A long-lost composition co-written by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Antonio Salieri has been rediscovered in the Czech National Museum in Prague. German musicologist and composer Timo Jouko Herrmann found the piece last month while doing research on Antonio Salieri in the collection of the Czech Museum of Music. It’s a libretto written by Lorenzo Da Ponte, a Venetian priest and poet who wrote the librettos for three of Mozarts most beloved operas — Don Giovanni, The Marriage of Figaro and Così fan tutte — and published by printer to the Imperial court in Vienna Joseph von Kurzböck. Very unusually for a libretto, this one includes the sheet music in a simple piano arrangement. Mozart and Salieri’s names do not appear anywhere in the pamphlet, only their initials in the musical notation identifying which measures were written by which composer. There is also a third composer credited, one Cornetti, who is unknown under that name.
The piece is entitled Per la Ricuperata Salute di Ofelia (“For the recovered health of Ophelia”) and was written in 1785. The Ophelia in question was Nancy Storace, an English coloratura soprano who was friends with and muse to both Mozart and Salieri. The daughter of Stefano Storace, an Italian double bass player and composer who would become the musical director of Vauxhall Gardens in London, and Elizabeth Trusler, daughter of the owner of the concert venue Marylebone Gardens, Nancy was a musical prodigy from a very young age. She gave her first public performance when she was eight years old and debuted at London’s Haymarket Theatre the next year. Her older brother Stephen was also a child prodigy, taught by his father to play violin so expertly that by the age of 10 he was performing the most complex, difficult pieces of the time.
Stefano sent Stephen to Naples to study composition and in 1778 Nancy and her parents joined him there. Nancy traveled to Venice to take voice lessons from composer Antonio Sacchini and began getting professional gigs, rapidly rising from minor parts to leads and becoming something of a sensation. While still a teenager in 1782 she performed the role of Dorina in the Milan premiere of Giuseppe Sarti’s opera Fra I Due Litiganti Il Terzo Gode, a part that Sarti wrote specifically for her, to great acclaim.
When in 1783 Austrian Emperor Joseph II decided to put together a company dedicated to performances of Italian opera buffa (comic opera), he snapped up the 18-year-old Nancy Storace for his prima donna. Her brother Stephen came on as a composer. The inaugural production of the emperor’s new Italian Opera company was La Scuola de’ Gelosi by Antonio Salieri. Nancy played the lead role of the Countess. She enchanted audiences and composers alike with her talent and beauty.
Stefano Storace had died in 1780 or 1781, so Nancy’s mother Elizabeth went with her children to Vienna in 1783. Elizabeth arranged for her daughter to marry composer John Abraham Fisher who was 22 years her senior, more than double her age. It was an unmitigated disaster. Within months after their wedding on March 24th, 1784, rumors were flying around Vienna that Fisher was physically abusing Nancy. Emperor Joseph banished Fisher from the city and that was the end of the marriage, but the consequences of this ill-fated match far outlasted it.
In June of 1785, Stephen Storace’s first opera, Gli Sposi Malcontenti premiered with Nancy in the lead. Suddenly, in the middle of an aria, Nancy lost her voice. The performance had to be cut short. A few weeks later she gave birth to a daughter, Josepha Fisher. Elizabeth Storace wanted nothing to do with the child. She left her with a foundling hospital and reportedly announced that neither she nor Nancy cared if Josepha lived or died. The baby girl only lived a month.
It took Nancy five months for her voice to recover enough for her to be able to perform again. On October 12th, 1785, she returned to the stage singing the part of Ofelia in Salieri’s opera La Grotta di Trofonio. To celebrate her return, Mozart, Salieri and the mysterious Cornetti (possibly Nancy’s brother Stephen) composed Per la Ricuperata Salute di Ofelia. Unfortunately Nancy’s health was not fully recovered. It’s a testament to how beloved she was that Mozart and Salieri both tweaked their operas to accommodate her new vocal limitations. Mozart worked with her on the music for The Marriage of Figaro which debuted on May 1st, 1786, with Nancy as Susanna. He had to lower the pitch of certain parts to ensure Nancy’s voice would hold up.
Less than a year later, Nancy left Vienna to return to London. Mozart wrote the aria Ch’io mi scordi di te? (“You ask that I forget you?”) for her farewell concert in Vienna on February 23rd, 1787. Nancy Storace went on to have a very successful career in London, but her voice never was the same.
We know from period newspaper ads that copies of Per la Ricuperata Salute di Ofelia were printed and distributed in Vienna by music publishers Artaria & Co., but none were known to survive. Not even the text of Da Ponte’s libretto, a 30 stanza pastoral poem, could be found. The rediscovery of Per la Ricuperata Salute di Ofelia underscores that Mozart and Salieri were on good terms in 1785, even though a few years earlier Mozart had written in letters to his father of his frustration with the Italian cabal at the Viennese court. He thought Salieri, Da Ponte and other Italians who had the ear of the Emperor were blocking his ascent, but by 1785 Mozart was well-established and was working closely with said Italians. Salieri would go out of his way to express approval of Mozart’s work, even directing performances of several of his compositions.
Nonetheless, decades after Mozart’s premature death rumors were rife that Salieri had poisoned his rival. The rumor was immortalized in art when, six years after Salieri’s 1825 death, revered Russian poet Alexander Pushkin wrote a verse drama Mozart and Salieri that posited Salieri as the bitterly jealous poisoner of the greater man. Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov set the play to music in the opera Mozart and Salieri, and playwright Peter Shaffer based his 1979 play Amadeus on Pushkin’s drama. That in turn was adapted for film in the Oscar-winning movie of the same name directed by Miloš Forman. So now when people think of Mozart and Salieri they think of a rivalry unto the death, when in fact the two men were on quite good terms. When it came to Nancy Storace, they were even collaborators.
And now, possibly for the first time and certainly for the first time in centuries, here is Per la Ricuperata Salute di Ofelia by Wolfgang Mozart and Antonio Salieri, played on the harpsichord by Lukas Vendl.
I can’t speak Czech and there are no functioning English subtitles, so I have no idea what this Czech National Museum curator is saying, but she flips through the pages of the rediscovered work very slowly and the quality of the film is good enough that you can get an excellent look at the libretto and the fold-out music.