Many Americans are familiar with Peter Shaffer’s play, Amadeus, and still more with the award-winning film based on it. But most are probably unaware that Shaffer’s own inspiration came from a one-act tragedy by Alexander Pushkin, Mozart and Salieri, which was also set word for word as an opera by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov in 1897. Commonwealth Lyric Theater (CLT) has just presented three performances of the latter at Center Makor in Brighton on June 8, 10, and 11; this reviewer attended the middle performance. The work represents the flourishing of the “through-composed” Russian opera—as originated by Alexander Dargomyzhsky—without individual recitatives and arias but rather monologues that flow into dialogues and vice versa. Since the two-scene opera runs well under one hour, the performance tradition has been to perform a Mozart concerto or symphony as an intermezzo between the scenes. CLT, however, elected to perform a potpourri of Mozart operatic excerpts while tying the intermezzo in to Pushkin’s plot. The opera’s time-span is kept minimal, confining itself to events on the last day of Mozart’s life.
Despite the name-order of the title, Antonio Salieri is the crux of the plot, sharing many of his inner thoughts and reflections. We gradually become aware that he has gotten much career mileage from a modest compositional gift; however, it is evident he also feels that he has made considerable sacrifice to attain the success that is his just reward. Dramatic bass Mikhail Svetlov is a very compelling Salieri, experiencing his first professional jealousy and so unable to check it that it drives him to murder. Svetlov also boasts a voice of astonishing amplitude and range, from intimately confiding his thoughts to thunderingly denouncing an unjust Providence.
As Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Mikhail Yanenko makes an effective foil to Svetlov. Avoiding the scatological enfant terrible of the film, Mozart, as drawn by Pushkin and embodied by Yanenko, is merely insouciant and seemingly shallow though serious enough to be haunted by “the man in black.” When for amusement he summons a blind street fiddler to play his famous aria Voi che sapete (curiously, the man scratches through Batti, batti instead), most would say Mozart has a healthy ability to mock himself, but for a pathologically jealous Salieri, it provides the pretext for eliminating him. Salieri recognizes Mozart’s music as the voice of God, Mozart is allowing his music to be defiled, ergo Mozart is blaspheming God and deserves execution. Yanenko well complements Svetlov vocally as well: though his lyric tenor is less powerful than Svetlov’s bass, the artists listen to each other when they sing together and consequently balance well.
CLT’s intermezzo between the scenes was an interesting plot conceit that worked well, on the whole. It was conceived as a party Salieri throws in Mozart’s honor featuring excerpts from the latter’s operas. It was also a good opportunity to highlight over a dozen promising young singers from the Lucky Ten Young Talent Studio. There were, unfortunately, rather regular ensemble discrepancies during the intermezzo; most of these were due to singers’ losing touch with conductor Zachary Schwartzman, though in one Don Giovanni aria, Schwartzman simply took too fast a tempo for the voice he was accompanying. The choreography in another got sufficiently carried away that two feuding sopranos began to uncomfortably resemble female wrestlers. Nonetheless, the singing was technically good to excellent, dramatically involved, and communicative. And “the man in black”, Don Giovanni’s nemesis, Il Commendatore appeared in person (that is, in statue), having accepted the astonished Don’s dinner invitation.
This last excerpt made an interesting transition to Scene 2 of Mozart and Salieri wherein Mozart has accepted Salieri’s invitation to dinner; this time, however, it is the one inviting who is to be the undoing of his guest. In this scene Salieri’s preconception of Mozart as shallow and silly is shaken when the younger composer asks him if it’s true that Beaumarchais (the brilliant French polymath and author of the play adapted into The Marriage of Figaro) poisoned someone: if true, this would shake Mozart’s own belief that genius and criminality are mutually exclusive. Moreover, Salieri realizes that the man in black has greater significance than a frightening, supernatural opera character; he may well be Mozart’s premonition of his own impending death. Though made to hesitate, Salieri ultimately carries out his original plan, putting slow-acting poison in Mozart’s wine. Discussing the commission of the man in black, Mozart “plays” (with chorus and orchestra) the first fourteen measures of his Requiem, reducing Salieri to tears. Mozart, feeling vaguely unwell, then leaves the stage for the last time, and the opera seems about to end, as it began, with Salieri alone in philosophical self-debate. This time, however, he ponders whether criminality and genius are incompatible, and if so, whether he has renounced all possibility of attaining the latter. After all, didn’t Michelangelo kill to get his Vatican commissions? Or was that just idle gossip—from jealous artists of inferior talent?
CLT chose to append a Mozart coda—the Lacrymosa movement of the Requiem, used to such powerful effect in the film at Mozart’s death and burial. It yields a more intensely dramatic ending, to be sure, with the silhouettes of choral singers, holding little “candles”, gathering on a darkened stage. But this moved our focus from the complex, sometimes contradictory character of Salieri to that of Mozart, also three-dimensional but less flawed and ultimately less intriguing. In my opinion, Pushkin and Rimsky-Korsakov had a definite intention to end with Salieri alone and in inner turmoil. Regrettably, this was not the first instance of CLT’s reworking an opera ending, but I pray it does not become habitual. I am thankful, nonetheless, for the opportunity to see an opera I would likely not have otherwise seen. Svetlov and Yanenko sang most impressively and were more than credible character actors as well. At the musical helm, Zachary Schwartzman obtained excellent playing from the small orchestra, equally convincing in the brooding Romanticism of Rimsky-Korsakov and the crisp Classicism of the various Mozart excerpts.