Is it possible for a genius to commit an evil act, as Mozart claims in Pushkin’s play? If it isn’t, does that mean that Salieri is not a genius? That’s the question that has Salieri full of self-doubt in his murderous envy of the man whose musical genius he worships while despising the man himself. Nowadays, we are most familiar with this apocryphal story courtesy of Miloš Forman’s film realisation of Peter Schaffer’s play, Amadeus. Thanks to director David Meadows, who uses his own award-winning translation, and musical director, Russian music specialist Alan Cook, Melbourne audiences have been given an opportunity to see Shaffer’s inspiration, Pushkin’s 1830 one-act verse drama in two scenes, alongside Rimsky-Korsakov’s 1897 chamber opera version.
Since the opera libretto is virtually a verbatim replica of Pushkin’s original work, and it is possible to perform both in an hour, they make a logical and intriguing pairing. The intimate space of the Butterfly Club is more like an aeroplane in shape than a conventional theatre, but the very limited performance area was used effectively both in terms of movement and stage furniture. The tiny dark harpsichord-like instrument placed near the wall was used once in each scene, initially for a keyboard passage played behind the red curtained background while Mozart sat almost motionless in dimmed lighting; the same visual setup was used for the second scene but a recording of a short passage from the beginning of Mozart’s Requiem was played. It was not until all performers took a bow at the very end that Alan Cook was seen as being the fine pianist for both works.
Karlis Zaid and Edgar Wegner alternated over the course of the five performances in the title roles of Pushkin’s play; for this final performance Zaid was a suitably intense Salieri while Wegner’s cheerful personality with its ready twinkling smile brought life to the role of Mozart. So convincing were they, that it was hard to imagine them in reversed roles, and it made me wish that I’d been able to see the alternative casting.
For the opera, tenor Martin Buckingham played the role of Mozart with bass-baritone Adrian Tamburini as Salieri. Having heard Tamburini in huge theatres where his commanding presence and big resonant voice filled the space, I was apprehensive about how such a small theatre would be able to accommodate all that sound comfortably, especially if he didn’t hold back – which he didn’t. Because his voice has such smooth, rich beauty, there was never a question of it being unpleasantly overwhelming; it was simply powerful with softer sections sustaining an anguished passion.
The great Russian bass Feodor Chaliapin was the original Salieri and apparently claimed to have often sung the opera as a monodrama since the role of Mozart was also within his range. Fortunately, Martin Buckingham was available to lend his firm, attractive tenor and complementary characterisation to the role.
Meadows’ direction created a number of imaginative visual parallels that went beyond the requirements of the original works. Both Mozarts were dressed in black pants and t-shirts with the word Haydn printed in hip yellow letters across the front. Both Salieris began stripped to the waist for the opening self-flagellation scene and donned more formal attire (black shirt and waistcoat for the play and black shirt and grey suit jacket for the opera) as they performed the extended opening monologue. For the brief appearance of the blind, supremely untalented violinist whom Mozart’s brings to amuse Salieri – much to his disgust – the same actor was used. The act of slipping the poison into Mozart’s drink during the second scene at the inn was perhaps more deftly handled in the opera, but both versions gave chilling emphasis to the grotesque nature of the crime and Salieri’s unhinged narcissism. Also disturbing was Salieri’s final reference to a Vatican cover-up – namely, that Michelangelo had somebody crucified so that he could paint the Sistine Chapel with greater authenticity. More likely, this was just Pushkin’s way of throwing doubt on the poisoning story.
Whatever the truth of the matter, tales of dark visitations and even darker deeds continue to fascinate, and inspire dramatists, composers and performers to offer the engrossing experiences such as the one brought to us at the Butterfly Club. As a production using relatively few physical resources, it lends itself to a further season on tour. It certainly merits further outings.
Heather Leviston attended the performance of “Mozart and Salieri” given at The Butterfly Club on December 14, 2019.