Fuse Concert Review: Commonwealth Lyric Theater’s “Mozart and Salieri”

The Commonwealth Lyric Theater has again brought to the fore an underperformed, unfamiliar masterpiece well worth getting to know. Good for them and lucky for us.

A scene from the Commonwealth Lyric Theater production of "Mozart and S"

A scene from the Commonwealth Lyric Theater production of “Mozart and Saleri.” Photo courtesy of CLT.

By Jonathan Blumhofer

One doesn’t have to look far these days to find gloomy predictions of the future of opera. But while companies like the Metropolitan Opera struggle through a period of dwindling audiences, high expenses (and ticket prices), poor administrative leadership, and stagnant artistic direction, other companies, big and small, are flourishing. Notably, many of the successful companies (like the Houston Opera and the English National Opera) mix healthy doses of familiar and offbeat repertoire. A local example of one of these groups is Commonwealth Lyric Theater (CLT), which, this week, presented Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s rarely heard opera, Mozart and Salieri.

Written in 1897, Rimsky’s libretto is drawn almost entirely from Alexander Pushkin’s 1830 play of the same name. It’s plot, familiar to anyone who’s seen the play or movie Amadeus, recounts Antonio Salieri’s alleged murder of Mozart by poison. It’s far more condensed than Peter Shaffer’s drama. There are just two scenes, the first of which begins with a long soliloquy from Salieri recounting his career and the pains and efforts he made to achieve his position. Mozart, of course, is his seeming opposite: vain, silly, incapable of recognizing his own genius. In a fit of envy, Salieri takes matters into his own hands and, after surreptitiously slipping a potion into Mozart’s wine, the opera closes with his meditation on the relationship between genius and evil.

Unsurprisingly, the music’s pretty dark. In it, Rimsky’s harmonic language is generally rich and chromatic, but it’s tempered by Classical elements. There are borrowings from Mozart (including an extended quote from the first movement of the Requiem) and various melodic and textural allusions to the style of Mozart and Haydn.

CLT’s production, which ran this past Sunday, Tuesday, and Wednesday at Brighton’s Center Makor, featured a rotating cast. I caught Tuesday’s performance with the initial group of soloists. As Salieri, bass Mikhail Svetlov cast an imposing presence. His voice is big, at times, in fact, a bit too big for the space. But he generally reined in his power and delivered a highly personalized interpretation of the part. Perhaps it’s due to the brevity of the play, but Salieri’s actions might have been better paced than they are: he tells his life’s story, laments the good fortune evidently shown to Mozart, and resolves to kill him in pretty quick succession. Through the sheer intensity of his performance, though, Svetlov made a strong case for this conflicted, flawed character.

Tenor Mikhail Yanenko sang Mozart. He has a pleasing voice, though he sounded somewhat strained and forced in his first appearance. By the opera’s second scene, though, when Mozart plays through part of the Requiem for Salieri, he had settled into the role and imbued it with a strong sense of urgency.

In between the opera’s two scenes, CLT presented a specially created “Intermezzo” of beloved Mozart arias and ensembles. The production team incorporated the “Intermezzo” into the opera by explaining that Salieri was throwing a celebration for Mozart at a local tavern, which wasn’t too much of a stretch (the first scene ends with the two going out to dinner together). The performers were drawn from CLT and the “Lucky Ten” Talent Studio, and featured a couple of standout performances from its youngest participants: eleven-year old Clark Rubinshtein (covering Papageno and Leporello) and sixteen-year old Jean Furman (singing Papagena). Keep your eyes on them.

My only complaint is that it would have been nice to hear some actual Salieri during the “Intermezzo” – even if he wasn’t Mozart, he was a very good composer and it might have been revealing to hear some of his works paired with those of his more famous rival. At any rate, the “Intermezzo” succeeded both as a creative way of filling out the short program and as a means of tastefully expanding the opera’s narrative.

It’s a pity the orchestra had to be playing off to the side of the stage through the evening: there isn’t a pit at Center Makor and not enough room for the players to sit right in front. As a result, there were a number of cues that weren’t together, though conductor Zachary Schwartzman deserves lots of credit for keeping everything together. He gamely brought things back into line whenever they threatened to come apart and ably guided the ensemble in their idiomatic accompaniment.

Olga Maslova’s relatively spare sets made good use of the stage for both scenes and Anna Kravets’ direction kept things uncluttered and moving naturally.

In Rimsky’s original version, the opera ends with Salieri’s monologue on genius and evil. CLT’s production, though, closed with the “Lacrymosa” from the Mozart Requiem. This, of course, was the last music Mozart actually completed (he died after writing the first eight measures) and it made a sobering conclusion to the evening.

As for the real characters, it’s now agreed that Salieri never poisoned Mozart: an Italian court actually cleared him of the deed in 1997. Much less provocatively, it seems most likely that Mozart died of rheumatic fever, though the truth of the matter may never be conclusively determined. At any rate, the Salieri-Mozart feud is one that’s ripe for operatic treatment, and, as with last year’s Aleko, CLT has again brought to the fore an underperformed, unfamiliar masterpiece well worth getting to know. Good for them and lucky for us.

Jonathan Blumhofer is a composer and violist who has been active in the greater Boston area since 2004. His music has received numerous awards and been performed by various ensembles, including the American Composers Orchestra, Kiev Philharmonic, Camerata Chicago, Xanthos Ensemble, and Juventas New Music Group. Since receiving his doctorate from Boston University in 2010, Jon has taught at Clark University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and online for the University of Phoenix, in addition to writing music criticism for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.

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