly in church schools. But Venice, fashionable, dissolute and nearby, exerted an irresistible lure for a dashing young abbé with Da Ponte's wit, charm and ambition. Soon he was mixing with the city's aristocracy, gambling, writing poetry and moving from one mistress to another. (One tried to quiet the neighbors' whispers about "the priest's whore" by claiming to be his sister.)
By 1779, when Da Ponte was 30, Venetian authorities were investigating his louche reputation and history of scandal. He had already been convicted of sedition for publishing some fiery poetry excoriating local political corruption. It was all too much for the republic's ruling council, which banished him. For the first of many times in his life, although surrounded by real enough rivals and enemies, he had proved the most effective agent of his own destruction. (He later conceded that he was "like the soldier who, spurred on by the longing for glory, rushes against the mouth of the cannon.") Also for the first of many times, he fled, penniless, across a border, to the Austrian Empire.
After false starts in Dresden and elsewhere, he settled in Vienna and maneuvered his way into an appointment as official poet to the Italian opera company under the patronage of Emperor Joseph II, a post he held from 1783 to 1791. These were his glory years. He was in demand to write librettos for Salieri, Paisiello and other eminent composers of the day.
What we most want to hear about, however—the magical collaboration with Mozart—is curiously undocumented. Virtually neighbors, the two men had no need to write to each other, so all we get in Bolt's biography is passing mentions in Mozart's letters and unilluminating descriptions in Da Ponte's less-than-reliable memoirs: "As soon as I wrote the words, Mozart set them to music."
What we do know is that by this time, the early 1780s, Da Ponte was a skillful dramatic craftsman, and Mozart was, well, Mozart. Together, they took the erstwhile knockabout conventions of opera buffa and invested them with a new seriousness. They created characters of rare depth and psychological richness, and infused comic plots with a worldly, humane and compassionate view of human frailty.