Prima la musica e poi le parole

Synopsis | Historical Context | Origins | Cast | Reception | Metamelodramma and Intertextuality


The foremost resources of the Vienna ensemble stood ready to assist in the magnificent spectacle at the Orangery.1 In Salieri’s opera, the Maestro was played by Francesco Benucci, the Poet by Stefano Mandini, and the two female characters by the Viennese prima donnas Nancy Storace (Eleonora) and Celeste Coltellini (Tonina). From 1783, Mandini and Benucci as well as Nancy (Anna Selina) Storace belonged to the new ensemble of the Italian opera in Vienna, the “Hofoperisten.”2 They appeared in the premiere of Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro (1786) as well as in Salieri’s magic opera La grotta di Trofonio (1785). By contrast, Celeste Coltellini had been in Vienna only a short time. Unlike Nancy Storace, who particularly ex-celled in mezzo character roles, Coltellini apparently had less vocal elegance than her opposite number, but on stage she was able to persuade through her great acting and dancing skills.
Of no little importance for the Schönbrunn performance may have been Francesco Bussani,3 who served as ‘stage director’ for both pieces. Bussani was engaged at the Burgtheater from 1783 to 1794, where he appeared not only as a singer, but also as the person responsible for the stage decor and costumes; furthermore, he arranged plays for the Viennese stages.4 According to the salary list, 50 guilders were paid to Bussani for directing Prima la musica and Der Schauspieldirektor, the same fee as Mozart earned for his composition.5
The casting and personnel for Prima la musica were significantly influenced by the performances of Sarti’s Giulio Sabino. That Salieri arranged or greatly revised this work for the Viennese stage constituted another significant link between the two operas.6 The title role in the summer of 1785 was sung by the famous castrato Luigi Marchesi, who, together with Salieri, had prepared this production with the assistance of Emperor Joseph II.7 Marchesi was the consistent fixed point in Giulio Sabino, the undisputed star of this exceptional opera seria event, which was scheduled for the new opening of the Kärntnertortheater.8
At the same time, the castrato cult of opera seria offered an ideal target for parody, and herein lay the real driving force of Casti and Salieri’s work. The conception of Prima la musica is determined above all by a personal relationship, namely, the interplay between Eleonora (the actress Nancy Storace) and Sabino (played by Luigi Marchesi). Accounts of the opera’s reception, which speak not only of parody, but also of highly skillful imitation, reveal how strong this background was for Casti and Salieri’s opera:

Die Musik des Hrn. Salieri ist sehr artig und der komische Ausdruck mit grosser Kunst mit dem ernsthaften verbunden. Madame Storace erregte allgemeine Bewunderung; sie sang dem berühmten Hrn Luigi Marchesi in den Arien aus dem Giulio Sabino so künstlich nach, daß man wirklich ihn selbst zu hören glaubte; sogar dessen Spiel stellte sie mit besonderer Geschicklichkeit dar.9

1 Cf. Ingrid Schraffl, „Die Mitwirkenden auf der Bühne: Das Theater im Theater in einem multilingualen Kontext“, in Mozart und Salieri – Partner oder Rivalen? Das Fest in der Orangerie zu Schönbrunn vom 7. Februar 1786, ed. Paolo Budroni (Vienna: Vienna University Press, 2008) pp. 83–88, as well as Miriam Pilters, Italienische Opernparodien im achtzehnten Jahrhundert: Metamelodrammi als humoristische Selbstreflexion im Musiktheater (Saarbrücken: VDM Verlag, 2009), pp. 178–184.
2 Schraffl, „Die Mitwirkenden auf der Bühne“, pp. 83–88.
3 See Rudolph Angermüller, „Francesco Bussani – Mozarts erster Bartolo, Antonio und Alfonso [–] und Dorothea Bussani – Mozarts erster Cherubino und erste Despina“, Mozart-Studien 10 (2001), pp. 213–229.
4 Ibid., pp. 221–222.
5 Cf. the document in, Mozart: Die Dokumente seines Lebens, ed. Otto Erich Deutsch, p. 230. Unfortunately, the salary list does not indicate Bussani's acutal function.
6 See also Armbruster, „Salieri, Mozart und die Wiener Fassung des Giulio Sabino“, pp. 136–158.
7 John A. Rice, Antonio Salieri and Viennese Opera (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1998), p. 379.
8 Sarti himself had been in Vienna in 1784, passing through on a trip from Italy to St. Petersburg, where he was received by Emperor Joseph II; the Wiener Zeitung (12 June 1784, p. 1334) reports Sarti’s departure from Vienna.
9 Wiener Realzeitung, 21 February 1786, p. 127, quoted from Rudolph Angermüller, Antonio Salieri: Dokumente seines Lebens unter Berücksichtigung von Musik, Literatur, Bildender Kunst, Architektur, Religion, Philosophie, Erziehung, Geschichte, Wissenschaft, Technik, Wirtschaft und täglichem Leben seiner Zeit (Bad Honnef: Bock, 2000), vol. 1, p. 327.