Review: ‘That True Phoenix’ Tells the Tale of Da Ponte, Mozart’s Famed Librettist
By Miles Harter, Contributing Writer, April 28, 2017
That True Phoenix tells the story of the fascinating and long life of Lorenzo Da Ponte, who is best known for being the librettist of three of Mozart’s greatest operas, Don Giovanni, The Marriage of Figaro, and Così fan tutte. He was born Jewish in 1749 in Ceneda, now part of Italy. In his teens, he was baptized as a Catholic and later ordained as a priest. He became a literature professor at a seminary in Venice, and began writing poetry in Italian and Latin. But he also lived a dissolute life, fathering two children with a mistress. He was charged and convicted of crimes relating to his immoral behavior, and was banished from Venice for 15 years. From there he moved to Austria, where he met the composer Antonio Salieri, famously played by F. Murray Abraham as the jealous rival of Mozart in the movie Amadeus. He wrote with Salieri, and also while in Austria, he collaborated with Mozart on three operas.
In the 1790s, with his companion, Nancy Grahl, Da Ponte, always experiencing precarious financial setbacks, decided to relocate to England. In London, in 1803, he became a librettist at the King’s Theatre, and, incongruously, a grocer and Italian teacher. But Da Ponte continually experienced money issues, and soon, debt and bankruptcy led to their move to the U.S. In Pennsylvania, he again ran a grocery store and taught Italian. He met Clement Clark Moore, a professor and president at Columbia College, and best known now as the author of ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas. Moore helped Da Ponte gain an appointment to the faculty at Columbia, and Da Ponte also became instrumental in introducing opera to the U.S. He became an American citizen in 1828 at age 79, and shortly afterwards, in 1833, founded an opera house in New York. He died in 1838 at age 89.
The playwright, Daniel John Kelley, and the director, Christopher Dierckson, report most of this story in a non-linear fashion, using many rapid-fire and humorous scenes and flashbacks. The title of the play comes from a letter from Mozart to his father about opera and poetry, remarking, “The best thing is when a good composer meets an able poet, that true phoenix.” Through many of Mr. Kelley’s lines we get some glimpses of Da Ponte’s poetic use of language.
The engaging Curry Whitmire comically plays Da Ponte. Isaiah Tanenbaum is gifted as the genius Mozart, who in 2017 has the ability to look back at Da Ponte’s long and full life. He wistfully grumbles, in 21st century argot: “You lived! Like really lived! Like in the way I always wished I could have!”
Dierckson capably guides the remaining ensemble cast of four – Samantha Fairfield Walsh, Kayla Jackmon, Siho Ellsmore, and Sarin Monae West. They energetically play many different roles, fluidly shifting personas, covering such luminaries as Salieri, Emperor Joseph of Austria, Moore, Eliza Hamilton, and Casanova. Although most of the action is portrayed in broad and frenetic gestures, Ms. Walsh stands out as Da Ponte’s chief love interest, Nancy. She graces us with sympathetic moments, particularly as she leaves for America with their children, but without Da Ponte. She ultimately tenderly welcomes him when he finally joins them in the U.S at age 56 to begin the next 30 years of his life.
That True Phoenix, presented at The Access Theater, 380 Broadway, by Team Awesome Robot, running through Sunday, May 7. Written by Daniel John Kelley. Directed by Christopher Dierckson; projection design by Chet Miller; properties design by Jennifer Neads; lighting design by Chelsie McPhilimy; sound design by Beth Lake; costume design by Caitlin Cisek. Cast: Curry Whitmire, Isaiah Tanenbaum, Samantha Fairfield Walsh, Kayla Jackmon, Siho Ellsmore, and Sarin Monae West.
Cover: (l. to r.) Samantha Fairfield Walsh, Curry Whitmire and Isaiah Tanenbaum in ‘That True Phoenix;’ photo: Yvonne Hartung.