Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Mozart and Salieri” – NY Times

  • Harlow Robinson

If Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov were alive today, he would have to smile at the enormous success of Peter Shaffer’s Broadway hit, ”Amadeus.” Or would he, like the wittily embittered Antonio Salieri whom ”Amadeus” so brilliantly immortalizes, gnash his teeth in envy? For in 1897 – fully 84 years ago – Rimsky-Korsakov wrote a fine little one-act opera, ”Mozart and Salieri,” that covers the same territory as ”Amadeus”’: the rumor that Salieri, official composer for the Hapsburg court in Vienna, poisoned Mozart out of envy for his musical talent. But ”Mozart and Salieri” passed almost unnoticed outside Russia – undeservedly so.

Given the gentle nature of Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908), however, it seems more likely that he would be smiling. His smile would be even broader if he knew that New Yorkers this week have the opportunity to see the second new production of ”Mozart and Salieri” in the last three months. In May, the Theater Opera Music Institute gave a small production in English with piano accompaniment. On Thursday, the ambitious and fast-growing Chamber Opera Theater of New York will open its season with what’s being billed as the opera’s ”first major New York production” -in English, with a full 30-piece orchestra – at the Marymount Manhattan Theater. Presented along with Salieri’s own short operatic parody, ”Prima la Musica,” and the ”Ave Verum” movement of the Orchestral Suite No. 4 (”Mozartiana”) by Tchaikovsky, the program will be repeated Aug. 21, 25, 26, 27 and 28.

”We’re giving a night devoted to Mozart without any of Mozart’s music,” explains Thaddeus Motyka, general director of the Chamber Opera Theater.

Annals say that ”Mozart and Salieri” was first given in America in 1933 in, improbably, Forest Park, Pa. In 1956 the Little Opera Company revived it in New York, and in the 25 years since then, ”Mozart and Salieri” has been performed at the Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut, at the Brooklyn College Opera Workshop, at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, at the Kennedy Center in Washington with the National Symphony and even, a month ago, on July 24, at the Aspen Music Festival in Colorado.

But most of these performances, with the exception of the one at the Kennedy Center, have been relatively small-scale affairs: concert versions, or partially staged, or only with piano and not the original (and crucial) orchestral accompaniment. One should, perhaps, be grateful to Broadway for indirectly providing the opportunity finally to see and hear this unusual and neglected little masterpiece the way it was meant to be seen and heard.

”Mozart and Salieri” did have its moment in the sun – not surprisingly, in Russia. In 1898 the great Russian bass Fyodor Chaliapin, famous for his crazed portrayal of Boris Godunov, sang the role of Salieri in Moscow and scored a great success. ”From this time,” writes Rimsky-Korsakov in his chatty autobiography, ”dates Chaliapin’s fame and the growth of his popularity.” Not so for the opera, which even in Russia has been rarely performed in this century.

When one thinks of Rimsky-Korsakov, one automatically sees exotic Arabian girls dancing or hears lush Oriental chords. But ”Mozart and Salieri” shows us an entirely different side of Rimsky-Korsakov’s musical and dramatic personality. There are only two singing roles: Salieri (bass-baritone) and Mozart (tenor). An offstage chorus sings some excerpts from Mozart’s Requiem, and a blind violinist plays a snatch from ”Don Giovanni.” No women appear in the two scenes. Salieri, who, as in Shaffer’s play, is at the center of the piece, is on stage for long periods of time alone, reflecting.

It is a realistic psychological tragedy of small, but intense proportions, a work of verbal and emotional detail, very different from the lavishly scenic and extravagantly orchestrated fairy-tale operas – ”The Golden Cockerel,” ”Sadko,” ”Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh” – for which Rimsky-Korsakov is better known. The atmosphere is heavy and brooding -even Dostoevskian.

In Rimsky-Korsakov’s setting, unlike Shaffer’s, Salieri actually does murder Mozart by pouring poison in his glass. One of the opera’s most striking moments has Salieri, seconds after slipping the poison into Mozart’s wine, sob unrestrainedly as he listens to Mozart play his just-composed Requiem, whose opening is quoted in full in the orchestral accompaniment. ”There is no finer moment in opera,” Mr. Motyka remarks enthusiastically. ”It’s so subtle.”

The opera ends with Salieri’s desperate questioning, directed more to himself than to the audience: ”So villainy and genius are two things that never go together? That’s not true; Think but of Buonarotti …Or was that a tale of the dull, stupid crowd -and he who built the Vatican was not a murderer?” Here Salieri compares himself to Michaelangelo Buonarotti who, it is rumored, murdered the man who served as the model for Christ in the crucifixion painting above the altar in the Sistine Chapel.

Mr. Motyka doesn’t deny that the great success of ”Amadeus” on Broadway led him to see a new full production of ”Mozart and Salieri” as a timely theatrical event. ”I’ve known ”Mozart and Salieri” for years, and have wanted to put it on for a lot of reasons. It’s an unjustly neglected masterpiece: I love the orchestration -the words are beautifully set. Pushkin’s verse comes through in a way that serves each word.”

So well, indeed, does ”Mozart and Salieri” serve the word – the Russian word – that non-Russian audiences have found it difficult to appreciate the opera’s severe beauty. Translation into any language can only suggest the exceptionally close relationship here between the individual words, even syllables, and the musical line. For his production, Mr. Motyka has been preparing a new English translation intended to convey more closely the musical illustration of the text.

Much of the translation problem stems from the fact that Rimsky-Korsakov chose a recognized literary work – Aleksandr Pushkin’s short drama in verse, ”Mozart and Salieri” (written 1830) – as the source of his libretto. Pushkin (1799-1837) occupies approximately the same position in Russia’s literary hierarchy as Shakespeare in England’s. Rimsky-Korsakov, who wrote 14 operas in 40 years was not, of course, the first Russian operatic composer to turn to Pushkin. Mussorgsky drew on Pushkin for ”Boris Godunov” (which has likewise suffered from translation problems); Glinka for ”Ruslan and Ludmila”; Tchaikovsky for ”Eugene Onegin” and ”The Queen of Spades.” Rimsky-Korsakov turned again to Pushkin for his last, and perhaps most successful, opera, ”The Golden Cockerel.” Thanks to the New York City Opera’s production, this is the one opera of his that is familiar to New York audiences.

But what Rimsky-Korsakov does in ”Mozart and Salieri” is very different from these other Pushkin settings (including his own). While they take enormous liberties with the original texts, Rimsky-Korsakov’s libretto for ”Mozart and Salieri” is Pushkin’s text; there are a few omitted lines, but all the lines included to be sung are taken verbatim from the drama, which is written in blank verse. Rimsky-Korsakov was above all concerned with preserving the words and spirit of the Pushkin original. How different was Tchaikovsky’s approach to ”Eugene Onegin,” which he Romanticized almost beyond recognition!

Rimsky-Korsakov’s scrupulous concern with preserving the integrity of Pushkin’s ”Mozart and Salieri” is, in fact, particularly appropriate when one recalls that Pushkin was often considered a ”Mozartean type” as a writer. That is, he wrote with apparent ease and fluidity, never straining, and all the while, like Mozart, running off to parties and dallying with lovely young ladies. It seems, in fact, very likely that Pushkin identified with Mozart rather than with Salieri; both artists fused Classicism and Romanticism in a similar way. Pushkin was familiar with, and loved, Mozart’s operas.

Rimsky-Korsakov’s attention to detail, on the other hand – his care in preserving Pushkin’s text in ”Mozart and Salieri,” his obsessive ”revising” of his own and his colleagues’ (Mussorgsky’s, Glinka’s, Borodin’s) scores – would seem to indicate that he identifies more closely (consciously or unconsciously) with the conscientious but uninspired Salieri.

Interestingly, a relationship not unlike that between Salieri and Mozart existed between Rimsky-Korsakov and his contemporary Modest Mussorgsky. Both belonged to the group of Russian 19th-century composers known as ”The Five”; they worked together closely and at one time even shared an apartment. Mussorgsky never had formal musical training, while Rimsky-Korsakov forced himself to master the fundamentals in his late 20’s. Like the Salieri in Pushkin’s drama, Rimsky-Korsakov ”dissected music like a corpse, checked harmony by algebraic rules.” Rimsky-Korsakov admitted that he both ”loved and hated” the strange harmonies of Mussorgsky’s ”Boris Gudonov”; he always viewed Mussorgsky as an enormously gifted but irresponsible and undisciplined composer. one could even see Rimsky-Korsakov’s controversial re-orchestration of ”Boris Godunov” after Mussorgsky’s death as a kind of envious musical poisoning of his less fortunate colleague.

In his book on Pushkin, the British critic John Bayley has remarked that the popular conception of Pushkin and Mozart as happy, madlyinspired idlers is in fact a mistaken one, that both were in reality profoundly concerned with their art and its techniques. (One could say this with less confidence of Mussorgsky, who did have much less technical training in his art than either Mozart or Pushkin). What is important in the Pushkin drama and the Rimsky-Korsakov opera, though, is that the audience sees Mozart through Salieri’s eye’s, and that Salieri does view him as an overly precocious and irreverent idler. ”Mozart’s existence is an affront to justice and to art, and he must be eliminated in order that the decorum of art may be preserved,” writes Bayley.

In his autobiography, one of the best source-books on the history of Russian 19th-century music, Rimsky-Korsakov briefly describes his work on the opera: ”…I turned to Pushkin’s ‘Mozart and Salieri,’ in the form of two operatic scenes in recitative-arioso style. This composition was purely vocal indeed: the melodic web, following the sinuosities of the text, was composed ahead of all else; the accompaniment, fairly complicated, shaped itself later, and its first outline differed greatly from the final form of its orchestral accompaniment. I felt content: the result was something that was new for me.”

Ultimately, Rimsky-Korsakov’s ”Mozart and Salieri” is, like Pushkin’s poem-drama that inspired it, an experiment. Pushkin originally called ”Mozart and Salieri” a ”dramatic investigation.” It was not written to be staged. It was written more for Pushkin than for his readers, and is not intended to provide an answer to the thorny issue – the incompatibility of genius and villainy – that it raises.

Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera is composed in a similar spirit. Already the popular and established composer of six operas – including ”Sadko,” ”May Night” and ”The Snow Maiden” – and much instrumental music, Rimsky-Korsakov, no longer so anxious to please, decided to write one for himself in ”Mozart and Salieri.” The opera’s success and originality seem to support the controversial thesis that it is precisely when they forget their audience that artists produce their most interesting work.