Columbia Library columns (v.7(1957Nov-1958May))

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  v.7,no.3(1958:May): Page 21  

Mozart's Librettist—First Professor
of Italian at Columbia University



ORENZO DA PONTE, the "libertine librettist," arrived in
the United States in the port of Philadelphia on the 4th of
^June. 1805. As librettist of Mozart's Don Giovanni, Le
Nozze di Figaro, and Cosi Fan Tutte, he had already staked his
claim to immortality. I am not sure whether the title of libertine
is appropriate to this lively Venetian, who was born on March 10,
1749, in the ghetto of Ceneda, "a small, but not unknown city of
the Venetian state," as Da Ponte describes it in his memoirs. Gal¬
lantry is found in letters and diaries of this time in Venice, as the
true Venetian temperament was cool, ebullient and sensuous. For
a short but very efficient study of the Venetian character the
reader can see Mary McCarthy's recent Venice Observed.* Miss
McCarthy's book leads us to believe that Da Ponte was rather a
good Venetian, representative of the time and the society in \\'hich
he was born.

Da Ponte's crossing from London to Philadelphia la.sted 86 days,
and his first contact with somebody from the United States was
far from auspicious. The ship's captain was a Nantucketer named
Hayden, whose primary business was the hunting of whales. His
dealings with the passengers were not very different from the way
he dealt M'ith those mammals. The food was impossible and con¬
ditions on board were not any better. The crossing was, as Da
Ponte says, "a double Lent." This crossing was probably a por¬
tent of the librettist's American experience, as he was more in
contact with the sheriff than with anybody else. This is unfortu¬
nate because, as J. Russo says: "Seldom if ever, indeed, had a man
of a more interesting personality come to these shores from Eu-

* New York, Reynal and Company, 1956.
  v.7,no.3(1958:May): Page 21