Genius … envy … poison … murder: What material for an opera! Better still that the genius is Mozart. What chewy decor tunes Verdi would have made of it, or Wagner, perhaps, to make it a myth.
But it was Rimsky-Korsakov who turned this material into a powerful one-act opera, simply called Mozart and Salieri, now streaming in a captivating digital production from the Opera San José. Two characters, two scenes, less than an hour, OSJ’s Mozart and Salieri is one of the best deals online that I have seen. It is available until October.
Rimsky-Korsakov, writing in 1897, was inspired by – and the libretto – an 1830 poem by Alexander Pushkin (whose works were also extracted by Mussorgsky and Tchaikovsky). The opera builds on the old rumor that Mozart’s death was due to the artistic jealousy of the now-neglected composer Antonio Salieri. Most of us know the rumor today through Peter Shaffer’s 1979 play (and later the movie) Amadeus, which gave him new legs; but whatever Mozart did, it is highly unlikely that it was murder.
At the heart of San José’s line production is a pair of excellent, well-balanced performance. Tenor Simon Barrad makes him an elegant Mozart, easily oscillating between irreverent playfulness, lyrical insight and melancholy introspection (as he tells the story of the man in black who ordered him to write the Requiem). Barrad brings a light, almost comical tone to much of Mozart’s role, but with a dignity and presence befitting the tragic tone of the opera. The opera is sung in Russian – much of what permeates its darker tones – but with plenty of captions in English (as well as Spanish and Vietnamese), English translated by Barrad.
The opera begins and ends with Salieri, a tormented character who (like many dramatic criminals) establishes a strong bond with the audience. In the tradition of the villains of opera, Salieri is a baritone. In this production, the role is surprisingly performed and sung by former Merola student Sidney Outlaw – most recently seen in the Bay Area as First Mate in SF Opera’s Billy Budd. With a resonant, round and expressive tone, Outlaw brings to life the second-rate composer, who demands discipline from himself in the pursuit of the art he revere, but who knows his own works are hopelessly outclassed by the “lazy party animal” Mozart. Hunched over and painfully awkward in his walk, Outlaw’s Poisoner is not a stage villain, but an unlikely and moving tragic hero.
The 20-person orchestra is expressively conducted by California Symphony Orchestra Music Director Donato Cabrera, forcefully articulating the frequent mood swings in Rimsky-Korsakov’s score. The San José Opera Choir hauntingly performs excerpts from Mozart’s work Requiem. Soloists, choirs, and orchestra are picked up and mixed to produce a strong sense of acoustic presence. As much as I love going back to real opera houses and recital halls, intelligent and sensitive technical recording work like this is a real boon in these pandemic years – and maybe even afterwards, when the music is playing. line takes root in the world of classical music.
Visually, the production is a pleasure to watch. Director Fenlon Lamb and stage designer Stephen C. Kemp put the action in a narrow room that serves first as a living room for Salieri and later as a dining room in a tavern. Combined with a fluid cinematography, the tiny space focuses us both on the inner life of the two characters and at the same time strongly expresses the claustrophobia of the envy of Salieri and of Mozart’s confinement in it. Minimal props support but don’t overwhelm the drama (although one oddity has been to have Mozart play on a keyboard that is clearly a harpsichord while the sound is that of a fortepiano).
” Where is the justice ? »Asks Pouchkine’s Salieri, faced with the dreadful ironies of his own life. This is what many of us have asked for in our often deeply unfair times. The production of Opera San José does not provide an answer, but it contributes greatly to answering this eternal question with punch and pathos.