Showing posts with label 1749. Show all posts
Showing posts with label 1749. Show all posts

10 March 2017

Lorenzo Da Ponte - writer and impresario

Colourful life of Mozart's librettist

Lorenzo da Ponte, as depicted in a 19th century engraving by Michele Pekenino
Lorenzo da Ponte, as depicted in a 19th
century engraving by Michele Pekenino
The librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte, who could be described on two counts as a figure of considerable significance in the story of opera, was born on this day in 1749 in Ceneda - since renamed Vittorio Veneto - about 42km (26 miles) north of Treviso in the Veneto region.

Da Ponte wrote the words for 28 operas by 11 composers, including three of Mozart's greatest successes, Don Giovanni, The Marriage of Figaro and Così fan tutte.

He also opened New York City's first opera house in 1833 at the age of 84 and is credited with introducing the United States both to Mozart and Gioachino Rossini.

To say Da Ponte led a colourful life would be putting it mildly.

He was born Emanuele Conegliano at a time when Ceneda was a strongly Jewish community. His mother, Rachele, died when he was only five and at the age of 14 he was baptised as a Catholic along with his father, who wanted to marry a Catholic girl but could do so only if he converted.

In accordance with tradition, Emanuele took the name of the priest who baptised him, in his case the Bishop of Ceneda, Lorenzo Da Ponte.

Through the Bishop's influence, Emanuele and his two brothers were enrolled in the seminary of Ceneda and Lorenzo was ultimately ordained as a priest.  By then he had begun writing poetry.  One of his earliest pieces - curiously, given his calling - was entitled An Ode to Wine.

The front page of a programme for the presentation of the Marriage of Figaro
The front page of a programme for the
presentation of the Marriage of Figaro
He moved to Venice in 1773 to be the priest of the church of San Luca, although his lifestyle was hardly befitting of a man of the cloth.  He fell into the company of members of minor Venetian nobility who were penniless but whom convention forbade to work and were therefore obliged to turn to gambling and debauchery to make a living.

Although he was a Catholic priest, Da Ponte took a mistress, who bore him two children but manipulated him into parting with money, largely to support her gambling-addicted brother. Ultimately Da Ponte was charged with 'public concubinage' and 'abduction of a respectable woman' and it was alleged in court that he had been living in a brothel. He was found guilty and banished from Venice for 15 years.

He fled to Gorizia, nowadays a town on the border of Italy and Slovenia but then part of Austria, where he lived as a writer. In time his friend Caterino Mazzolà, the poet of the Saxon court, invited him to Dresden, where he was given a letter of introduction to the composer Antonio Salieri.

With Salieri's help, Da Ponte obtained the post of librettist to the Italian Theatre in Vienna.  As court poet and librettist, Da Ponte collaborated with Mozart, Salieri and Vicente Martín y Soler. As well as writing, between 1786 and 1790, the libretti in Italian for the three aforementioned Mozart operas, he enjoyed commercial success with Soler's Una cosa rara.

His fortunes changed with the death of the Austrian Emperor Joseph II in 1790, after which he was dismissed from the Imperial Service. Unable to return to Venice, he set off for Paris but on learning of the worsening political situation in France, and the arrest of the king and queen, he rerouted to London, accompanied by a new companion, Nancy Grahl, with whom he eventually had four children.

St Patrick's Cathedral on Mulberry Street in  Manhattan saw thousands turn out for funeral
St Patrick's Cathedral in Mulberry Street in
Manhattan attracted thousands to the funeral
In London, he was briefly a grocer and then an Italian teacher before in 1803 becoming librettist at the King's Theatre. Financial stability eluded him, however, and in 1805, after a number of theatrical and publishing ventures failed, the threat of bankruptcy persuaded him to uproot again, this time to the United States, where Nancy and other members of his family had relocated a year earlier.

After arriving in Philadelphia, Da Ponte went first to Sunbury, Pennsylvania, where again he ran a grocery store and gave Italian lessons. He moved to New York to open a bookstore, at the same time taking an unpaid appointment as the first professor of Italian literature at Columbia College.

Determined to spread the Italian culture in the United States, he collaborated in 1825 with the Spanish baritone and entrepreneur Manuel García to stage the first performance in New York of Mozart's Don Giovanni. He also introduced the United States to Rossini's music.

In 1828, at the age of 79, Da Ponte became a naturalised US citizen and five years later founded the New York Opera Company. He was no more adept at business than he had ever been, however, and the company had to be disbanded after two seasons and the theatre sold to pay the company's debts.

Twice, in 1839 and 1841, the theatre was destroyed by fire, yet from the ashes rose the New York Academy of Music and the New York Metropolitan Opera.

Da Ponte died in New York in 1838 and it was a measure of the affection he had accrued that his funeral at the city's historic St. Patrick's Cathedral on Mulberry Street in the area known as Little Italy attracted thousands of mourners. There is a memorial to him in Calvary Cemetery in Queens, although it is thought he was actually buried at a church in lower Manhattan.

Travel tip:

In 1866, soon after the Veneto was annexed by the Kingdom of Italy, the towns of Ceneda and Serravalle were joined into one city named after the King of Italy, Vittorio Emanuele.  During the First World War, Vittorio was the site of the last battle between Italy and Austria-Hungary, won by Italian troops. The suffix "Veneto" was added to the city's name in 1923 as a commemoration of the victory and many Italian cities now have a Via Vittorio Veneto, the most famous of which became the centre of Rome's 'Dolce Vita' culture in the 1950s.

Hotels in Venice from Expedia

The Chiesa di San Luca in Venice
Travel tip:

The Chiesa di San Luca in Venice, where Da Ponte was priest, can be found next to the Rio de San Luca canal in the San Marco district. It has a simple facade but inside can be found frescoes by Sebastiano Santi, and altarpieces by Paolo Veronese and Palma il Giovane

Hotels in Venice from

More reading:

How Tito Gobbi found global fame

La Traviata - the world's favourite opera

Also on this day:

1872: The death of revolutionary patriot Giuseppe Mazzini

1900: The birth of architectural sculptor Corrado Parnucci

Selected books:

Memoirs Of Lorenzo Da Ponte (New York Review Books Classics)

Lorenzo Da Ponte: The Extraordinary Adventures of the Man Behind Mozart, by Rodney Bolt 

(Picture credits: St Patrick's Cathedral by Jim.henderson; Chiesa di San Luca by Godromil; via Wikimedia Commons)


16 January 2017

Count Vittorio Alfieri – playwright and poet

Romantic nobleman inspired the oppressed with his writing

A painting by Francois-Xavier Fabre of Alfieri,  property of the High Museum of Art in Atlanta
A painting by Francois-Xavier Fabre of Alfieri,
property of the High Museum of Art in Atlanta
Dramatist and poet Count Vittorio Alfieri was born on this day in 1749 in Asti in Piedmont.

He earned himself the title of ‘the precursor of the Risorgimento’ because the predominant theme of his poetry was the overthrow of tyranny and with his dramas he tried to encourage a national spirit in Italy. He has also been called ‘the founder of Italian tragedy.’

Alfieri was educated at the Military Academy of Turin but disliked military life and obtained leave to travel throughout Europe.

In France he was profoundly influenced by studying the writing of Voltaire, Rousseau and Montesquieu and in England he embarked on a doomed affair with an unsuitable woman.

When he returned to Italy in 1772 he settled in Turin and resigned his military commission.  Soon afterwards, he wrote a tragedy, Cleopatra, which was performed to great acclaim in 1775.

He decided to devote himself to literature and began a methodical study of the classics and of Italian poetry.

Since he expressed himself mainly in French, which was the language of the ruling classes in Turin, he went to Tuscany to familiarise himself with pure Italian.

Francois-Xavier Fabre also painted Alfieri with the Countess of Albany, with whom he lived in Italy and France
Francois-Xavier Fabre also painted Alfieri with the Countess
of Albany, with whom he lived in Italy and France
Over the next few years he wrote 14 tragedies and numerous poems. He wrote five odes on American independence, an ode on the fall of the Bastille in Paris in 1789 and a political treatise on tyranny.

While in Florence, Alfieri met Princess Louise of Stolberg Gedern, also known as the Countess of Albany, who was the wife of the Stuart pretender to the English throne.

Although she was living with her husband, Charles Edward Stuart, otherwise known as Bonnie Prince Charlie, Alfieri formed a serious relationship with her. When she moved to Rome to get away from her husband, Alfieri followed her there.

She then moved to France and he went to join her there. They lived together in both Alsace and Paris, but eventually left France because of the revolution and returned to live in Florence. Alfieri remained deeply attached to her for the rest of his life.

He chose to use a dramatic style in his writing to persuade the oppressed to accept his political ideas and to inspire them to heroic deeds. Most of his tragedies represented the struggle between a champion of liberty and a tyrant.

This statue of Alfieri is a feature of Piazza Alfieri in Asti
This statue of Alfieri is a feature
of Piazza Alfieri in Asti
One of the best of his published tragedies is Filippo, in which Philip II of Spain is presented as a tyrant. Saul, which is considered to be his masterpiece, has been singled out as the most powerful drama ever presented in the Italian theatre.

Alfieri died in Florence in 1803. His autobiography, Vita di Vittorio Alfieri scritta da esso, The life of Vittorio Alfieri written by himself, was published posthumously in 1804.

Alfieri and the Countess of Albany were both buried in the Basilica of Santa Croce in Florence.

Travel tip:

Asti, where Alfieri was born, is a city in the Piedmont region of northern Italy, situated about 55 kilometres to the east of Turin. It is famous for its high-quality wines, Moscato d’Asti, a sparking white wine and Barbera, a prestigious red. Every year a Palio, a bare-back horse race, is held in Piazza Alfieri, the square named after the writer, on the third Sunday in September.

The tomb of Vittorio Alfieri in the Basilica of Santa Croce in Florence was sculpted by Antonio Canova
The tomb of Vittorio Alfieri in the Basilica of Santa
Croce in Florence was sculpted by Antonio Canova
Travel tip:

The Basilica of Santa Croce in Florence, where Vittorio Alfieri is buried, is the largest Franciscan church in the world and the present building dates back to the 13th century. The Basilica has 16 chapels, many of them decorated with frescoes by Giotto and his pupils. It is the burial place for many important Italians, including Michelangelo, Galileo, Machiavelli and Rossini. Alfieri's tomb was sculpted by Antonio Canova, who is considered one of Italy's greatest sculptors.

More reading:

Bonnie Prince Charlie - Italian-born heir to the throne of Great Britain

The genius of Antonio Canova

Giuseppe Mazzini - hero of the Risorgimento

Also on this day:

1957: The death of conductor Arturo Toscanini

(Picture credits: Asti statue by Palladino Neil; Santa Croce tomb by jollyroger; via Wikimedia Commons)


17 December 2015

Domenico Cimarosa – opera composer

Musician who developed the model for ‘comic opera’

A prolific composer of operas, Domenico Cimarosa was born on this day in 1749 in Aversa, between Naples and Caserta in Campania.
Cimarosa wrote more than 80 operas during his lifetime
Domenico Cimarosa's work is recognised with a
monument in his home town of Aversa in Campania
Photo: Dinamo86 (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Cimarosa wrote more than 80 operas during his lifetime, including Il Matrimonio Segreto (The Secret Marriage), which is considered to be his finest work.

Other composers judge it to be among the greatest examples of opera buffa, the Italian term for comic opera and Verdi considered it to be the model for the genre.

Cimarosa attended a free school connected to a monastery in Naples where the organist taught him music and as a result obtained a scholarship to attend a musical institute in the city for 11 years.

He wrote his first opera at the age of 23 and, after several successes in theatres in Naples, he was invited to Rome where he produced another comic opera, L’Italiano in Londra.

He travelled throughout Italy, writing operas for theatres in Naples, Rome and Florence until he was invited to St Petersburg by Empress Catherine II. He remained at her court for four years composing music for important occasions.

He then went to Vienna at the invitation of Leopold II where he produced his masterpiece, Il Matrimonio Segreto.

After he returned to Italy, he found that Naples was occupied by troops of the French Republic and he was imprisoned for a while for political reasons.

He left Naples in poor health and died in Venice in 1801.

Travel tip:

Many of Domenico Cimarosa’s early works were staged at Teatro Nuovo in Naples, a theatre built in 1723 in Via Montecalvario in the Spanish Quarter of the city. Although it was damaged by two fires over the years and had to be rebuilt, the theatre is still thriving and hosting a variety of plays and concerts. Visit for details of the 2015-2016 programme.
Caserta is close to Cimarosa's home town of Aversa
The Royal Palace at Caserta

Travel tip:

Domenico Cimarosa was born at Aversa in Campania, which is north of Naples and south of Caserta, a town famous for its Royal Palace. The Palace, originally built for King Charles VII, is thought to be the largest royal residence in the world. The architect, Luigi Vanvitelli, also designed its magnificent park and huge waterfall.