Lorenzo da Ponte, by Rodney Bolt

Words to a music of chance
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In case the name of Lorenzo da Ponte isn't immediately recognisable, this enjoyable biography provides a subtitle: "the adventures of Mozart's librettist in the old and new worlds". Rodney Bolt got my attention right away with a remark in the preface: "It is curious that in the world of the musical, lyricist and composer receive equal billing - we speak of Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Loewe, Rice and Lloyd Webber. Yet in opera, the writer is all but ignored." He adds that writers "not infrequently quote words from Don Giovanni, Figaro or Così fan tutte, and attribute them to 'Mozart'. Da Ponte railed against this unfairness."

In Mozart's 250th anniversary year, Bolt has shrewdly widened the arc of the spotlight to fall also on the librettist, whose turbulent life more than equalled his opera plots. Da Ponte's career intersected with Mozart's only for a short while, but his adventures are a window onto a fascinating century. He was born when Handel was in vogue and lived almost long enough to see Wagner's debut. Along the way he was ordained as a priest, expelled from Venice for scandalous behaviour, became a friend of Casanova, a favourite of the Austrian Emperor Joseph II, creative partner of numerous opera composers, the first professor of Italian at Columbia University, and a founder of New York's first opera house. Between his successes, he slid down the ladder with amazing regularity, climbing back from spells of bankruptcy and periods behind the counter of groceries or bookstores.

Da Ponte was born Emanuele Conegliano in the Jewish ghetto of Ceneda near Venice. Exhausted by the repressive laws that restricted Jews, the whole family converted to Christianity. Following tradition, the 14-year-old Emanuele took the name of the bishop who received him into the church.

The law forbade recent converts to move back to the ghetto or associate with former Jewish friends, and as his widowed father had taken a young wife, Da Ponte had to strike out vigorously in search of a new identity. One can't help wondering whether this early experience of forced dislocation from his own community fired his life-long taste for high living, plots, schemes and debauchery. Everything must have seemed unreal, the opportunities too sudden and overwhelming.

In his quest for fame and employment as a theatre poet, Lorenzo was amazingly enterprising. He worked in Venice, Trieste, Dresden, Prague, Vienna, London, finally Philadelphia and New York. Everywhere he pursued tirelessly, indeed obstinately, the promotion of Italian language and culture, never accepting that Italian might be far down the list of local priorities. Even in America, he remained convinced that society would leap forward if only its leading men would take Italian lessons and learn to love Italian opera.

He seemed to have equal talents for making friends and enemies. Just as his pupils were devoted to him, his creditors and business partners pursued him with a vengeance. He always thought his enemies' dislike was completely unjustified, and perhaps his ability to forgive himself was the source of his inexhaustible appetite for new schemes.

In his eighties, Da Ponte took the chance to puff up his successes and settle old scores in five volumes of memoirs. But Bolt has meticulously followed his trail, checking both contemporary sources and modern scholarship to create a wide counterpoint of supplementary information and new perspectives. He does so with a travel-writer's eye and a light touch. The depth of his reading emerges in many delightful details, letting us know en passant where the best hot chocolate was to be found, how far 300 gulden would take you in 1783, and what other travellers said about the places Da Ponte visited. Bolt is sympathetic to Da Ponte but not blind to his faults, and the old poet would have enjoyed his biographer's sparkly turn of phrase.

Da Ponte's life spanned a period of great social change. He was a living example of the intersection between the falling curve of royal patronage and the rising curve of the self-made man. Beginning as a sycophant who did not dare to gainsay the idle Venetian nobles who tossed gold coins into his pocket, he grew proud enough to write an astounding letter (in Italian) to Leopold II of Austria, addressing the monarch with the informal "tu". Ostensibly he was requesting a post, but couldn't resist informing Leopold that "My destiny does not depend on you, because all your power and that of all possible kings has no rights over my soul. I can love your name and your virtues, but I cannot fear you." For this effrontery he was banished from Vienna, but characteristically failed to understand why.

Susan Tomes is the pianist of the Florestan Trio; her book 'A Musician's Alphabet' appears from Faber next month