As we watch and learn about Mozart’s Don Giovanni over the next few days, it’s important to remember the growing importance that lyrics have in opera buffa. In contrast to the drama in opera seria — and the strong emotions expressed vocally, comedy implicitly relies on the understanding of language. Audiences had to be able to understand and follow the thematic elements in an opera buffa. Therefore opera buffa, also implicitly, stressed declamation and often was written in vernacular in order to aid the audience’s understanding.
While the composer brought an opera to life and built the backbone of the work, opera buffa called for especially skilled librettists. Some of the librettists who wrote for the works of the 18th century, including the famous Metastasio, are known today. One of them, Lorenzo da Ponte, wrote the librettos for Mozart’s Le Nozze Di Figaro, Cosi Fan Tutte, and Don Giovanni.
Da Ponte led a quite adventurous life, which probably helped inspire his librettos. Born in 1749 in Northern Italy, his father converted his entire family to Catholicism when Lorenzo was 16 — whereupon he entered the seminary. After becoming a priest, he moved to Venice, where he was known more for his “unpriestly” activities than his priestly ones (he was friends with one Casanova). Eventually, after fleeing from Venice to Trieste, he ended up in Vienna, where after meeting Mozart, he wrote three of his librettos. He finished his life in New York City, as Columbia’s first Italian Literature professor and founder of the city’s first opera.
Da Ponte is only one of the many librettists that were employed to create, or sometimes rework, stories for the numerous operas and musical works from the 17th century onward, many of whom are little known. While opera is primarily a musical discipline, it is unfortunate that the librettist has always been in the shadow of the composer. What other wondrous stories could we uncover if they were more in the public eye?
For more info on Lorenzo da Ponte check out this entry from UCLA’s Italian Library:
The Librettist of Venice: The Remarkable Life of Lorenzo Da Ponte by Rodney Bolt