It seems only natural that one would have to step over other people to achieve a truly legendary status. On the path to greatness, there are bound to be some roadblocks, individuals that get left behind in your wake. As a child prodigy, it was inevitable that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart would anger a lot of his older contemporaries with his natural compositional genius. Those that had dedicated their lives to studying music and art would see a young naïve maestro waltz on in and cement his place in history. That is definitely the way that history has branded Antonio Salieri – the one that time forgot, second best, runner-up. Alexander Pushkin’s short play Mozart and Salieri takes full advantage of this competitive rivalry, a tongue in cheek vignette that re-imagines Salieri as a rival with murderous intent, determined to do what it takes to reclaim his title and be remembered in the history books.
Inspired by Pushkin, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s one act opera recounts the fictional moment at which Salieri decides to do away with his younger opposition, admitting that he can never be the greatest unless Mozart is dispatched with. Playing the saccharine double agent, he invites the willing and witless maestro to dinner and poisons him. In 50 minutes, Rimsky-Korsakov’s neo-classical score inspires the works of Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus, one of his most successful to date with an inaugural run on Broadway of over 1,000 performances.
Nick Dwyer’s Salieri literally takes centre stage in this show, the constant steady presence whilst Roger Paterson’s Mozart flits on and off the stage with flights of fancy at will. The more experienced of the two, Dwyer sings a measured, balanced and well-controlled baritone. A steady vibrato slices through the fragile atmosphere created by the musicians, whom whilst competent don’t possess the required sound for Rimsky-Korsakov’s score to sing as it should. Dwyer has no trouble commanding the stage, appearing distraught by a decision inspired by his late wife to poison his colleague and apparent confidant. A naïve youth, Paterson’s Mozart is full of bravado and cheek, as would be expected in a young man thrust into greatness without appreciation of the work it takes many others to get there. Yet despite his light-heartedness, Paterson reveals an insecurity in the character, a reverence for Salieri’s knowledge and a need to gain his approval – a dog running round its master seeking validation.
Just as in the characters’ relationship, Paterson appears to defer to his fellow singer throughout the performance. Whilst Mozart may be the more gifted composer, Paterson is the inferior singer, less experienced and unable to exert gravitas akin to Dwyer. A newly fledged professional opera singer, his tenor vocal has strength at the top of his range but needs more depth in the lower register that will come from practice and a more disciplined diaphragmatic control. Granted, the part of Salieri is the more challenging and interesting for the singers, with Mozart having little opportunity to warm up and stretch the material.
With a neo-classical score comes a future dystopian set. Yole Lambrecht bends and distorts music stands into uncomfortable positions, a nod to the demise of music that Salieri is inadvertently bringing about by ending the career of history’s most revered composer too early. Pamela Schermann and the Grimeborn team bring the audience into the centre of the action, a factor rarely seen in opera but one that allows individuals to experience and connect with the music on a more intimate level. This isn’t a grandiose occasion where the star takes place centre stage, surrounded by the opulence of the theatre, a full orchestral backing and an elaborate costume. This is a performance stripped of its finery, the diva left to interact with those that pay to see the performance unfold. This is a festival of rarely seen works, sold at reasonable prices to a new audience. This is an anti-Glyndebourne.