In 1805, Lorenzo Da Ponte was the proprietor of a small grocery store in New York. But since his birth into an Italian Jewish family in 1749, he had already been a priest, a poet, the lover of many women, a scandalous Enlightenment thinker banned from teaching in Venice, the librettist for three of Mozart's most sublime operas, a collaborator with Salieri, a friend of Casanova, and a favorite of Emperor Joseph II. He would go on to establish New York City's first opera house and be the first professor of Italian at Columbia University. An inspired innovator but a hopeless businessman, who loved with wholehearted loyalty and recklessness, Da Ponte was one of the early immigrants to live out the American dream. In Rodney Bolt's rollicking and extensively researched biography, Da Ponte's picaresque life takes readers from Old World courts and the back streets of Venice, Vienna, and London to the New World promise of New York City. Two hundred and fifty years after Mozart's birth, the life and legacy of his librettist Da Ponte are as astonishing as ever.
Englishman Bolt, who has written on Christopher Marlowe (History Play), relishes the telling of the poor motherless Jewish boy from Venice's ghetto, born Emanuele Conegliano, whose father converted the family to Christianity in 1763 in an attempt to improve his fortunes. Renamed Lorenzo Da Ponte (1749 1838), after the bishop who converted him, the boy was schooled at a seminary and became a scholarly poet whose amatory entanglements in Venice eventually got him deported. Using his legendary wit and charm, Da Ponte insinuated himself into the graces of Hapsburg Emperor Joseph II, who established an Italian opera company in Vienna, attracting such young composers as Salieri and Mozart. Although he had never written a libretto, Da Ponte was appointed theater poet, which sparked a genius collaboration with Mozart on operas such as Le Nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni and Cosi Fan Tutte. With the emperor's death in 1790, Da Ponte again fled town with his young English bride, Nancy Grahl; he eventually sailed to America, to become a New York grocer, businessman and professor of Italian at Columbia College. Reading Bolt's lively narrative of Da Ponte's life from the ghetto of Venice to the sparkling opera houses of Europe is pure pleasure.