10 Sep 2019

An Englishman in Vienna: Stephen Storace

When his first opera, Gli sposi malcontenti, premiered at the Burgtheater in Vienna on 1st June 1985, the 23-year-old Stephen Storace must have been confident that his future fame and fortune were assured.

His celebrity-sibling, the soprano Nancy Storace, a favourite with Emperor Joseph II and prima buffa in the Italian opera troupe that he had established at the Burgtheater two years earlier, sang the role of Eginia - a young girl previously enamoured of Artidoro and now, as compelled by her fortune-hunting father, unhappily wed to Casimiro. Alongside Nancy was a roll call of Vienna’s finest: tenors Michael Kelly (as Valente, a middle-aged boffin) and Vincenzo Calvesi (Casimiro), baritone Stefano Mandini (Artidoro), bass Francesco Benucci (as Rosmondo, Casimiro’s grumpy, suspicious father), and sopranos Catarina Cavalieri (as Enrichetta, Casimiro’s sister) and Therese Teyber (as the meddling maid, Bettina).

Gli sposi malcontenti was followed in 1786 by Gli equivoci, with a libretto by Da Ponte based on Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors, which may well make it the first Shakespearian opera, predating Salieri’s Falstaff by several years. Yet, despite this promising start in Vienna, Stephen Storace ended his short career as de facto composer-in-residence at Richard Sheridan’s Drury Lane Theatre, having failed to find favour at London’s Italian opera company, and was scorned by subsequent critics as an uninspired arranger of pastiches. He died in 1796, at the age of just thirty-three years.

It was probably due to Nancy’s influence that her brother, who at that time had only some chamber music and a handful of songs to his name, and no previous experience of writing for the stage, was commissioned to write an opera for the Burgtheater. Sadly, it was also owing to Nancy’s incapacitation at the premiere, that the first night was a disaster.

Encouraged by her mother, Elizabeth, to wed the English violinist John Fisher (at eighteen years-of-age, she was barely half Fisher’s age), Nancy found herself married to a violent drunkard whose abuse adversely affected her health and threatened to derail her nascent career in Vienna. By the time, just a few months after their marriage on 29th March 1784, the Emperor had banned Fisher from Vienna for his abusive behaviour, Nancy was depressed, ill and pregnant. During the premiere of Gli sposi malcontenti she collapsed on-stage mid-aria in the opening act (some reports say that the performance was abandoned, others that the cover, Celestine Coltellini, stepped in). Nancy gave birth a few months later, whereupon Elizabeth Storace placed the baby girl in a foundling hospital, declaring that they didn’t care if the child lived or died: the unfortunate and unwanted baby duly obliged by perishing a few weeks later.

Nancy's return to the stage four months later was marked by the performance of the Cantata per la ricuperata di Ophelia, composed specially for the occasion by Mozart, Salieri and the unidentified ‘Cornetti’: perhaps it is not too far-fetched to speculate that Stephen himself was that third, anonymous contributor?

Nancy Storace.jpgAnn Selina (Nacny) Storace (1765-1817), attrib. Benjamin Vandergucht, c.1790 © National Portrait Gallery, London.

For, despite this inauspicious start, Gli sposi malcontenti entered the Burgtheater repertory and received many performances. In his book Antonio Salieri and Viennese Opera (University of Chicago Press, 1998), John Rice observes that while Emperor Joseph mixed comic operas written specifically for his Italian troupe with operatic imports from abroad - the troupe presented 62 operas at the Burgtheater between April 1783 and Joseph’s death in Feb 1790, of which only 23 were especially written for Vienna - the ‘home-grown’ operas tended to be given many more performances. Several operas received more than 20 performances and half of this group of favourites were written specifically for the Viennese troupe, including Figaro, Paisiello’s Il re Teodoro, Martìn’sUna cosa rara and L’arbore di Diana, Salieri’sLa grotta di Trofonio and Axur, and Storace’s Gli sposi malcontenti.

Performances of Gli sposi malcontenti were subsequently given across Europe: in Prague and Leipzig the following year, in Dresden in 1789, and (in French translation) in Paris in 1790. Some arias were arranged for wind band by Johann Went - a sign of their popularity and dissemination.

The son of a professional musician from Naples, Stephano, who had settled in London during the 1950s, and his wife Elizabeth, whose father, John Trusler, was an esteemed pastry cook and the proprietor of Marylebone Gardens, Stephen was born in London on 4th April 1762. A meeting with the Mozart family during their 1764-65 sojourn in England, encouraged Stephano to follow Leopold Mozart’s example in the education of his two musical prodigies, Wolfgang and Nannerl. Initially, Stephano taught his son violin, keyboard and composition, but fearing (probably rightly) that the quality of music education in London was inadequate, he sent Stephen to his alma mater, the San Onofrio Conservatory, under the care of an uncle who was a local bishop.

According to the Welsh landscape painter Thomas Jones, Stephen’s attentiveness to his studies left something to be desired. In his memoirs, Jones recounts several sketching expeditions throughout Italy which he undertook with the ‘a giddy, thoughtless young fellow’ as his companion, and the scrapes they got into may have prompted Stephano to travel to Italy in 1778 with his wife and the then twelve-year-old Nancy, who was already marking quite a mark as a singing prodigy.

In 1779, Stephen left San Onofrio and travelled with his family as Nancy pursued her career as an operatic soprano. The siblings met the Irish tenor Michael Kelly who, in his Reminiscences (1826), described them as ‘the warmest and most attached of all my friends’, and in 1783 Nancy and Kelly became members of Emperor Joseph II's opera buffa company at the Burgtheater.

Stephen Storace.jpgStephen Storace.

And, there they remained until Nancy, Stephen and Kelly returned to London in 1787. Their departure was delayed by Stephen’s arrest on 20th February by what Kelly described in his Reminiscences as drunken brawling at a Carnival ball. And, if we should doubt the garrulous Irishman’s account, Jane Girdham has shown that Stephen’s own words confirm the substance of the tenor’s tale, in the form of a letter addressed to a friend, J. Serres at 1 St George’s Row, Oxford Street, London, written on the morning after the night before [original spelling and punctuation preserved]:

'You might not have recieved a letter from me, so early as this, long good friend had it not been owing to a ridiculous circumstance that happen’d last night or rather early this morning - to make short of the story - it is some hours since I have been in a guard:house under an arrest-and of course having much leisure I know no better mode of passing my time than devoting it to my friends in England-but to inform you of some of the particulars - you must know that there never perhaps were so hard:a going sett of English in any one town out of England - as are at present in Vienna - we have lived these last six weeks almost in one continual scene of riot - amongst ourselves - as long as it remain’d so, nobody could find fault-but lately some of our youths - high:charged with the juice of French grapes - have made their occasional sallies - & exposed themselves to the natives especially at the Ridotta’s, or Masquerades - many of which have been given in the course of the newly expired Carneval a few nights ago the Honbl: Charles Lennox - Ld: Clifford and one or two others - courted some ladies-with rather too much vehemence-which occasion'd an order-that every Englishman that behaved with the least impropriety, at the ensueing Ridotta - (the one last night) should be put under an arrest-It so happen’d that about three oclock this morning as my Sister was dancing a minuet with Ld: Barnard, a Man who was standing by chose to stand in such a manner that Lord Barnard, turning the corner inadvertently trod on his toe - upon which he was rather impertinent-Ld: B took no notice but proceeded - on again coming to the same corner - the Gentleman took an opportunity of advancing still further into the ring & had nearly thrown him down - upon which I who was a stander by-with more spirit than prudence-asked him, ‘what he meant by being so impertinent as to attempt throwing down any gentleman that was dancing’ - he then immediately chose to use some very ungentlemanlike language - which I (who had rather too much Champaigne in me, though far beneath intoxication) could not brook - inshort words begat words - the whole rooms were presently in a confusion - the report was that an Englishman had mis:behaved we were almost press’d to death-by the multitudes that crowded round:us - my antagonist proved to be an officer-he immediatly apply’d to the officer of the guard - who sans:cerimonie put me under charge of a corporal’s guard - and I was conducted to the guard-house - from which place I have the honor of addressing to you this epistle - as all the English have taken up this matter warmly - I immagine I shall soon be liberated-and we shall strive hard to bring the aggressor to condign punishment.'

Storace seems to have borne his incarceration lightly, concluding his letter, ‘I can hardly refrain from laughing at the Idea of myself in durance vile.’ [1] In her book English Opera in Late Eighteenth Century London: Stephen Storace at Drury Lane (Clarendon Press, 1997), Gardham presents a comprehensive account of the little that is known of the details of Stephen’s biography, but remarks: ‘We may regret that the best documented event in Storace’s life was an incident of youthful indiscretion.’

Kings Theatre.jpgKing's Theatre, Haymarket, 1783, William Capon.

In London, the Storaces hoped to continue their careers in Italian opera at the King’s Theatre, meeting with some initial success as a singer and, in Stephen’s case, erstwhile arranger of pasticcios and director of music. Yet, despite their training and experience in opera buffa they were never fully accepted by the Italian clique. (Ironically, while Stephen emphasised his Englishness - both the score and libretto of Gli sposi malcontenti naming him as ‘Stefano Storace Inglese’ - Nancy affected an Italian accent and insisted her name be pronounced ‘Stora-ce’.) In 1788, Stephen moved to the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, where Sheridan already had Kelly in his employ, and he was followed shortly after by Nancy who became the company’s highest-paid singer.

After a failed attempt with a third Italian opera, La camariera astuta, Stephen devoted his Haymarket years to writing operas in English with spoken dialogue. Of his sixteen English operas, only one, No Song, no Supper, survives in full score. Not that these English operas were not popular: as late as 1864 a revival of No song, no supper at the Haymarket Theatre was, according to the reviewer in The Era (18 December) ‘most favourably received’, and the hope expressed that ‘a few more musical pieces from the old school may be similarly rescued from undeserved obscurity’. As Robert Fiske notes: ‘In view of numerous revivals in different theatres, many copies must have existed; presumably they perished in theatrical conflagrations. Twelve of the others were published, but only in vocal score with occasional instrumental indications, a sad fate for a composer in a position to benefit from Mozart's orchestration.’ [2]

And, the US was not immune to the pleasures of Stephen’s pasticcios. Otto E. Albrecht has charted opera performances in Philadelphia during the years 1800-30, noting that of the 258 different operas presented during this period ‘155 were British imports from the three Theatres Royal, Covent Garden, Drury Lane and the Haymarket’, and that ‘Those three Mozartians who left Vienna together in 1787, Michael Kelly the Irishman, Stephen Storace the Italian and Thomas Attwood the Londoner, between them accounted for no fewer than thirty of the operas given in Philadelphia in this period.’ [3]

Gli sposi malcontenti was, however, never performed in England during the 18th or 19 th centuries, although Storace was not averse to recycling his material and made frequent use of excerpts from both Gli equivoci and Gli sposi malcontenti in his English operas. From the latter, Storace imported two arias into The Pirates (1792), reused the overture in The Cherokee (1794) and made use of other excerpts in Mahmoud (1796).

The English premiere of Gli sposi malcontenti was given by Opera Viva at the New Theatre, King’s College London in March 1985, in a new English translation by Brian Trowell but the opera has not been performed since. Following Bampton Classical Opera’s 2000 production of Gli equivoci and more recent commemorative concert on the bicentenary of Nancy’s death, the company’s decision to return to the Storace siblings for their 2019 repertoire choice is most welcome. After performances earlier this summer at Bampton and Westonbirt, they bring their production of Gli sposi malcontenti - retitled in characteristically droll fashion, as Bride & Gloom (and performed in Trowell’s translation) - to St John’s Smith Square on Tuesday 17th September.

The libretto of Gli sposi malcontenti adheres to the familiar buffa recipe. Set in 18th-century Genoa, as the title suggests the plot centres on the ‘discontented newly-weds’, Eginia and Casimiro. Eginia is still burning a candle for Artidoro, but the latter’s eyes have been drawn by Casimiro’s sister, Enrichetta, and the pair are planning to elope. Valente, enraged by Enrichetta’s rejection of his own affections, salves his jealousy by spreading rumours that Artidoro and Eginia are having an affair. Casimiro and Rosmondo are alarmed by Artidoro’s suspicious behaviour. Valente, believing that his scheming is being aided by the maid, Bettina, exults in his success. But, Bettina has in fact exposed Valente’s villainy to Artidoro who arranges a nocturnal gathering in the garden so that the truth can be revealed, Eginia’s honour restored, and his marriage to Enrichetta assured.

Performed the year before the Viennese premiere of Le nozze di Figaro, Gli sposi malcontenti anticipates several features of Da Ponte’s action in the latter, not least an episode in which Artidoro hides behind and on a sofa, the muddle of mistaken identities in the night-time garden, and the final scene of reconciliation which sees Valente forgiven for his intrigues. Evidently, Beaumarchais’ Le mariage de Figaro was well-known, despite being banned in Vienna at that time.

Grove describes Gaetano Brunati’s libretto as well-constructed and suggests that Storace ‘manages to infuse the farcical misunderstandings with touching humanity. The music has a Mozartian flavour, combined with an English quality sometimes tending towards the ballad air’. Indeed, Robert Fiske ( Ibid.) has remarked that ‘About the time that his sister Nancy was creating the role of Susanna in Figaro, Stephen was having lessons in Vienna from its composer’, and although there is no certain evidence that Mozart gave Stephen lessons, they were certainly in close contact, and one may detect a Mozartian flavour in some aspects of his style, not least in the precedence that Stephen gave the music over the text. Fiske draws attention to an article on Storace in the Thespian Dictionary of 1802, which suggests that Stephen’s approach ‘cuts across the whole theory of English opera’: ‘It must, however, be remarked, that the words [of his librettos] were chiefly adapted to the music: indeed, Mr. Storace openly declared in a music-seller's shop in Cheapside (then Longman & Broderip’s) that it was impossible for any author to produce a good opera, without previously consulting his intended composer, for, added he, the songs must be introduced as he pleases, and the words (which are a secondary consideration) be written agreeably to his directions.’

Then, there is his predilection for ensembles and finales which further the action. Fiske goes as far as to suggest that, had he lived, ‘Storace might well have established fully-composed comic opera in the London playhouses.’ He argues that, at the King’s Theatre, Stephen: ‘turned his attention to educating his new public, who were primarily play-goers, and training them to foster a greater appreciation of the increasing integration of libretto and music on the stage. He introduced his London audiences to the multi-section finales that were commonplace in opera buffa, most notably in The Pirates (1792).’

Interestingly, Dorothea Link included arias by Stephen Storace in her three editions, Arias for Nancy Storace, Mozart’s First Susanna (2002),Arias for Francesco Benucci,Mozart’s first Figaro and Guglielmo (2004), andArias for Vincenzo Calvesi: Mozart’s First Ferrando (2011). In the preface to the 2002 edition which brings together fifteen of Nancy’s most popular arias, Link sets out her aim to ‘establish a basis for creating a vocal profile for Nancy Storace’ and to ‘allow aspiring Susannas to sing their way into the role with comparable repertory’.

Some expected ‘hits’ appear, such as ‘Deh vieni, non tardar’ ( Figaro), ‘Ah non ver che in seno’ from Salieri’s La scuola de gelosi , and ‘D’un dolce amor la face’ and ‘La ra la ra, che filosofo buffon’ from the latter’s La grotta di Trofonio , but Link also notes that Stephen Storace composed many of the ‘hits in productions other than premieres’, and selects five examples from his work, including ‘Compatite miei signori’ (1783), a substitute aria for Giuseppe Sarti’s Fra i due litiganti, and ‘Care donne che bramate’ which was inserted into Paisiello’s Il re Teodoro in Venezia for the opera’s London premiere in December 1787. Stephen’s recitative and aria ‘Fra quest’orror ... Ma tarde le la grime’ from Gli sposi malcontenti serves as ‘an example of an aria for which Nancy wished to be admired’.

To conclude, Fiske’s assessment of Stephen Storace’s work suggests that it has languished in undeserved neglect:

‘Alone of English eighteenth-century composers, Storace and [Charles] Dibdin had a sense of the theatre, a feeling for characterisation and dramatic effect. Arne's melody was more refined, but neither he, [William] Boyce, nor [William] Shield, let alone small fry like [Samuel] Arnold, had this gift for composing so to speak visually, with the stage effect in mind as the notes go down on paper. Nor had they the advantage of knowing Figaro and its composer.’

Bampton Classical Opera performs Stephen Storace’s Gli sposi malcontenti (Bride & Gloom) at St John’s Smith Square, London at 7pm on Tuesday 17th September 2019. There will be a pre-performance talk at 6pm.

Claire Seymour

[1] S. Storace to J. Serres Esq., 21st February 1787, Vienna (Harvard Theatre Collection), reproduced in Jane Girdham, 'Note on Stephen Storace and Michael Kelly', Music & Letters 76/1 (1995): 64-67.

[2] Roger Fiske, 'The Operas of Stephen Storace', PRMA 86 (1959-60): 29-44.

[3] Albrecht, Otto E. Albrecht, 'Opera in Philadelphia, 1800-1830', Journal of the American Musicological Society 32/3 (1979): 499-515. The operas by Storace identified by Albrecht are: My Grandmother, 27th January 1804; The Haunted Tower, or The Baron of Oakland, 3rd February 1800;The Siege of Belgrade, 11th February 1800; No Song, no Supper, 17th February 1800; The Prize, or 2, 5, 3, 8, 9th April 1800; The Doctor and the Apothecary, 6th February 1804; The Iron Chest, or Honor’s Victim, 1810. These operas were all also performed in Philadelphia during the 1790s.