To most people Antonio Salieri is unknown except as the older composer associated with Mozart in Amadeus, perhaps best captured in this little clip from Milos Forman’s 1983 film.
Of course the way that story is told is a cruel misrepresentation (from a play after all). But it is true to say that Salieri’s operas are mostly unknown, so much so that today I saw my first one, namely Falstaff in a semi-staged version here in Toronto, thanks to Voicebox Opera in Concert (hm interesting that their initials –VOIC—come close to spelling “voice”. I suspect they know that).
I came because this was an important opportunity to hear something new. But I enjoyed it far more than I expected. On the heels of seeing the opening of Marriage of Figaro at the COC on Thursday, I can’t help asking a few key questions about why Salieri’s operas have been forgotten:
- Was it a change of fashion or is the music as mediocre as you might believe from watching Forman’s film or Shaffer’s play?
- Or were other factors at work such as new competing styles (thinking especially of Rossini)
- What about the input of the singers (whose preferences can be the ultimate deal breaker)?
Pick your favourite bullet as it’s not something easily settled, and surely requires a more thorough investigation (or a few dissertations), beginning with someone giving Salieri a proper production: which I believe he deserves on the basis of what we saw and heard today (are you listening Marshall Pynkoski@ Opera Atelier?). Full marks to director Guillermo Silva-Marin for his semi-staging that surely gives us more than enough to get lost in this funny story.
The third bullet might be a huge intangible, given that it’s a moving target, hard to calibrate even if people sang exactly at they did back in 1800, when Salieri might have still been part of the repertoire mix and certainly within the living memory of many alive at that time. I heard some numbers that sounded quite difficult, but perhaps might require a different approach, closer to comic (buffa) singing rather than the honest forthright singing we encountered today; or in other words, a comedian going for laughs might have a bit more fun and not worry that he can’t hit all the high notes.
I want to properly acknowledge the heroics, especially
- Colin Ainsworth, singing a bit against type as Ford. I wonder if the part is written to sound a bit more like (referencing the first examples that come to mind, namely Wagner’s Siegfried even if this is not to be mistaken for Wagner) Mime the dwarf rather than Siegfried himself, less Tamino and more Monostatos (better example?). But wow Ainsworth made fabulous sounds, including lots of powerful notes on top apt for a helden, wonderfully accurate in this pitch (something i can’t say for everyone in this show), and possessed of a quirky second voice he trucked out for his disguise as Mr Brook.
- Dion Mazerolle’s Falstaff was truer to buffa, full of wonderful moments of comedy, and quite charming. His fat knight is a likeable rogue, the voice as well-rounded as the curves of his (padded) stomach. I think the opera is much more congenial when we can like the character even at his most villainous.
- Justin Welsh’s Mr. Slender has me asking: “Justin where have you been”? I remember now how much I loved this voice in the Against the Grain boheme but maybe I just haven’t noticed the other things he’s doing. Once again, Welsh’s mellow voice and suave line created the prettiest sound in the whole production (as he was then).
- Allison Angelo as Mrs Ford also brought a pair of voices along, one pretty and one silly, making the most of her opportunities.
- Perhaps most impressive of all was Larry Beckwith in his role as conductor of Aradia Ensemble and the VOIC chorus. If you’re a dead composer and you need an advocate hire Beckwith! He won this case hands down (well actually hands UP: as that’s how he conducts).
I’m full of gratitude for what VOIC Artistic Director Guillermo brought before us today. With luck we’ll hear more of Salieri someday.