Sunday, March 20, 2016

A Major Discovery: The REAL story behind Per la ricuperata salute di Ofelia - KV 477a

The years 1784 and 1785 were significant for Nancy Storace in that they could be described as the most turbulent and life-changing years in her entire life. Having arrived in Vienna only the year before as Emperor Joseph II's "prima buffa" in his new Italian Opera Company, the then 17-year-old Ann Selina Storace experienced instant and wild popularity with the Viennese audience. She quickly garnered the admiration of the likes of the Emperor and the nobility, as well as her musical colleagues including, Antonio Salieri, Wolfgang Mozart, Martin y Soler, Francesco Benucci (Mozart's original Figaro), and the court librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte and became Europe's most popular and highest-paid stage performer. Her skills as a musician and actor, as well as her high energy on stage charmed and delighted her audiences, and propelled her into a stage career that was unparalleled by any before her.

Soon after Nancy's arrival in Vienna, her mother, Elizabeth Storace arranged a marriage for Nancy to an English violinist by the name of John Abraham Fisher. Fisher came to Vienna on sabbatical from Oxford and connected with the Storaces, as they were from London and he had been acquaintances of Nancy's parents there. Elizabeth, who hated Vienna and wanted to return to London, saw this marriage as insurance of their return once Fisher's sabbatical was complete. Fisher and Nancy were married in March of 1784 and almost immediately afterward it became evident that the marriage was a disaster as Fisher began beating and brutalizing Nancy very likely from the first day. In the first few
weeks after they married, Nancy was absent from the Burgtheater stage due to "illness" and started experiencing periods when she was off the stage more than she was on. This finally escalated to the point that Emperor Joseph intervened and sometime in August or September of 1784, he kicked Fisher out of Vienna and forbid him to return. There was a period of several weeks in this time when we have no accounting of Nancy's whereabouts. She was housed in the Imperial apartments but records indicate that only her mother remained in the apartments during those weeks and it is believed that Nancy was either hiding out from or being hidden from Fisher until the time he was out of the city and it was safe for Nancy to return to her residence.

Shortly after Nancy's return to the Burgtheater stage (most likely in early November of 1784), she announced that she was pregnant but the Emperor either didn't or wouldn't release her from her contract. Performance records show that she was on stage throughout its duration, despite indications of it being an extremely difficult pregnancy and Nancy experiencing periods of absence due to illness.

In January of 1785, Nancy's older brother, Stephen arrived in Vienna from London to fulfill a commission for an opera that apparently Nancy had arranged. How she was able to obtain such a commission for Stephen, who was an entirely unknown composer, remains a mystery. Some attribute it to the notion that she was Emperor Joseph's mistress. Others believe that she appealed to one of the nobles with a high position in the Emperor's court and offered him "favors" to obtain the commission. No one really knows how the commission came about, however what we do know is that Nancy was extremely close to her brother, and she needed his presence and support during what were the most traumatic times of her life. Shortly after his arrival her child was born. There is some dispute over the birth date of the child. Earlier research indicated that the child was born sometime in late May or early June of 1785, which would mean that Nancy was near full term at the time of the premiere of her brother's opera, in which she starred. Later scholarship by the Mozart scholar, Michael Lorenz indicates that the child, a baby girl, who was named Josefa Fisher, was born in late January of 1785. What we do know for certain is that the child was given to the Viennese foundling home and died only a month after her birth. Foundling home records from this period indicate that only children who were orphaned or proven to be bastards were accepted into the home. This is a strong indicator that Fisher wasn't the father of Nancy's child.

Despite the controversy over the actual birth date of Nancy's child, it is documented fact that during the premiere of her brother Stephen's opera in May of 1785, Nancy suffered a complete loss of her voice onstage. She had to be carried off stage and the performance shut down. Nancy's voice loss was so complete that she was off stage for a solid 4 months and there was some very substantiated concern that she would never recover. Historians have been baffled as to the reason for such a complete vocal demise citing possible emotional/psychological distress, a throat infection, and even hormonal changes being contributing factors. However, she did recover after a long period of rest, but she never regained her voice at full capacity. From that point on, her stage reviewers reported a
"hoarse", "throaty", even "harsh" edge to the voice as well as a loss of flexibility and suppleness. When composing the role of Susanna for her in Le Nozze di Figaro, Mozart had to lower the tessitura of her parts in the ensemble pieces and greatly reduce the complexity of her arias, much to her personal frustration. Because of this, however, he promised her that he would compose a large-scale "bravura" aria for her for another time. The fulfillment of this promise came in the aria he composed as a gift for her to sing in her final Viennese concert on the night before she left the city to return to London, "Ch'io mi scordi di te...Non temer amato bene" K. 505. It has been noted by musicologists that while it was a large scale bravura aria, the tessitura is much lower than most arias for soprano voice, and the melismatic passages are fewer, shorter, and less complicated and easier to negotiate by the singer. This aria today is most often sung by what we now classify as Mezzo Sopranos.

All of the above is merely the backdrop for the events that led to the composition of the cantata, "Per la ricuperata salute di Ofelia, KV 477a, which was a joint composition by Mozart, Salieri, and a mysterious composer by the name of Cornetti (thought by historians to be an alias).

When I began my research for my master's thesis (vocal performance and pedagogy) on the life and career of Nancy Storace in the spring of 1999, I was intrigued by this amazing woman who seemed to make a miraculous recovery after her two year ordeal as a victim of domestic violence. And like the historians whose biographies and articles I read, I got lost in her relationship with Mozart and the intrigue of a possible affair with him and with others, as well as dazzled by her amazing success throughout the rest of her career until her death in her estate home in Dulwich in 1817 - so much so, that I, like the others, started viewing her experience with domestic violence as just a small blip on her radar. Years later, even as I continued to research her life for my historical novel series "So Faithful a Heart", and as a vocal pedagogue, I
didn't see the connection between the loss and permanent damage to her voice to her being a victim of domestic violence. I attributed the complete loss of her voice to an emotional/psychological breakdown and still didn't make the real connection until years later, when in 2014 I was employed as receptionist/crisis intervention staff at a local center/shelter for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. It was while training for that position that I learned about the damaging, life-threatening, and permanent affects of strangulation on not only the voice, but upon the victim's health and life for the entirety of their lives. When I learned of the permanent scar tissue that can remain on the larynx and soft tissues of the vocal folds, I put it together. It isn't widely known that several years later in November of 1791 (the same time that Mozart fell sick with his final illness), Nancy started to experience bouts of dizziness and fainting and was eventually diagnosed with a brain hemorrhage and underwent a procedure called "trepanning" by which a quarter-sized hole is opened up in the victim's skull and the blood drained to relieve the pressure. She nearly died. This is entirely consistent with symptoms experienced by victims of strangulation, even years later, because of the pressure put on the carotid artery and the cutting off of the blood flow to the brain resulting in brain injury and blood clotting in the brain.

After a year of serving in the capacity of support staff at the center for victims of domestic violence/sexual assault I was sent to train as a Certified Domestic & Sexual Assault Response Professional and was promoted to the position of full time Sexual Assault Advocate/Educator. My training as a professional victim advocate further corroborated my theories, and I am now convinced beyond any doubt that Nancy Storace was a victim of strangulation during her abuse with her husband, John Fisher and that her voice loss and the permanent "hoarseness" and "edge" sustained to her voice, as well as her near death from a brain hemorrhage were all the result of strangulation.

Now, back to the cantata: I have been elated and at the same time disappointed and even appalled by the recent discovery and revelation of Per la ricuperata salute di Ofelia in January of 2016. Historians and headlines are making this discovery entirely about Mozart and Salieri, and the myth perpetuated by the play and film ,"Amadeus", that Salieri was so jealous of Mozart's talent that he murdered him. Documented research long ago dispelled that myth, so for notable and serious music historians to present this discovery as some kind of "proof" that this dispels that myth is not only ridiculous, but is nothing but cheap sensationalism. This discovery isn't about the composers or their relationships with each other, but about the woman for whom this cantata was composed, and the joyous occasion it celebrated. It is about the triumph of a woman over her brutal and devastating abuse - her strength, her determination, and her unrelenting spirit. This cantata is about Ann "Nancy" Selina Storace a woman who was loved and celebrated by the likes of the Emperor of the greatest empire in the world at that time, and of men like Mozart, Salieri, and Lorenzo da Ponte. This discovery is about the triumph of the human spirit and our ability to rise above and conquer the affects of even the most devastating events of our lives.