Peter Schaffer’s play Amadeus (turned into an Oscar winning film by Milos Forman) popularised a lesser known legend that the evil Antonio Salieri poisoned the 35 year old Mozart. However, researchers have come up with no compelling evidence to believe the story to be anything more than a colourful myth. Indeed, the closer we look at Salieri, the more appealing he becomes. While he gained great success through a long succession of operas, he was at the same time very generous in his support for later generations of composers, and gave special classes to both Beethoven and Schubert – refusing payment from either. The subject of these lessons was probably Salieri’s limited speciality – the setting to music of Italian operatic texts. For this reason, scholars have been inclined to dismiss works by his pupils – among them Beethoven’s concert aria Ah Perfido – as being mere "homework" pieces only. The situation though is not that simple. Throughout his life, Beethoven craved success on the stage, and it cannot in the least be rejected that at the age of 25 (four years after Mozart’s death), he was flirting with the idea of composing an Italian opera. There is another argument against the "homework" theory of Ah Perfido: it was first performed on November 21st 1796 (with Josefa Duschek as soloist), but published in Leipzig in 1805. Some twelve years after its composition, it found its way onto the program of the epic Viennese Beethoven concert of December 22nd 1808, during the course of which the Fifth and Sixth symphonies were first performed, along with a host of other works. In other words, twelve years had elapsed and the composer could not resist programming this early work at one of the most important events of his career as a composer. Probably, he would have crossed swords with the Hungarian musicologist Bence Szabolcsi, who pronounced negatively on Ah Perfido, saying that "its dramatic scenes are not sufficiently dramatic, and its Italian scenes are not sufficiently Italian."
The text is from Metastasio, and presents the pain of abandoned love. The recitative opening is given over to an outpouring by the distraught heroine: "Ah, perfido, spergiuro, barbaro traditor, tu parti? – Ah, perfidious one, breaker of your vow, barbaric traitor, are you leaving?"). In the aria’s slow section, the rage turns to pleading "Per pietá, non dirmi addio! – "Please do not bid me farewell!") and finally, in the final fast section, to hatred: Ah, crudel, tu vuoi ch’ io mora! ("Ah, cruel one, so you want me to die!")