At the intimate Phoenix Artist Club in Soho, the audience is milling around, buying drinks, waiting for the lunchtime opera to start. But in fact it already has, unnoticed; a brooding Salieri, played by baritone Nick Dwyer, sits nonchalantly at the bar, sipping a drink and listening, with a horrified look on his face, to the snippets of Mozart tinkling from the piano.
Many will know the apocryphal tale of classical composer Antonio Salieri, and his alleged plot to poison and murder his bitter rival and better-known contemporary, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The story forms the basis of Peter Shaffer’s stage play and film Amadeus, as well as this one-act opera by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Mozart and Salieri. Director Pamela Schermann has teamed up with musical director Andrew Charity team for Time Zone Theatre’s performance, which immerses the audience in Salieri’s thoughts and feelings during the composers’ fateful final meeting.
Salieri, an official court composer, was intensely jealous of Mozart’s musical ability and despised both his laziness and precociousness. Here, as he wanders through the audience, we become privy to his inner torments, darkest secrets and strong dislike of the prodigious Austrian composer, pouring his heart out to us as though we were his closest friends. Dwyer captures our attention throughout, drawing us into the intrigue through his piercing gaze and the clarity and resonance of his voice. His rich baritone perfectly suits the declamatory nature and desolation of his musical lines, through which he displays the depths of Salieri’s despair.
As Mozart, played by Roger Paterson, bounds boyishly into the bar, we immediately understand Salieri’s distress. Taken aback at first, his startlingly out of place eighteenth-century dress in comparison to Salieri’s contemporary smart shirt and jacket, makes it impossible for us to take Mozart seriously, particularly as he flings his white wig around. Though the costume choice was a little confusing initially, it simply emphasised the juxtaposition between the characters and forced us to empathise with Salieri’s side of the story. Paterson’s tenor was also more lyrical and softer, where he sung the melodies with ease and confidence, with a youthful grin and swagger. The contrast between the two characters is striking.
The final scene marks a change in Mozart’s character, however, as he reveals the ominous commission of his Requiem from a strange man dressed in black. A preoccupied Mozart goes to demonstrate his Requiem alongside the pianist who is then fully drawn into the action of the scene, having skillfully accompanied and remained completely in control throughout the performance. And then, a cliffhanger: Mozart leaves the scene, unwell, having drunk Salieri’s poisoned wine.
Despite being the villain in this story, we can’t help but feel sorry for Salieri’s inner suffering, and perhaps even a little irritated by Mozart’s immaturity and lighthearted attitude. We see Mozart through Salieri’s eyes in this opera. The engaging singers and clever staging places us right in the midst of this unfortunate tale, with the lack of the orchestra and offstage chorus not a concern. In fact, the intimate and immersive nature of the setting perfectly suits this opera where the presence of the audience “on stage” effectively sets the scene of an actual bar, in which we are the extras.
By Clare Elton
For more information about Time Zone Theatre, click here to visit the website.