Genius ... envy ... poison ... murder: What material for an opera! Even better that the genius is Mozart. What scenery-chewing arias Verdi would have made of it, or Wagner, maybe, to make it into myth.
But it was Rimsky-Korsakov who made of this material a powerful one-act opera, called simply Mozart and Salieri, now streaming in a gripping digital production from Opera San José. Two characters, two scenes, less than an hour long, OSJ’s Mozart and Salieri is one of the finest online offerings I have seen. It is available through October.
Rimsky-Korsakov, writing in 1897, took inspiration—and libretto—from an 1830 poem by Alexander Pushkin (whose works were mined also by Mussorgsky and Tchaikovsky). The opera fleshes out the old rumor that Mozart’s death was due to the artistic jealousy of the now-much-neglected composer Antonio Salieri. Most of us know the rumor today through Peter Shaffer’s 1979 play (and later film) Amadeus, which gave it new legs; but whatever in fact did Mozart in, it is highly unlikely to have been murder.
At the heart of San José’s online production is a pair of excellent and well-balanced performances. Tenor Simon Barrad makes for an elegant Mozart, moving easily between irreverent playfulness, lyrical insight, and melancholy introspection (as he recounts the story of the man in black who commissions him to write the Requiem). Barrad brings a light, almost comic tone to much of Mozart’s role, but with a dignity and presence that befits the tragic tone of the opera. The opera is sung in Russian—a good part of what imbues its darker tones—but with ample captions in English (as well as Spanish and Vietnamese), the English translated by Barrad.
The opera begins and ends with Salieri, a tormented character who (like many a dramatic evil-doer) makes a strong connection with the audience. In the tradition of operatic villains, Salieri is a baritone. In this production, the part is stunningly acted and sung by Merola alumnus Sidney Outlaw — most recently seen in the Bay Area as the First Mate in SF Opera’s Billy Budd. With a resonant, rounded, and expressive tone, Outlaw brings to life the second-rate composer, who demands discipline of himself in pursuit of the art he worships, but who knows that his own works are desperately outclassed by the “idle reveler,” Mozart. Hunched over and painfully awkward in his gait, Outlaw’s poisoner is no stage villain, but an unlikely and moving tragic hero.
The 20-person orchestra is expressively conducted by California Symphony Music Director Donato Cabrera, powerfully articulating the frequent shifts of mood in Rimsky-Korsakov’s score. The Opera San José Chorus hauntingly performs some excerpts from Mozart’s Requiem. Soloists, chorus, and orchestra are miked and mixed to produce a strong sense of acoustic presence. Much as I relish getting back into real opera houses and recital halls, intelligent and sensitive technical recording work like this is a real boon in these pandemic years — and possibly even afterward as online music takes root in the classical-music world.
Visually, the production is a joy to watch. Director Fenlon Lamb and Scenic Designer Stephen C. Kemp set the action in a narrow room that serves first as Salieri’s sitting room and later as a dining room in a tavern. Combined with a fluid cinematography, the tiny space both focuses us on the inner lives of the two characters and at the same time powerfully expresses the claustrophobia of Salieri’s envy and Mozart’s entrapment in it. The minimal props support but do not overwhelm the drama (though one oddity was having Mozart play on a keyboard that is clearly a harpsichord while the sound is that of a fortepiano).
“Where is justice?” asks Pushkin’s Salieri, facing the ghastly ironies of his own life. It’s what many of us have been asking in our own often deeply unjust era. Opera San José’s production doesn’t provide an answer, but it goes a long way to delivering that eternal question with punch and pathos.