Over the past two years, Commonwealth Lyric Theater, which is dedicated to Russian and Slavic opera, has given us pleasing productions of Tchaikovsky’s “Iolanta” and Rachmaninoff’s “Aleko.” This year’s offering, Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Mozart and Salieri,” is equally rare, even though the great Russian bass Feodor Chaliapin sang Salieri at the 1898 premiere. It’s also a challenge to stage by itself, since the complete one-act opera runs just under 40 minutes, but Commonwealth has found an imaginative solution.
Rimsky-Korsakov based his libretto on Pushkin’s “little tragedy” of the same name, which also inspired Peter Shaffer’s 1979 stage play, “Amadeus,” and the 1984 film. In his day, Salieri was a well-respected Viennese opera composer and teacher whose pupils included Beethoven, Schubert, and Liszt. We have no reason to believe he actually murdered Mozart.
But Pushkin posits an effortful, by-the-numbers composer who, in his own words, “dissected music like a corpse” and “put harmony to the test of algebra.” He’s anguished, complex. Pushkin’s Mozart, on the other hand, is a regular guy who plays with his son on the floor, brings his latest composition to Salieri for approval, and is considerate enough to go tell his wife he’ll be dining with Salieri and not at home.
Rimsky-Korsakov set Pushkin’s text word for word, with minor omissions, and wrote a two-minute “fughetta” to serve as an intermezzo between the two scenes. Commonwealth artistic director Alexander Prokhorov has replaced the fughetta with a half-hour of Mozart. Salieri announces, at the end of Scene 1, his intention to poison Mozart during their dinner at the Golden Lion. In this production, he turns that dinner into a tribute party, allowing Mozart to attend his own wake.
On Sunday (casting will vary for the remaining two performances), Jean Furman in red cap and trousers sang a winning “Non so piú” as Cherubino in “The Marriage of Figaro.” Abigail Krawson, Marie McCarville, and Danute Mileika were a hip-swiveling delight as the Queen of the Night’s three ladies from “The Magic Flute”; later in that sequence, 11-year-old Clark Rubinshtein was drop-dead funny as Papageno, turning sweet for his duet with Furman’s Papagena. Pawel Izdebski as the Commendatore and RaShaun D. Campbell as Don Giovanni made a powerful pair in the spooky finale of that opera.
“Mozart and Salieri” is equally gratifying. Olga Maslova’s set at the Makor Center in Brighton is centered on a bust of Izora, the mystery woman whose last gift to Salieri, 18 years earlier, was a vial of poison. Flanked by two candlesticks, the bust sits on what seems an altar. Bass Mikhail Svetlov created an earnest, unpedestrian Salieri, torn between jealousy of Mozart and love of the man’s music. Tenor Mikhail Yanenko’s Mozart was almost lightweight by comparison, but no less sympathetic; when he hummed a snatch of Salieri’s opera “Tarare” before playing the beginning of his own Requiem, he made Salieri seem the musical lightweight.
Prokhorov bookends Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera with the “Lacrimosa” from the Requiem; the finale, the ensemble singing on a darkened stage with candles in hand, is most moving. As usual in Commonwealth productions, both the Russian text and an idiomatic translation are projected house right in large, easy-to-read type.