Anna Picard explores the pleasure gardens of London and Vienna in the lifetime of Nancy Storace – the first Susanna.
Sealed with a pin, the Countess and Susanna’s letter to the Count in Act III of The Marriage of Figaro promises the sweet breath of a breeze beneath the pines. No further details are given. ‘He’ll understand the rest’, sings the Countess, and indeed he does. Whether in a private estate or a pleasure garden, an al fresco assignation afforded more privacy to eighteenth-century lovers than a room where they might be observed or overheard by other members of a household.
The pleasure gardens and parks of eighteenth century London and Vienna proposed an escape from everyday life. Entertainment ranged from fireworks to bear fighting, organ concertos to ballad operas. The rotunda in Ranelagh Gardens was built to accommodate an orchestra, organ and fifty candlelit boxes. It was here, in 1764, that Mozart made his London debut at the age of eight. To the north, Marylebone Gardens had presented an adaptation of Pergolesi’s comic opera, La serva padrona, by Stefano Storace, a Neapolitan double-bass player whose wife, Elizabeth, was a renowned cook and supervised the menus in Marylebone’s Grand Dining Rooms.
When Ann Selena ‘Nancy’ Storace was born in London in 1765, it was an era of remarkable social and geographical mobility. During Nancy’s early childhood, the music at Marylebone Gardens was directed by the violinist François Hippolyte Barthélemon. Marylebone’s pyrotechnician Giovanni Battista Torré oversaw the fireworks at Marie Antoinette’s wedding in 1770. The singer Ann Catley, daughter of a washerwoman and a hackney coachman, became a headline artist, ‘bold, volatile, audacious; mistress of herself, of her talent, and her audience’.
Stefano Storace had bigger plans for Nancy. She studied singing with the castrato Venanzio Rauzzini, then joined her older brother, Stephen, in Naples in 1778. Early success in Italy, where she met the Irish tenor Michael Kelly, led to her recruitment to the Italian Opera Company in Vienna as ‘prima buffa’ in 1783. She was just 21 years old when she created the role of Susanna in The Marriage of Figaro with Kelly as Basilio/Don Curzio.
Kelly’s Reminiscences, published in 1826, give an affectionate portrait of Nancy, whose brief and brutal marriage to a violinist named John Fisher resulted in Fisher’s banishment from Vienna. While Kelly’s time in the city was a romp of post-performance suppers in a grocer’s shop, galas at Schönbrunn and picnics in the Prater, Nancy, for all her success, seems to have been unable to achieve the happiness enjoyed by the characters she created for Mozart, Salieri and Martin y Soler.
Nancy left Vienna in 1787 and returned to London, performing in English comic operas until her retirement in 1808. She would sing nothing as perfectly tailored to her gifts as The Marriage of Figaro except, perhaps, the concert aria that Mozart wrote for her farewell to Vienna, Ch’io mi scordi di te?. A long liaison with the tenor John Braham ended in heartache when, after Fisher’s death, Braham did not marry Nancy as expected but ran off with another woman. Nancy died in Herne Hill in 1817 and was buried in what is now London’s Garden Museum, St Mary-at-Lambeth.
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