Entertainment Music

Sunday 18 February 2018

Classical: The sad life and death of Mozart's favourite soprano

Salieri and Mozart
Salieri and Mozart

George Hamilton

It was the names of Mozart and Salieri in the same sentence that caught my eye. The rivalry between two of the big names in the Golden Age of Vienna was the stuff of legend. The Russian playwright Alexander Pushkin made a drama out of it. So too did the English writer Peter Shaffer, whose stage play Amadeus was turned into a box-office blockbuster that won the Oscar for Best Picture back in 1984.

Rumours about Mozart's demise abounded, among them the suggestion that Salieri had driven him into an early grave, quite possibly by poisoning him. If any confirmation were needed that this take was wide of the mark, it came in the press report I'd been reading.

Far from being two artists at loggerheads, they'd come together, with a third party long forgotten, to compose a cantata, a musical token of gratitude for the recovery of a star performer, an English soprano with an Italian name - Nancy Storace.

What brought this story back to the news pages was that the score of the cantata - long lost - had recently turned up in a museum in Prague, and the song had just had its first performance in more than 200 years.

The story of Nancy Storace has a bit of Irish in it, as it happens. The year is 1747. Stefano Storace, a double bass player from Naples, leaves home for the Dublin of Handel's Messiah, lured by a city at the centre of European music-making at the time.

Not long after, he's in London, playing at the Marylebone Pleasure Gardens. He falls for the owner's daughter. Nancy, their child, born in 1765, is a prodigy, making her singing debut as an eight-year-old at the Haymarket Theatre.

Her parents wanted the best for her, so they took her to Venice where she had the top teachers, and that opened the doors to a career among the greats.

She was spotted by the Austrian Emperor Joseph, and hired for Vienna. She impressed Mozart, who wrote the role of Susanna in The Marriage of Figaro for her. She was only 20 when she sang in the première.

The Emperor was smitten, and it was widely reported that she was his mistress. Whatever about that, she was close enough to him to come under his protection.

When it turned out the man she'd married at her mother's behest was beating her up, Emperor Joseph had him banned from Vienna. The unsuitable husband - an older man, a violinist called John Fisher - ended up in Dublin, where he supported himself by teaching and giving the occasional concert at the Rotunda.

Nancy Storace had an immaculate voice, right across the range, but singing to her full potential put incredible demands upon it. Mid-performance one night, her voice gave up on her, and she couldn't sing for fully five months.

The Mozart-Salieri cantata - For The Recovery of Ophelia, they called it - was written to celebrate her return to the stage.

She was still only in her early 20s when she decided to go back to London, where she continued to perform. She was a regular partner of the Irish tenor Michael Kelly, who'd sung alongside her in Vienna at the première of The Marriage of Figaro.

She went touring again, and continued to draw the high and mighty. Those who came to see her included Napoleon Bonaparte and Horatio Nelson, and their respective ladies.

Nancy never made it to a ripe old age. She was just 51 when she suffered a stroke from which she never recovered, a rich talent who quite probably never realised her full potential.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm each Saturday and Sunday morning from 10am

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