While Mozart and Salieri will probably never be a regular repertory piece (sadly one won’t be able to refer to it as M & S!), Grimeborn have done us another real service in showcasing a work that confronts very large questions and deserves regular outings, possibly in combination with another pithy one-act work that rarely sees the light of day.
There is something of a mini-festival devoted to Mozart taking place within the overall Grimeborn framework this year: there is Figaro to come, and also some minor works, and a range of responses and pastiches by other composers which also feature on the diet. This is the sort of mixed menu that will inevitably be uneven, but certainly never dull.
First up is an opera by Rimsky-Korsakov from the end of the nineteenth century. Rimsky’s operatic works are usually written in very different vein: full-blooded Russian nationalist mythology deploying the resources of the romantic orchestra and large-scale chorus to self-consciously brilliant effect, a style taken to its apogee by early Stravinsky. This work is completely different.
It is a brief one-act drama divided into two scenes. The style is a gentle but clever Mozartian pastiche that translates extremely well into the reduced forces of piano, violin and clarinet, so that one does not miss the orchestral original at all. There are also extended quotations from Don Giovanni and the Requiem, with much of the rest written in a skilful arioso manner that is pleasing to the ear without trying to rival Mozart’s melodic inspiration.
The text is delivered in English with remarkably crisp diction that leaves no word obscured. Musical direction is in the hands of the immensely experienced Andrew Charity who sets some bracing speeds that means the piece glides past the audience quickly at around three quarters of an hour.
The text is originally by Alexander Pushkin, who was one of the first in the Romantic Era to buy into the story that professional and personal jealousy provoked Mozart’s older contemporary Salieri to poison him at the time of his writing the Requiem in 1791. The first scene introduces the characters and allows Salieri (Nick Dwyer) a chance to set out his stall as a composer who values both his craft and a traditional model of ethical behaviour for the artist. In the second scene, in a way that mimics the final scene of Don Giovanni, Salieri invites Mozart to dinner before poisoning him, leaving the former to offer a justification for his actions.
Do we need to hear more on this subject? What can this opera give us that we have not had in other creative formats? Surely it is time that the rivalry between the two composers is put to bed, especially after cantata jointly written by the two of them was rediscovered in Prague at the start of this year. As much as any composers could be in the Vienna of Joseph II with its disappearing job opportunities these two were in fact more than friendly colleagues.
However we need to dig deeper. Just as with Amadeus – the play, if not the film – the conspiracy plot whether true or false, is merely the pretext for a discussion of some fundamental issues about the nature of the creative process, and why exactly we wish great artists also to be moral exemplars. On this count this opera still has much to tell us.
Timezone Theatre has a reputation for immersive productions, and the evening begins with a determined attempt to break down the fourth wall. Roger Paterson, playing Mozart, hands out flyers to the audience and engaged in chat with the front row. A feast is laid out on a table anticipating both the dinner and referencing Don Giovanni. Sheet music hangs from the ceiling shaped in the form of large leaves. Some music stands are scattered in the foreground together with a statue’s torso and its detached head. It’s a tad cluttered but the direction of Pamela Schermann moves the players around gracefully.
The singing is generally excellent. Dwyer, looking like a young Rupert Everett, plays Salieri with exemplary authority and gravity of purpose and is more than equal to the vocal demands of the part.
Paterson also is an excellent actor, who captures Mozart’s gamine, capering, naïve enthusiasm, as well as his exuberant creativity. His voice is thinner than Dwyer’s but that is not a major problem when the focus of the piece is so much on the unresolved and unresolvable contradictions within Salieri’s own mind.
Just as with Amadeus the best moments come when the play reaches the ineffable mystery of Mozart’s music itself. Thanks to the miracle of Youtube, plucking what we thought was eternally lost back to our presence, we can still relive the moment in the play when Salieri realises the extent of Mozart’s creative gift, his alchemical capacity to translate base metal into gold. We see the craftsman’s admiration, love, horror and finally disgust at God’s malice spread across Paul Scofield’s face as the slow movement of the Serenade for Wind Instruments gradually ebbs and flows in the background. There is a similar moment of insight here as Mozart describes the origins of the Requiem commission and then sits down at the piano with Andrew Charity.
Together they play the opening page or so, with the other instrumentalists, and as the shifting layers of austere, haunting D-minor harmony gradually pile up, Salieri begins to cry – at the beauty of the moment, with regret at having ending Mozart’s life and ‘killed the thing he loves’, and more generally at ‘the tears of things.’ It was a scene that grabbed everyone at the Arcola with its power and simplicity.
We moved on beyond a quintessentially Romantic debate about the personality of the artist – whether he or she can combine greatness with personal triviality or villainy – to wonder at the invisible wall between mediocrity and genius and how, if ever it might or can be traversed, except in imagination.
There were a few oddities about the production – why, for example, are so many shows this year at the Arcola shrouded in a continuously projected haze, which adds little. Why were the costumes an uneasy and unexplained compromise between modern dress and periwigs and period cut-away coats? Did the ending need to be quite so abrupt? But these are mere cavils.
While this will probably never be a regular repertory piece (sadly one won’t be able to refer to it as M & S!), Grimeborn have done us another real service in showcasing a work that confronts very large questions and deserves regular outings, possibly in combination with another pithy one-act work that rarely sees the light of day. Full credit too to the creative team who have done so well to bring this piece to life.