He lived through one of the most tumultuous periods in European history, an age of tectonic political and artistic change. He witnessed first hand the convulsions of the French Revolution and survived to see the march of Napoleon’s armies across a restless continent. He lived and worked at various times in his remarkable 50-year career in Vienna, Milan and Paris, custom crafting operas to satisfy local tastes. Haydn and Mozart both knew and respected him. Beethoven, Schubert and Liszt were devoted students. Born at the height of the Enlightenment, he died on the threshold of the Romantic Age, the ultimate consummate professional, endlessly adaptable. And destined to be very nearly forgotten.
Opera seria, opera buffa, tragédie lyrique, Antonio Salieri, music director to the glittering late 18th century Viennese court, worked in all the trending theatrical genres of the era. Yet, despite a known catalogue of over three dozen commissioned operas, not to mention numerous oratorios, sacred works and lowbrow divertimenti, Salieri’s skilfully sculpted music is only sporadically performed today. The spectacular success of director Miloš Forman’s 1984 Academy Award-winning film, Amadeus, based on playwright Peter Shaffer’s Broadway hit has not widely translated, it seems, into enduring audience interest. Tragically, the loss is ours. The persistent depiction of Salieri as a minor, insecure court composer, masked architect of Mozart’s death, increasingly feels more like a meme given a close hearing of his music. This is an undeniably mature, confident talent of major importance.
Semi-staged at the St. Lawrence Centre’s Jane Mallett Theatre earlier this week, Voicebox: Opera in Concert’s rambunctious one-time presentation of the once celebrated Kapellmeister’s rarely performed 1799 Falstaff bulged with high spirits, big-bellied and satisfying.
As was the case with Verdi, Salieri’s Falstaff appeared on the Hapsburg maestro’s horizon later in life. In fact, it was virtually the last opera of his career. Although separated by a vast rift in time, it is impossible not to detect a similar sense of summing up, the sharing of acquired experience that prevails in both works. But there the resemblance ends.
Predating Verdi’s more familiar operatic take on Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor by almost a century, Salieri’s Falstaff, ossia le tre burle (Falstaff, or the Three Jokes), essentially converts the play into an easily accessed episodic romp.
Sir John Falstaff, the scheming, gluttonous old hedonist, receives a triple come-uppance in a series of unrelated comic vignettes. Engineered by the object of his mercenary ploy to restore his faded fortunes, wealthy matron Mistress Ford, whom he intends to woo and win, proves a sharp-witted quarry. Counterattacks are mounted, tricks played. Unceremoniously dumped out of a laundry hamper into the Thames, forced to dress as a shabby old auntie to evade Mistress Ford’s outraged husband, tormented by a nasty band of mock fairies after agreeing to masquerade as a laughable forest creature, the larcenous old knight recants his conniving ways.
Set next to Verdi’s sprawling tale, the Salieri version, libretto by Carlo Prospero Defranceschi, appears almost stark in its dramatic aspirations. Subplots are non-existent. Three merry wives are reduced to two. Dame Quickly and Meg Page are replaced by the lesser roles of Mistress Slender and her husband, co-conspirator Mr. Slender. Falstaff’s ne’er-do-well retainer, Bardolfo, appears minus fellow partner-in-crime, Pistola. Missing entirely are the young lovers Fenton and Nannetta. Mistress Ford is given a servant, Betty. Dr. Caius is nowhere in sight.
The conciseness and simplicity of the text, while certainly not up to the sharp, pointed satirical standards of period dramatists like Lorenzo da Ponte with whom Salieri had conferred on earlier projects, nevertheless serves the composer’s purpose. His score fills the foreground, the centre of our attention, a lively pattern opera brought into pinpoint focus by Opera in Concert’s first-rate team of singers and chamber players.
Musically, Falstaff embodies many, if not most, of the operatic forms Salieri had clearly mastered working in some of Europe’s most sophisticated theatrical environments. Echoes of the prevailing French preference for the breezy airs preferred by muse and colleague Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais combine happily with light-hearted, speech-inflected secco recitatives sprinkled with patter, the latter very nearly approaching imperial-sanctioned singspiel on occasion. Red-hot flashes of coloratura in hyper emotional Italian style recall time spent collaborating at Teatro alla Scala. Frequent intense, lush accompanied recits suggest the influence of friend and mentor, opera reformer Christoph Willibald Gluck.
While unquestionably lacking the dazzle and zest of Mozart, an omnipresent player in the high stakes game of winning Emperor Joseph II’s favour, Salieri’s lustrous music never grows stale.
Singing the lead in Opera in Concert’s appealing, good-natured production, baritone Dion Mazerolle brought great wit and charm to the proceedings, the breadth of his warm, attractive instrument exceeded only by a hefty layer of body padding. Unlike Verdi’s Falstaff, possessed of endless cynicism and world weariness, Salieri’s portly hero is a monument to hubris. Mazerolle was particularly adept at showcasing the pathetic grandeur of the fat knight, a man of immense ego eternally confounded by the world’s failure to appreciate his oversized appetite for life.
As Mistress Ford, Allison Angelo gave a performance of genuine sophistication, her shiny, unclouded soprano amply reflecting her character’s strength and clarity of purpose. The role is a pivotal one, demanding a strong sense of ensemble verging on commedia dell’arte sensibilities. The goodly Windsor wife conspires and banters, masquerades as a flirty German go-between, dances a minuet. Angelo conducted herself with unwavering stylishness and poise. Her satiny rendition of Salieri’s sly lovelorn serenade, Su, mio core, a gioir ti prepara! (“Be ready to rejoice, my heart!”) was quite simply charming.
Appearing as Mr. Ford, Colin Ainsworth frequently owned the spotlight. With his huge vocal proportions and mega grand opera top notes, the explosive singer actor brought enormous passion to his high-powered portrayal of Salieri’s tormented husband. Descending deep into the depths of rage in Or degli afanni i palpiti (“I understand now what was giving rise to the ill-feelings in my heart”), Ainsworth stopped the show. Lyrical at times, volatile and mercurial when required, the popular Toronto-based tenor consistently engaged. His comedic voice stylings as Ford-cum-whiny suitor Mr. Brook yielded waves of laughter. Ainsworth thrilled.
Mezzo-soprano Michèle Bogdanowicz and baritone Justin Welsh sang Mistress and Mr. Slender. Smooth-toned and fluid both, the pair enchanted. Charging her revenge aria, Vendetta, sì, vendetta, with crackling energy, Bogdanowicz lit up the stage. Welsh, largely denied solo opportunities by the composer, soared in Falstaff’s ensemble engagements, nowhere more so than in the boisterous Act II quartet, Siete già qui? (“You have come already?”), the hopelessly respectable Fords and Slenders furiously cursing Falstaff’s socially deplorable behaviour.
Baritone Diego Catalá was a muscular, resonant Bardolfo, Falstaff’s irresistibly caustic, unprincipled servant. Sydney Baedke sang a fine Betty, Mistress Ford’s faithful maid.
The Voicebox Chorus gave full, ringing voice to Salieri’s generous choral settings appearing at various times as banquet guests at the Ford’s, family friends and spooky make-believe denizens of deep, dark Windsor Forest.
Leading the superb 12-player Aradia Ensemble — horns, woodwinds, harpsichord and strings — conductor Larry Beckwith struck a brisk orchestral pace while still rewarding us with the opportunity to luxuriate in Salieri’s luscious melodic lines. Accompanied recitatives were gorgeously related. Continuo was exemplary, orchestral harmonies exquisite throughout.
With what proved to be a delightfully sunny concert on a midwinter Sunday afternoon, Voicebox emphatically restated what history has forgotten. While a modest gesture in the long overdue process of restoring Salieri’s reputation, this Falstaff provided solid evidence of the composer’s capacity to excite and entertain. The much-maligned maestro is owed a round of applause. Opera in Concert, too.