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Did Amadeus Get it Right?



Even today I daresay many Americans aren’t aware that Alexander Pushkin wrote his own version of “did Antonio Salieri murder Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart?”, which nearly 150 years later inspired Peter Shaffer’s play Amadeus, adapted into an award-winning film. And even fewer of us know that Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, with literal faithfulness, set Pushkin’s one-act tragedy as an opera. Commonwealth Lyric Theater (CLT) will be offering a rare opportunity to see this opera next week, June 8, 10, and 11, at Center Makor, 1845 Commonwealth Avenue, Brighton.

For a production fully staged and costumed and featuring orchestra and chorus, CLT has engaged international stars as well as distinguished local professional singers. Alternating in the role of Salieri are basses Mikhail Svetlov (Bolshoi Theater, Metropolitan Opera) and Alexander Prokhorov, CLT’s artistic director. Mozart will be portrayed by tenors Mikhail Yanenko (Moscow Chamber Music Theater) or Jonathan Price (Commonwealth Lyric Theater).

Between the two scenes of the one act there is routinely a performance of a Mozart concerto or symphony to fill out the evening. Some time passes in the story between the scenes and, tweaking tradition, CLT has created an intermezzo comprising well-known Mozart opera excerpts and featuring the “man in black” who figures prominently in Amadeus, commissioning Mozart to write the Requiem. It continues where the first scene leaves off and features eight CLT soloists as well as several talented youth musicians from the Lucky Ten Studio.

In discussing the opera Mozart and Salieri, it is only natural to make comparisons with the movie Amadeus (far more people are familiar with it than the play). Both Pushkin and Shaffer take considerable license to portray the leads—in Shaffer’s case, many have said to the point of caricature, with musicologists pointing out that factually it libels the generous Salieri—to illustrate the battle of mediocrity and genius. Cultured and devout, Salieri becomes corrupted by intense jealousy; Mozart is depicted as socially maladroit, infantile, and fatally naïve. While the movie covers a considerable timespan, with Salieri in old age looking back more than 40 years to the events, the opera focuses on the last day of Mozart’s life. The mysterious “man in black” haunts opera and film alike. In Amadeus the figure is linked to Mozart’s complicated relationship with his deceased father; in Mozart and Salieri the apparition is mentioned only in passing by Mozart, but he is deeply disturbed nonetheless.

Mozart and Salieri (CLT photo)
Mozart and Salieri (CLT photo)

In May 1997, a court in Milan officially proclaimed Salieri “not guilty” of poisoning Mozart. In the intervening 200 years, conspiracy theorists have had a field day, choosing a crackling good story over the facts. Never mind that Salieri was a decent composer and conductor as well as a renowned teacher who numbered Beethoven, Schubert, and Liszt among his students; Schubert paid tribute to him in superlatives and fondly called him “Grosspapa.” But many a dramatist has turned historical legend into fiction. Shaffer’s play continues to be revived and the film remains popular; it will be very interesting to see Pushkin’s and Rimsky-Korsakov’s angle.

For further information, contact Olga Lisovskaya at or call (857)284-9982.

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  1. I once attended a concert performance of “Mozart and Salieri” at Sanders Theater. It was in English, and I remember one line that stood out. Salieri declares “my music has all the soul of algebra”. I wonder how many mathematicians were in the audience that night.

    Comment by Laurence Glavin — June 10, 2014 at 5:35 pm

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