An imaginative presentation of Rimsky’s Mozart and Salieri for Salzburg’s Mozartwoche

AustriaAustria Mozartwoche Salzburg 2024 [1] – Salieri, Rimsky-Korsakov: Soloists, Puppeteers, Students from the Mozarteum University, Salzburg / Kai Röhrig (conductor). Salzburg Marionette Theatre, Salzburg, 27.1.2024. (MB)

Mozart und Salieri © Bernhard Mueller

Salieri – Axur, re d’Ormus: Piccolo sinfonia to Act IV; La secchia rapita: ‘Son qual lacera tartana’; Il ricco d’un giorno: ‘Eccomi più che mai – ‘Amor, pietoso Amore’; La grotto di Trofonio: ‘La ra la ra’

Rimsky-Korsakov – Mozart and Salieri

Director, Designs – Matthias Bundschuh
Lighting – Matthias Bundschuh, Alexander Proschek
Production manager – Philippe Brunner

Isora – Ekaterina Krasko / Svetlana Schönfeld / Maximilian Kiener
Mozart – Konstantin Igl / Ursula Winzer
Salieri – Brett Pruunsild / Eva Wiener
Blind violinist – Philipp Schmidt

After a few years concentrating on Mozart alone, Rolando Villázon, Intendant of Salzburg’s Mozartwoche, has turned to Mozart and Salieri. There is so much more, so much more of interest, to Salieri than the preposterous charge that ‘everyone’ knows, but it has been greatly influential, whether we like it or not, and that of course includes its artistic legacy. Most celebrated of all is Peter Schaffer’s Amadeus, which will be seen here both as film and play. (I should have been keen to see the latter, but alas the scheduling gods had other ideas.) But long before Schaffer was Pushkin, with his short story: the basis, almost verbatim, for Rimsky-Korsakov’s short, one-act opera of 1897, here given at Salzburg’s Marionette Theater with puppets, three young singers, and a chamber ensemble of students from the Mozarteum conducted by Kai Röhrig.

It is a very short opera, so Matthias Bundschuh has decided, in a prologue, to provide a backstory and to redress a little the Mozart-Salieri imbalance by offering a little of the latter’s own music. A middle-aged prima donna Isora recalls her career in its prime: she worked often with Salieri, ‘Antonio’, though sadly never with Mozart. She sings us some of his music, from the buffa rather than seria end of his output and tells of his unrequited love – he desired marriage – which resulted in her joking dismissal of him through the gift of poison (happily or unhappily, Gift in German).

Mozart und Salieri © Bernhard Mueller

The scene is set, dramatically and musically, for the opera proper to begin, in a German translation by Bundschuh and Philipp Schmidt. And so, in brief, Mozart, full of life and a levity Salieri finds irresponsible, even obscene, calls upon the elder composer, brings him a blind violinist as a joke, massacring his own ‘Batti, batti, o bel Masetto’ – here accomplished with wicked skill – and is invited to dinner, for which he returns in rather darker mood. He tells Salieri the story about the mysterious stranger who has commissioned his Requiem, drinks from the goblet Salieri has prepared, goes to the piano to play from the work he is composing, and is killed.

All is accomplished through collaboration and synthesis in music, a little speech, and of course the excellent working of Bundschuh’s own puppets. Nice additional touches include a crackly record of Mozart as tango which, somewhat incongruously, the two composers dance, and the intrusion of a recorded excerpt from the Requiem itself. But the scene in which the puppet Mozart plays a new composition of his own at the piano, with interjections from Salieri, is perhaps most impressive. One sees, hears, and appreciates just what craft is required in the collaboration of puppetry and music.

In a programme note, Bundschuh tells of his dislike for ‘Russian pathos’: fair enough, I suppose, but I wonder whether the approach adopted sells Rimsky’s opera, which in any case is hardly Eugene Onegin, somewhat short. It is partly owed, of course, to the requirements of marionette theatre, but might there not have been room for something a little stronger, dare I say more Amadeus-like? Still, the general lightness of what is in any case a light score by Rimsky’s standards has its own allure and allows our vocal Mozart and Salieri to impress. Konstantin Igl as the former reveals an adept, characterful tenor. The (literally) deeper, even more fragmented Salieri is a Chaliapin role, no less. (The bass apparently claimed to have sung the work as a monodrama, given Mozart’s part also lay within his range.) It was equally well sung by baritone Brett Pruunsild, the two achieving considerable chemistry, notwithstanding the necessity of singing offstage. Similarly impressive was Ekaterina Krasko’s sparkling despatch of the Salieri arias, likewise to sympathetic playing from the conservatoire students and lively overall direction by Röhrig.

There is charm and not a little magic here in this co-production between the Stiftung Mozarteum, the Mozarteum University, and the Marionette Theatre. And once again, I find myself wishing more composers would, as Pierre Boulez suggested some time ago, avail themselves of the possibilities puppetry might offer opera. There is something unquestionably Mozartian to the idea.

Mark Berry

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