(Bampton Classical Opera with Chroma at St John’s Smith Square, 7 March 2018)
This portrait isn’t immediately arresting, it’s true. The sitter, for all her charm, is no great beauty and she’s dressed with tasteful understatement. Her chief attraction is that pair of searching, intelligent black eyes. But, if you’d lived in the late 18th century, you’d have instantly recognised her as one of the most popular singers of the age. She made her debut at the age of seven and became the toast of opera houses throughout Italy, before being invited to Vienna by the Emperor himself. Here she became a favourite of Mozart and Salieri, both of whom composed music for her. She created the role of the Countess in Salieri’s School of Jealousy and was Mozart’s first Susanna in Figaro. And, amazingly, she was a Londoner: born and bred in Marylebone. On the eve of International Women’s Day, Bampton Classical Opera turned the spotlight firmly onto Anna Selina Storace (1765-1817), known as ‘Nancy’, focusing on music written especially for her.
Nancy Storace was a child prodigy. The daughter of an Italian musician, she made her debut in 1773 and performed at the Haymarket Theatre at the age of eight the following year. Two years later, she appeared in her first opera at the Haymarket and then, at thirteen, she went with her parents to Italy for further training. (Her brother Stephen, an equally precocious composer, had already moved abroad.) It was in Italy that Nancy met the group of singers with whom she would work for most of her career. They became so close that, when the Emperor Joseph II sent an agent to Italy, searching for singers to form a new Italian opera in Vienna, Nancy and her friends were taken on as a group. Nancy would only spend four years in Vienna, from 1783 until her return to London in 1787, but this coincided with a remarkable musical outpouring from the court composers Mozart and Salieri, whose music got the concert underway.
Salieri’s School of Jealousy was last year’s summer production at Bampton and so it’s fitting that we started off with the overture. It’s a delightful piece, straight into all the sparkle of late 18th-century Vienna, with French horns adding extra jauntiness. The ensemble, Chroma, played with a very nice light touch, contrasting the fluttering effervescence of some of the notes with gutsy sweeps of sound. This was succeeded by Mozart, namely Susanna’s recitative and aria Giunse al fin il momento… Deh vieni, non tardar from The Marriage of Figaro. Here we’re at the end of the opera. Susanna, disguised as the Countess, is waiting in the garden as the comedy of errors builds to its conclusion. Knowing that her husband Figaro is sneaking around in the darkness, suspecting her of waiting for the Count, she teases him by singing of her love for the man she awaits, urging him to hurry up (of course, she’s waiting for Figaro himself).
Two sopranos were sharing the singing tonight and Susanna’s aria was taken on by Jacquelyn Stucker, a young American singer whom I hadn’t seen before. I had immediate dress envy when she came on in a sleek one-shouldered black gown, but this was swiftly succeeded by admiration for her lovely voice and sprightly delivery. She embodied all Susanna’s playfulness, with beautiful control over the held notes, the smoky undertones of her voice giving the aria an underlying self-confidence that worked perfectly for the character. And she was so very expressive. I scribbled in the margin of my programme: ‘Star in the making’. It’s an impression that was only confirmed as the night went on.
Stucker stayed on for the next song too, With lowly suit, which is taken from the oddly-titled No song, no supper by Nancy’s beloved brother Stephen. It was one of Nancy’s favourite pieces and she chose it for her retirement performance in 1808 (by which point Stephen had been dead for eight years). First there was the overture from the piece, stately and flourishing with horns, which gave way to Mozartian ripples of strings – graceful and sweeping. Yet there was a definite sense of something English about the music, and this became clearer in the aria, which had some musical motifs which reminded me of English popular songs. Not to mention the awkward lyrics. I always wince at English libretti from this period – perhaps because they sound so leaden in comparison to the poetic grace of their Italian counterparts – and Storace’s was no exception. Using the word ‘ditty’ in a serious song is crime enough, but it’s even worse when you can see the inevitable rhyme ‘pity’ approaching with all the inevitability of a train at full speed. A slap on the wrist for 18th-century English librettists, please. As for the music, however, it was rather catchy and I was humming along by the final verse. Again Stucker performed rather than merely sang, and I found myself smiling at her sheer exuberant – grinning like a Cheshire cat as she received her applause.
There was a musical interlude with an overture from Giuseppe Sarti’s Fra i due litiganti il terzo gode, which was the first opera with a role written especially for Nancy (the maidservant Dorina). She was only sixteen at the time. By this point, I was becoming uncomfortably aware that everything from this period, be it from Italy or Vienna, just sounded a bit like Mozart to me, and Sarti was no exception. A very jolly opening had tantalising melodies peeking through and excitable flairs of brass, fading into a more subtle section and finishing off with a dramatic ending where the notes swirled around as if gearing up for a storm aria. Sarti really isn’t someone I know at all, but I think I need to look up some of his work, as he was greatly admired at the time and Mozart included a riff on one of his arias in Don Giovanni, in the dinner scene, where he teases his audience with some of the ‘greatest hits’ of the time.
We returned to Salieri’s School of Jealousy for a vocal piece: the recitative and aria sung by the poor betrayed Countess, Or ei con Ernestina… Ah sia gia de’ miei sospiri. Fittingly, this was performed by Rhiannon Llewellyn, who sang the role of the Countess last summer and whose performance I very much enjoyed. This is a sweeter, gentler role than Stucker’s feisty Susanna and Llewellyn’s voice matched the part, offering up a credible picture of a loving woman trying to forgive her errant husband. As she dreams of renewing their love, the music sparks into greater energy – ‘Torna, torna amato sposo’ (‘Return, return, my beloved husband’) she urges – and the aria concludes with those startlingly high notes which caught my attention last time. They are so high that I still feel they were very, very slightly pushed, but it was a satisfyingly dramatic conclusion.
Stucker returned for the final piece of Part 1, Haydn’s ‘war cantata’ Miseri noi, misera patria, and I shivered with anticipation, because I felt pretty sure that we were in for some fun. I’ll confess that it didn’t initially live up to expectations, as the first half focused on the raw agonies of a suffering people (I scribbled in my notes: ‘I’m not sure that Haydn and I agree on what constitutes a war cantata’). But what was this?! The music suddenly became a bit more cheerful, though I wasn’t sure how that fitted the accompanying lyrics about ‘The grim horror of death’ – and then, as Stucker’s character anticipates the arrival of the conqueror himself, the music ramped up and became properly angry, which was what I’d been waiting for all along. Stucker unleashed a formidable run of coloratura and finished with flashing eyes and grand gestures (‘Saved!’ I wrote with relief). It was a bit of delicious swagger to round things off for the interval.
As usual, the second half was slightly shorter, and got underway with more Haydn: Symphony No. 83 in G Minor, to be precise, nicknamed ‘The Hen’. I enjoyed this immensely – though it was somewhat longer than I expected, being used to the five-minute sinfonia of Baroque operas rather than the half-hour symphonies of the classical period. I confess I spent much of the time trying to listen for the ‘hen’ within the symphony and I was a bit slow on the uptake, although H, who was with me, afterwards said she’d got the ‘henniness’ much more quickly. It was certainly cheerful and fluttering and maybe has some pecking rhythms – the wind instruments came in with clucking sounds at one point – but I was clearly being a bit too demanding (‘A bit more like sparrows twittering, if we’re being pedantic,’ I wrote at one point).
However, the key thing was that it was a rather lovely piece of music, with a sweet recurring central melody, and Chroma pulled it off with great panache – even though a large portion of the audience shared my misconceptions about the length, and applauded enthusiastically after the first Allegro, not realising there were three more movements to go (defiantly, they then applauded after every movement, as if it was a deliberate choice). Next up was the Andante; followed by a Minuet and trio, which felt as if we’d suddenly strayed into a ballroom in a Jane Austen novel, with chirruping flutes added for good measure; and finally the Vivace, which I liked very much, with swirling strings and horns. I was still, admirably, trying to see the ‘hen’ (‘A squabbling, panicking flock?’ I wrote hopefully).
Llewellyn returned for the cavatina Dolce mi parve un di from Vicente Martin y Soler’s opera Una cosa rara. In contrast to the very long Haydn, this was very short, but pretty nevertheless: a dreamy and delicate meditation on how love used to seem so sweet. It sounds as though it should be a sorrowful piece, but in fact Llewellyn sang with a confiding lightness that suggested she hadn’t quite given up all hope of love’s return. She was succeeded by Stucker again, who came on to sing a cantata Per la ricuperata salute di Ofelia. This piece is actually an extraordinary example of collaboration: it was written in 1785, especially to celebrate Nancy’s recovery after an illness, with a text by Lorenzo da Ponte, and music written jointly by Mozart, Salieri and a less familiar composer called Cornetti. Imagine Mozart and Salieri working together on a cantata! The conductor Andrew Griffiths took over the piano part himself – and I noted wryly that, despite the (part) authorship, this was the first piece in the programme that didn’t actually sound much like Mozart at all. Predictably, Stucker sang very well, but the piece was hamstrung by da Ponte’s less-than-thrilling libretto, which was all about shepherdesses called Phyllis and little white lambs (I will never understand the pastoral fascination of this age). Nevertheless, it was a fascinating curiosity and well worth hearing.
We concluded with a concert aria written by Mozart for Nancy just before she left Vienna and came back to London, Ch’io scordi de te? It deals with parting and the sorrow of a beloved whose lover urges her to go to marry someone else. Stucker sang with brimming emotion and a slight measure of disdain, although by the end of the piece her character is almost crushed by the cruelty of the stars. The piano, again played by Griffiths, came in for the central section – it feels odd to me to hear a piano in music of this period, simply because I’m so used to harpsichords – but the end gathered up all its orchestral energies for a triumphant finish, lingering on the character’s faithful heart (‘Un fido cor!’), and Stucker’s voice rang defiantly out through the church. She was excellent throughout – so emotionally invested in everything she sang. I’d love to see her in a really strong female Baroque role, as I’m sure she’d absolutely conquer it.
Tightly-focused concerts like this are always fun because you learn so much about the historical context as well as the music, and I was glad to see Nancy Storace rising again from the shadows. I was very impressed by Chroma and by Andrew Griffiths’s spirited conducting – he was clearly having a wonderful time bouncing along to Haydn’s Hen – and was pleased to hear Llewellyn again, because her voice was one of the great pleasures of The School of Jealousy. She is extremely good with sensitive, gentle roles and draws out the subtler emotions in her arias with enormous grace. But I must confess that the real revelation of the evening was Stucker. She absolutely is a star in the making and I’m sure we’re going to see a lot more of her. I’ll keep my fingers crossed that she finds her way into a Baroque ‘miffed princess’ role very soon – with the dark shading to her voice, it sounds as if she could almost get away with mezzo parts too. (Yes, I’d love to see what she’d do with Se bramate d’amar or Crude furie too.) It was a very enjoyable evening – and I’m now looking forward to Bampton’s summer production this year: another little-known gem, namely Nicolo Isouard’s 1810 Cendrillon or Cinderella.
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