Così fan tutte: who was Lorenzo da Ponte?

26 March 2024

While WNO tours its new production of Mozart’s Così fan tutte, it gives us a chance to look beyond its famous composer. The opera was the last of the three most celebrated collaborations between Mozart and the librettist Lorenzo da Ponte, joining joining The Marriage of Figaro (1786) and Don Giovanni (1787). While fame, plays, films and stories swirl around the composer, the librettist responsible for the story of Così fan tutte is less well known

Behind every great opera is usually a librettist who writes the story and words. But a librettist can have a huge impact on an opera’s success. Despite being badly paid, (certainly in Mozart’s time) the work of the librettist is usually overlooked, always to be eclipsed by that of the composer and their music.

So, who was Lorenzo da Ponte? He lived from 1749-1838; was born in the Jewish ghetto of Ceneda in Northern Italy; converted to Catholicism; then became a priest in Venice, a city famous as a den of debauchery. There, Da Ponte befriended the notorious womaniser Casanova, and even as a priest, he earned his own rather sordid reputation, ending up convicted of ‘male vita’ or bad living.Forced to flee Venice, Da Ponte ended up reinventing himself as a writer and successful librettist in Vienna, under the patronage of Emperor Joseph II and collaborating with Mozart. After his creative success with Mozart, Da Ponte then lost his patron. He fled again, this time to London, ending in bankruptcy and then finally settling in New York where he managed to reestablish himself, working as a grocer, bookseller and teacher.

Da Ponte lived out his topsy-turvy life in a surprisingly conventional manner: living with the love of his life, Nancy Grahl; becoming the first Professor of Italian Literature at Columbia University; helping to introduce Italian opera to America and support the building of New York’s first opera house. 

What is interesting about Da Ponte and the libretto of Così fan tutte, is that it was original. Most opera’s have libretti based on earlier novels or plays, but this was written by Da Ponte, initially to give to the composer Salieri, but after the success of The Marriage of Figaro, Mozart was commissioned. Da Ponte’s story for the opera’s libretto was titled The School for Lovers (Da Ponte’s preference)and he drew on familiar and cheeky narrative devices: lovers testing their partners’ fidelity; use of disguise and trickery; and a wager to kick it all off. All these plot elements were nothing new to such a lessons-in-love, coming-of-age story like Così fan tutteArguably, it’s an opera that really does reflect the personality and life experience of its lively librettist Lorenzo da Ponte, as much as its sublime music exemplifies Mozart. 

Make sure you see the WNO’s remaining performances of Cosìfan tutte, on tour in Oxford, Bristol and Birmingham this Spring until 10 May 2024. Tickets are now on sale for The Marriage of Figaro in WNO’s 2025 Season.