The Phoenix Rises in HGO's World Premiere of a Real Life Gifted Librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte

The Phoenix, a story of a real life gifted librettist, gives Lorenzo da Ponte his due.
The Phoenix, a story of a real life gifted librettist, gives Lorenzo da Ponte his due. Photo by Felix Sanchez
Mozart's name is tied to some of the best music ever composed: including the operas Don Giovanni. Cosi fan tutte and The Marriage of Figaro. What has pretty much been left in the shadows — at least not a household name in 2019 — is the role of Lorenzo da Ponte, the libbrettist, who wrote the words to the music of those three operas.

Thanks to Houston Grand Opera that's about to change a bit with the world premiere of The Phoenix by composer Tarik O'Regan and librettist John Caird which tells da Ponte's sometimes sordid story complete with re-set after re-set in a life where re-invention necessitated by dire circumstances occurred more than once. It will run in repertoire with Don Giovanni — appropriate because more than one source says da Ponte's life was the source for the Don Giovanni title character. 

The Italian Da Ponte was more or less rescued thanks to a meeting and subsequent partnership with Mozart after he was banished from Venice. His ouster came after da Ponte, who was then a Roman Catholic priest and poet, was discovered to have a secret family with two children, as well as connections to the local brothels.  He met Mozart in Austria and the success they enjoyed together meant that he traveled in the highest levels of society.

But his luck turned bad again and bankrupt, da Ponte fled to America where he became a grocer of all things. But he still had another last act in him as he somehow ascended again and in 1833 established New York City's first opera company.

All of which makes perfect fodder for an opera, as its full title — The Phoenix or The Operatic Adventures of Lorenzo Da Ponte on Two Continents in Two Acts — makes clear. And it's a comedy.

Canadian-Tuniasian mezzo-soprano Rihab Chaieb is making her HGO debut in a trio of roles: as Maria Malibran, as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and as da Ponte's wife, Nancy. Her main role is of Maria Malibran. "She was a singer of the time, who did exist, who plays the role of Mozart and of Nancy da Ponte at various stages of her life," she says.

 "It is very complicated and it is more complicated when I think about the costume changes," she says. The opera is not just about da Ponte the librettist, she says. "It's also da Ponte the man with a thousand  faces and a thousand tricks in his bag,"

She auditioned in person in London to O'Regan while Caird watched it on Skype. "They wanted someone who can sing low, can sing high, can do coloratura." The music she says is definitely contemporary. " It's very tonal.  Tarik, his background, he's written a lot of choral music. For me the choral numbers in this opera are to die for." 

"Maria Malibran is sort of the perfect diva of the time. She died at 28. She had such a big intense career and she died of basically not being able to stop. She wanted to do and sing and do everything. She had FOMO which is fear of missing out. And she died from it because she got sing and she didn't want to cancel and she died.

"I think of her like any young, professional opera singer who wants to get there." Her own career, Chaieb says, took her from a spot in a heavy metal band to opera after her fellow band members told her she  had to take singing lessons for polishing. She googled "voice lessons Montreal" and ended up with a classical music teacher. "After two lessons I was like 'I'm done. This is what I'm doing.' I ditched my band." (She also has a college degree in math.)

Mozart was the hardest for her to play, she says. "I didn't want him to be so much like the movie Amadeus. He's very wild. You can hear that in his music. I did not ant to be a copy of that. Also you see the interactions between da Ponte and Mozart, these are very professional. We don't get so much into Mozart's personal life which was a mess. This is at the height of his career, his reputation. So we see him as more of a businessman as in, who am I going to have to hire for this next big thing that I have to write."

"Between Maria, Mozart and Nancy they are all people very forward-looking. They are all very independent people," she says. "They ll come into da Ponte's life at certain moments of his life kind of like little keys in the loc.  Because he met Mozart and then Mozart dies and something else happens. He was living a certain lifestyle that was not good for him and that's when he meets Nancy and Nancy kind of gives him a sense of home, security, a sense of belonging. He's air, she's earth." 

Like Mozart, da Ponte was not very good with money, Chaieb says. "Nancy was. She kept the books. She kept the family running. And she at the end of the day, she made the decisions."

One of the most compelling scenes is toward the end of the opera when Nancy makes a difficult decision that she knows da Ponte, who generally takes her for granted, won't like. "There's no words to describe it. They love each other."

Performances are scheduled for April 26 through May 10 at 7:30 p.m. Fridays, Saturday and Tuesday and 2 p.m. Sunday at the Wortham Center, 500 Texas. For information, call 713-228-6737 or visit houstongrandopera.org. Sung in English and Italian with projected English translation. $20-$245.
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Margaret Downing is the editor-in-chief who oversees the Houston Press newsroom and its online publication. She frequently writes on a wide range of subjects.
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