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Bampton Classical Opera, <em>Songs for Nancy</em>: St John’s Smith Square, 7th March 2018
26 Feb 2018

Songs for Nancy: Bampton Classical Opera celebrate legendary soprano, Nancy Storace

Bampton Classical Opera’s 25th anniversary season opens with a concert on 7th March at St John’s Smith Square to celebrate the legendary soprano Nancy Storace.

Bampton Classical Opera, Songs for Nancy: St John’s Smith Square, 7th March 2018

Above: Nancy Storace (1788) by Pietro Bettelini (1763-1829)


Anglo-Italian soprano Ann Selina (Nancy) Storace (1765-1817) was renowned for her vocal prowess and remarkable stage presence, enjoying a glittering career across Europe. Recruited for Emperor Joseph II’s new Italian opera company, she dazzled audiences in 18th-century Vienna and enthralled the leading composers of the day; not least one Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart who created the role of Susanna in Le nozze di Figaro specifically for her.

Nancy’s father, Stefano, originally from Naples, was a professional double bass player in London and Dublin. He recognized the talent exhibited by his eight-year-old daughter, who could sing sweetly and sight-read effortlessly, and nurtured her precocity - perhaps, some have suggested, at the price of a long-lived career. In August 1773, she appeared in Hampshire with the violinist Ximenez, and their concert was so successful that a repeat was demanded. (So, Stefano left his young daughter alone in Southampton, while he travelled to Worcester to perform in the Three Choirs Festival!) [1]

Stefano arranged for Nancy to study in London with the Italian castrato and composer Venanzio Rauzzini (1746-1810) and, at the age of eleven, she took a minor role in his opera, L’ali d’amo. Two years later, she and her parents travelled to Italy to join her brother Stephen, a composer, and immediately she impressed in Naples and Florence. She was not yet sufficiently wise to the profession’s games and pitfalls, however, and found herself sacked from the Florentine Pergola Theatre, after she offended the castrato Luigi Marchesi whose vocal tricks she dared to effortlessly imitate.

The Storaces travelled to Lucca, Leghorn (where she met life-long friend, the Irish tenor Michael Kelly), Milan, Parma and Venice. Success, and wealth, seemed hers for the taking. An Imperial talent scout, Count Durazzo, snapped her up (along with Kelly) and Nancy found herself installed as prima donna of opera buffa at Emperor Joseph II’s Burgtheatre. By 1782, at the age of just seventeen, she was undoubtedly a European star.

Nancy’s ambitious mother encouraged her to marry the wealthy violinist and music scholar, John Abraham Fisher, who was more than twice her age. Fisher’s threatening, violent behaviour led the Emperor to order his exile, and thereafter there was much speculation about Nancy’s private life - was she the mistress of Mozart, or even the Emperor? In February 1787, following a quarrel between Kelly and a Bohemian officer, and Stephen Storace’s drunken antics at a ball, the Storace clan returned to London. Nancy had caught the eye of the young English aristocratic Lord Barnard, and after they had travelled homeward together he attended the performance which marked her return to London: a royal gala performance of Paisiello’s Gli schiavi per amore (The slave of love) at the King’s Theatre Haymarket on 24th April 1787 London, that was attended by the Prince of Wales. Yet, just three months later, Barnard had deserted Nancy and married.

She maintained a discrete liaison with the Jewish tenor John Braham, nine years her junior, with whom she toured Europe in 1797. Although they could not marry (as Fisher was still living, until 1806), they set up house and a son, William Spencer Harris Braham, was born on 3rd May 1802.

Anna Selina Storace c.1790 Benjamin Van der Gucht (1753-1794).jpgAnna Selina Storace (c.1790) by Benjamin Van der Gucht (1753-1794) from the Collection of the National Portrait Gallery.

During these years, Nancy’s voice was beginning to fade and, while her acting abilities continued to be praised, in 1801 the Times noted that her voice was ‘occasionally affected by a little hoarseness’; the same year the Chronicle suggested thatshe would do more … if she attempted to do less’. [2] Nancy retired in 1808: her farewell to the stage was her brother’s No Sing, No Supper, alongside her old friend Kelly. Her relationship with Braham deteriorated - he eloped at end of 1815 with Sophie Wright, who had been a close friend of the couple - and she died in 1817 in Dulwich.

So, was Nancy was one of the 18th century’s operatic darlings? Or, as one scholar has suggested, was she ‘exploited not only by theater managers and impresarios, but by family and friends as well, who used her for their own purposes.’ [3]

Bampton Classical Opera marks the bicentenary of Nancy’s death with a fascinating concert of music associated with her, including arias sung by sopranos Jacquelyn Stucker, currently a Jette Parker Young Artist at the Royal Opera (whose roles this season include Azema ( Semiramide ), Countess Ceprano (Rigoletto) and Frasquita ( Carmen )) and Rhiannon Llewellyn, who sang the role of the Countess in the company’s production of Salieri’s The School of Jealousy last year. The performance will be conducted by Andrew Griffiths, a graduate of The Royal Opera’s JPYA Programme. The concert brings together a number of significant works with which Nancy was linked.

Salieri School of Jealousy.jpg Alessandro Fisher (Count) and Rhiannon Llewellyn (Countess) in Salieri’s The School of Jealousy, Bampton Classical Opera, 2017.

I spoke with both Jacquelyn and Rhiannon as they prepared to inhabit the legendary soprano’s shoes. I was interested in whether young singers training today are taught about, or consider, past singers and historic contexts? For example, if one is learning the role of Susanna, does one reflect on the first performance and the role’s initial interpreter?

Jacquelyn explained that, while she could not speak for all young singers, “looking up the soprano who premiered a role that interests me is how I discover new repertoire, particularly for Baroque and Classical works. I do think that the way we sing now is different from the way singers would sing in the past - for example, the most powerful part of a soprano’s voice in Handel’s heyday was right in the middle of the staff, which is why the A sections of his da capo arias always feature a cadence right in the middle of the soprano vocal range. Ask most sopranos singing now about their middle voice (myself included!), and I’m willing to bet that you’ll get a variety of responses: an eye-roll, a shrug, perhaps some self-effacing laughter.

“And, here’s why: in terms of modern technique, it can really be a temperamental part of the voice, whereas the voice at the top of the staff is much more secure for sopranos [which also, she explains, relates to how instruments and orchestras have changed]. To address this, sopranos now often ornament these final cadences into the highest parts of their range - it’s in the spirit of what Handel intended, but it accommodates modern technique. So, I think taking a few minutes to be aware of the singer who created a role is always wise as an awareness of what has been done before can serve to inform our own choices. However, times and expectations and techniques have changed apropos how we study and listen to and execute works in the Western canon, and the only way to possibly add something to the larger artistic discourse is to use our unique voices to declaim the text as truthfully and as diligently as we can.”

Jacquelyn IMG Artists.jpgJacquelyn Stucker. Photo courtesy of IMG Artists.

Obviously ‘career paths’ are very different today … but, I wondered whether the challenges that singers such as Storace faced bore any resemblance to the hurdles that young professionals today have to climb? Interestingly, both Jacquelyn and Rhiannon were keen to emphasise some of the factors and circumstances that had stayed the same or changed only a little. For Jacquelyn, “Performing new music is a huge part of my professional life, and it sounds like it was an important part of Nancy’s as well! This programme of music written especially for Nancy Storace has reaffirmed for me how important it is for singers of any generation to collaborate with living composers and perform new music. In my experience, composers enjoy writing music that singers want to sing, that feels good to sing - seeing how Haydn, Stephen Storace, Salieri, and Mozart all achieved this within their own musical language only reaffirms for me how productive and creative the composer-singer relationship can be.”

Interestingly, Jacquelyn is currently preparing for a solo recital presented through the Jette Parker Young Artist Programme which comprises three large works: one UK premiere, one European premiere, and one world premiere - and, two of the three composers featured on the concert are travelling to London from the US to attend the recital. The recital is entitled Fragments of Life: Songs of Loss, of Memory, of What Happens Next, and Jacquelyn’s excitement at being able to bring works by Federico Favali, John Harbison, and Mark Kilstofte to the London music scene is clear. The performance is at 1pm at St. Clement Danes on The Strand on Monday 26 th March, and admission is free - “And, really, when else would you get to hear a world premiere on your lunch break?”

Is the need for present-day singers to ‘promote’ themselves via social media etc. actually quite similar to Stefano’s promotion of his daughter, albeit in different contexts? And, Nancy was propelled into the limelight at such an early age: not so different from some modern child-stars, perhaps?

Jacquelyn remarked, “I cannot even imagine the pressure she must have been under! I also read that she had a unique and vibrant personality, so a part of me thinks she was, even at such a tender age, up for the challenge of being in the public eye for a significant part of her adolescence.

“My perspective on this subject is heavily influenced by my experience as a singer trained in the United States, but I do think there is a similar pressure on singers now to promote themselves: get the ‘right’ headshots, make a ‘proper’ website, matriculate into the ‘posh’ YAPs - to curate a public image, a brand, a pedigree. In my opinion, there is less pressure to do this here in the UK, but there is significantly more pressure to really say something artistically in a powerful way every time you open your mouth to sing. There is also more demanded of singers in terms of their dramatic ability. I fully admit that my view of this profession is more narrow than I’d like it to be, but these are the honest impressions I have based on working in both of these countries. Truth be told, I’m grateful for both approaches to modern professionalism. I think they are essential to becoming a well-rounded modern performer-entrepreneur, which is the global expectation at large, as I perceive it, for young singers.”

rhiannon-llewellyn .jpgRhiannon Llewellyn.

Then there’s the question of needing to travel to develop and nurture a budding career. While it must have been much more taxing in a practical, and financial, sense in the eighteenth century, it never ceases to amaze me how singers today seem to have to whizz, exhaustingly, around the globe at the drop of an audition-invitation.

Rhiannon agreed that there are some similarities but noted that one essential difference is that to travel to from London to Vienna in the late-eighteenth century was no casual enterprise: one needed not inconsiderable money and time. The Storaces’ journey to Europe took months of planning and fundraising. And, once you had arrived, you stayed put. Nowadays, singers are constantly receiving last minute calls to travel to Oslo or Zurich or further afield to undertake auditions, the outcomes of which are uncertain. “It sometimes feels as if one is constantly gambling.”

Storace and Cornetti are really just ‘names from history’ today; audiences have little knowledge of or familiarity with their music. As a singer, is there a difference in the way that one prepares such repertoire? Jacquelyn observed, “My approach to repertoire is always the same no matter if the piece is well-known or not: I always start with the most complicated element, which is (based on the repertoire I tend to sing) either the words or the rhythms. I always like to cmemorize the poems and speak them to myself constantly. (It drives my husband totally crazy.) Then, I work out the notes as much as I can away from the piano. Sight-singing the vocal part helps it stick in my brain better, for some reason - I think it helps me work out how the piece is organized, and understanding form is how I memorize pieces. I like having one approach for everything I sing - it makes assimilating music much faster; I have a technique that works, and I apply it every time. It took me a few years to figure out my method, but this has worked for me over the past three years.”

One among many of the less familiar and more intriguing works on Bampton’s Storace programme is the cantata Per la ricuperata salute di Ofelia, which, I think, is receiving its first full performance since it was presented with harpsichord accompaniment in 2016 , following the rediscovery of a printed score from 1785 in the archives of the Czech national music.

The title of the cantata (‘For the recovered health of Ophelia’), for which Lorenzo Da Ponte wrote the libretto, derives from the work’s origins. It was designed to celebrate Storace’s recovery after a ‘vocal crisis’ at the age of nineteen forced the singer to retreat from the stage for four months. Chancellor describes how, in June 1785, Nancy suddenly lost her voice at the beginning of the premiere performance of her brother's opera Gli sposi malcontenti: ‘Though it was then tactfully rumored that this resulted from the emotional stress of an unhappy marriage, it is much more credible that the strain of being eight months pregnant—her child died soon after birth the following month—and the added stress of an appearance before the emperor and the Duke of York, then on a state visit, while she was suffering from a throat infection, were the real causes of the disaster.’ [4] Her return to the stage seems to have brought about a collaboration between composers, Salieri and Mozart (and the little-known Cornetti), so often considered bitter rivals.

Stephen Storace.jpgStephen Storace.

Jacquelyn considers the music of Per la ricuperata salute di Ofelia as “anything but dramatic or florid, in my opinion! It is balanced, it embraces simplicity, and it has a bit of a wide compass in the vocal line, much in the way ‘Deh, vieni’ [which she is also performing in the Bampton programme] does. In practising this work, I’ve decided that its charm lies in how exposed it is for the singer, and how well the singer can simply sing a beautiful legato line.

Interesting, Rhiannon makes similar observations about another contemporary ‘hit’, written especially for Nancy by Martin y Soler: ‘Dolce mu parve un di’ from Una cosa rara, finding the aria lyrical and sensuous. Jacquelyn also remarks that ‘Deh, vieni’ and the role of Susanna in general “does not sit particularly high in the voice - which is what Nancy was known for, from what I’ve read”. Rhiannon - who has recently been singing the role of the Countess in Figaro, with The Merry Opera Company, similarly finds ‘Porgi amor’ beautiful but quite low-lying. She added: “Look at the roles she sang! Despina is a pretty, party-girl, who doesn’t take things too seriously. I think that this was Nancy … it was, and is, okay to be a little irreverent at times!”

Jacquelyn agreed, “I am of the opinion that Susanna [Figaro] was modelled more after Nancy’s personality than her instrument, and I think that’s kind of fantastic. Whether or not this is accurate, I love thinking that a composer would write a piece for a singer as a human being with a voice and not just a voice with a personality attached.” Similarly, Rhiannon suggested that the music written for her confirms that Nancy Storace must have first and foremost been a terrific actress - this might explain some of the vocal writing, which is almost “nonsensical at times!”

Mozart’s ‘Ch’io mi scordi di te’ was written for Nancy’s farewell concert in Vienna which took place on 23rd February 1787 (with Mozart playing the piano obbligato part). I asked Jacquelyn if she sensed her predecessor’s vocal strengths and qualities in this concert aria? Is this aria, and the role of Susanna, a ‘tribute to her talent’?

“Absolutely. Nancy was known earlier in her career for her amazing high notes, but she must have had, in the later stages of her singing life, truly remarkable command over her lower passaggio (which is, for us lighter sopranos, a tricky part of the voice). This concert aria also places the text in the middle of the voice, which means articulating the words is much easier than in other concert arias Mozart wrote. Because of this, it’s clear to me that Nancy must have been a dynamic performer with an unshakeable commitment to text. She definitely left some big shoes to fill, but I love knowing that Mozart wrote this amazing music for a spitfire of a woman who also happened to be an amazing musician.”

Claire Seymour

Bampton Classical Opera, Songs for Nancy: St John’s Smith Square, 7th March 2018, 7.30pm
Jacquelyn Stucker and Rhiannon Llewellyn (sopranos), Andrew Griffiths (conductor and piano), CHROMA

Concert programme: Sarti - Fra i due litiganti il terzo gode, Overture; Mozart - Le nozze di Figaro, ‘Giunse al fin il momento … Deh vieni’; Stephen Storace - No song, no supper, Overture & ‘With lowly suit’; Salieri - La scuola de’ gelosi, Overture & ‘Or ei con Ernestina … Ah sia già de’ miei sospiri’; Haydn - Cantata, Miseri noi, misera patri & Symphony No.83 (‘The Hen’); Martin y Soler - Una cosa rara, ‘Dolce mi parve un di’; Mozart, Salieri, Cornetti - Cantata, Per la ricuperata di Ofelia; Mozart -‘Ch’io mi scordi di te’ K505.

[1] See V.E. Chancellor, ‘Nancy Storace: Mozart’s Susanna’, The Opera Quarterly, Volume 7, Issue 2, 1 July 1990: 104-124.

[2] Isabelle Putnam Emerson, Five Centuries of Women Singers (Praeger, 2005)

[3] Chancellor, op.cit., p.105.

[4] Chancellor, op.cit., p.107.

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