Lives and Misfortunes of Lorenzo Da Ponte

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How many lives was Lorenzo Da Ponte able to live in the eighty-nine years that took place between his birth in a Jewish ghetto outside Venice in 1749 and his death in New York? The mere outline of dates and places is already somewhat astonishing: for someone to reach such longevity at a time when the median life expectancy was under forty years, and also to be able to travel so far in a world of difficult and unsafe paths, of archaic and closed societies in which the immense majority of people grew old and died either in the same place where they had been born or not very far from it, leading a life that was identical to that of their most remote ancestors. But Lorenzo Da Ponte escapes habitual categories as audaciously as he used to escape the cities and countries where life was starting to become difficult, which in one way or another would be almost all of them, or as he would abandon jobs and even identities, possible futures in which he would have undoubtedly liked to get settled. A scarcely exhaustive enumeration already provides somewhat of a frame: he was a seminarian; he was a gambler; he taught Hebrew, classical languages, Italian literature; he was a shopkeeper in Pennsylvania and a bartender in New Jersey; he was a librettist, editor, bookseller, opera impresario; he successively practiced Judaism, Catholicism, Anglicanism; he bowed down in the ante­cham­­bers of emperors, archbishops and princes and then scribbled clandestine pamphlets against them. Reading his memoirs is as agitated an experience as witnessing the exploits, ruses, escapes, jolts, strokes of daring or of shamelessness that take place in the three Mozart operas whose librettos he wrote[1], generally with utmost speed, and during a time of his life that turns out to be quite brief in comparison to the length and variety of his disorderly biographies. Historians often say that, as a memoirist, Da Ponte is not very trustworthy. Charles Rosen observes that he usually fails to remember precisely what we would most like to hear. But if the words in these memoirs are not too exact, their music immediately becomes familiar, and in it there is no room for deception: as we read pages more replete with adventures than the wildest serial, we have the feeling of recognizing some of Don Giovanni and Leporello’s tricks and the conspiracies that baleful Bartolo and resentful Marcellina plot against Figaro and Susanna, and the games of masks and impersonations to which the couples of symmetrical lovers devote themselves in Così fan tutte no longer seem so implausible.