Poor Salieri. His name has been besmirched by rumours of involvement with Mozart’s death almost since the event itself. As drama, the construction has suited writer after writer’s purpose in probably fanciful storytelling. He has been set up as a composer all too aware of his own mediocrity, living in the shadow of Mozart’s extraordinary genius – then enacting a Borgia-like solution to his problem. In our own time of course, Peter Shaffer’s very entertaining play and subsequent film has done much to ensure the refreshed propagation of the myth.
Victoria Chorale’s presentation “Mozart vs Salieri” did much to bring any discussion of relative merit back to musical considerations. This took the form of a contest, with interjecting vignettes of imagined scenes in the two protagonists’ lives, and both presented and adjudicated by conductor Mario Dobernig with the court of popular opinion furnished by the Victoria Chorale, there was much to enjoy here. The show was largely driven by Dobernig’s energy and exuberance.
Much thought had clearly gone into the choice of representative works. Some pieces with surface similarity such as movements from settings of the Mass, and operatic arias made a fascinating comparison, as did the less obvious, such as contrasting an operatic overture with a symphony. The work also had links written by composer Andrew Perkins in the form of recitatives and choruses to round out the drama and provide commentary and contest elements. It was at these times that I just wanted clearer diction from the chorus to ensure intelligibility of these texts.
The principals were all dressed in period costume, and there were props and staging. This audience seemed entirely forgiving of the obvious need for more time spent on direction, and amateurish elements – the hammy acting, the mugging, pulling focus (at one point, as Salieri was delivering a wordy and complex recitative, we had a lengthy scene of the other singers taking “selfies” with members of the orchestra. I did feel for Mr. Tregear at this point.) But the audience was here for the music, and a little fun besides, and this was certainly delivered.
Musically, the soloists were all excellent. Mozart was sung by tenor Nick Seidenman, Salieri by bass baritone Peter Tregear, Constanze by soprano Janet Todd, and Therese (Mrs Salieri) by mezzo-soprano Sally-Anne Russell. Each was able to show a wide range of colour and expression as well as vocal dexterity through the chosen material, and both the contrast of the solos and the beauty of the ensembles were real strengths of the show.
The Victoria Chorale provided a most thrilling effect in the opening Lacrymosa from Mozart’s Requiem, and indeed were a most enriching presence thoughout, with a well balanced large chorus sound, beautifully set off by the always marvellous acoustic of the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall. I just wanted more clarity of the text – stronger consonants, and occasionally the pitch of the sopranos was wanting. The Art of Sound Orchestra gave a good account of the works, but once again we see a courageous group doing extraordinary things with scant resources, and just wish them the resources to be able to prepare a little more. This is such a good idea, and shows so much promise for greater development.
The central meditation for me was on the similarities and differences in the construction of the music between the two composers – and to what degree time and familiarity has affected our ability to appreciate what is present in their works. Though both write in a musical language recognisably of their time, the element thrown into relief in this presentation was that of contrast, and its product: drama.
In the case of Mozart, today it almost seems ridiculous to refer to music of such familiarity as constantly surprising, and at times ‘edge of the seat’ listening, but this was how it comes across. While firmly rooted in classical conventions of melody, harmony, rhythm and texture, Mozart’s choices constantly surprise – the shapes only fully comprehended when the line reaches its destination. I believe this to be the very essence of the transcendent quality of his music – music of its time, and yet capable of grasping our attention and imagination still, so many generations later.
As well constructed as Salieri’s music is – and was demonstrated to be by this presentation – somehow the control of this element is never present to that level. There is contrast between sections, but within each statement the destination seems already evident and the progressions play out as we expect they will. As pleasant as his music is, the control of the dramatic element is not as present.
By shining light on the output of these two musical colleagues, we were given a chance to ponder the ways in which we have received this music, and why some of it continues to appeal so many generations later. Thank you to the Victoria Chorale, Art of Sound Orchestra and Mario Dobernig for this thought provoking presentation. Though dressed as a bit of fun, there was deeper enjoyment to be had.
Peter Hurley reviewed the performance of “Mozart vs Salieri” given by Victoria Chorale and Art of Sound Orchestra at Melbourne Recital Centre, Elisabeth Murdoch Hall on April 27, 2019.