Skip to content

Mozart and Salieri, Suor Angelica

by on 28 May 2022

A Diptych Hinged on Poison

Mozart and Salieri

by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, libretto after Alexander Pushkin


Suor Angelica

by Giacomo Puccini, libretto by Giovacchino Forzano

Rose Opera at Normansfield Theatre, Teddington until 29th May

Review by Eugene Broad

Poisonous motivations and, well, actual death by poisoning, links this double-bill put up by the Rose Opera.  Featuring two one-act operas, the first was Rimsky-Korsakov’s Mozart and Salieri, based on a short drama by Pushkin. 

Featuring the eponymous composers, the opera Mozart and Salieri served as the direct inspiration for the masterful and charming but (almost certainly) historically inaccurate 1984 film, AmadeusSalieri (Ian Helm)  broods in his atmospheric Viennese bachelor pad, resplendent with harpsichord, draped velvets, and candelabra, lamenting to himself how despite decades of disciplined labour of his mastering all elements of music, fate smiled on Mozart instead, giving him a “holy gift” (or innate talent) despite having an “idlers mind”.  Unannounced, Mozart (William Smith), full of child-like innocence and inanity, drops by.  He confides in Salieri with respect and admiration, almost as if Salieri were an elder sibling or father figure, sharing his compositional self-doubt in crystal tenor (“at night / insomnia tormented me / and two or three ideas came to mind / today I’ve put them down.  And I wanted / to hear your opinion, but I see / you don’t have time for me”). 

Salieri, darkly blinded by his jealousy, cannot see the admiration the younger Mozart has for him.  Salieri’s mind, poisoned by thoughts of being upstaged by Mozart, again conspires to himself to murder Mozart.  Cancel culture was clearly a much more serious business in the 18th Century.  Salieri goes on to invite Mozart for dinner and a drink, and poisons his chalice just before Mozart gives another warm and admiring toast to Salieri’s genius.  Shortly after, Mozart shares some of his now famous Requiem before complaining of feeling unwell and going off-stage, presumably to die soon thereafter – historically, Mozart died of suspected kidney failure around halfway through composing his Requiem.

With a cast of just three but with the lion’s share of work done by Smith and Helm (there’s a brief, but amusing, entrance by a blind violinist), the performance as well as the delivery was gripping, a testament to both of their control over their vocal and acting ability.  Both sang in Pushkin’s Russian, a remarkable feat especially for Helm who had multiple lengthy complex soliloquies with awkward and more sophisticated Russian phrasings.  Indeed, my companion, a native Russian speaker (publicly and vocally anti-war to the extent that my companion cannot presently return to Russia) was very impressed by the feat and also complimented Mozart’s clear pronunciation and care in stressing the right syllable of words.  This is particularly important, as even small changes to where the stress falls in Russian can completely change the meanings of words and make the Russian more blurred to follow for those with proficiency.  Further, as is typical for Pushkin, the libretto which is adapted from his work, keeps much of the original’s complex rhyming and verse structure, including patterns involving masculine and feminine words (as in, more famously, Eugene Onegin).  Consequently, the stress pattern and rhymes of the language ties into the melodic rhythm of the opera overall. 

Despite delivering in a language they both may have been less familiar with and had less exposure to than the usual operatic repertoire, the performance of an embittered and jealous Salieri and a goofball-savant Mozart, was performed with conviction overall, keeping the audience gripped and invested throughout.

Musically, many would likely consider it fair to suggest Rimsky-Korsakov composed better works.  For much of his career, he rejected Western musical techniques, preferring Russian folk harmonic and rhythmic elements.  As a result, at times the composition felt more clunky than had Mozart (or dare I say it, even Salieri) had penned it.  In any event, Rimsky-Korsakov was a master of orchestration and at no point does the musical score lapse into disappointment.  On the contrary, the orchestra was brilliant and undoubtedly talented, elegantly conducted by Benedict Collins Rice, and stewarded by a clearly excellent concertmaster, Matthew Lloyd Wilson, the latter seeming far more virtuosic and comfortable in his role than his years should seemingly allow.  Combined, conductor and orchestra interpreted with greater lyricism and poignancy to Rimsky-Korsakov’s composition than the score itself probably provides.  Clearly, a lot of work, enthusiasm and passion had gone into the production overall and this shone through the orchestra’s interpretation and performance. 

With the standard set from the first half, Suor Angelica had high expectations to meet.  It did so in spades. 

First off – as a bit of a disclaimer, Puccini doesn’t always do it for me.  I’ve always felt he’s a bit too transparent in emotionally manipulating the audience, both with diabetes-inducing saccharine melodies to plucking tragedy out of thin air with all the subtlety of the Hindenburg. 

In honesty, Suor Angelica is somewhat an example of that – but again the performance of cast, orchestra and atmosphere of the set made it possible to look past the quibbles I personally have with Puccini as a whole. 

The story is quite straightforward.  In an Italian convent in the 1600s, nuns go about their daily business and share their thoughts and dreams with each other.  The set was very convincing of some kind of southern Italian convent, with a fountain trickling water, leafy foliage, and a plinth with a statue of the Virgin Mary – again, some lovely set design.  One nun, Suor Angelica (Tamara Ravenhill) is somewhat of a mystery to the other nuns, who speculate she was of high nobility but dishonoured her family in some way.  This indeed turns out to be the case, with Suor Angelica’s aunt – a princess (Lorna Jane Perry)  – dropping by with papers requiring the nun to give up her royal inheritance to her younger sister, now getting married.  The elder princess is clearly disgusted with Suor Angelica, with it becoming apparent the nun had a lovechild out of wedlock, seven years ago. 

The child is all Suor Angelica hopes and dreams for, earnestly enquiring after the child she so clearly still loves deeply.  But the princess dashes her hopes and dreams; poor Suor Angelica’s child allegedly died of illness some years ago.  I say allegedly here, because Lorna Jane Perry acts the princess as a clearly conniving and Machiavellian woman.  At this point, Suor Angelica has still not signed over her inheritance – perhaps in the hope it could continue to pass down to her son.  There’s a lovely moment (from a performance aspect, morally it’s despicable) where the princess seems to have a flicker of hesitation before delivering the news, with no softness or care.  The subtlety of the performance is such that we can consider that perhaps an evil and manipulative aunt lied about the death of Suor Angelica’s child to ensure there are no inheritance issues affecting their otherwise “spotless family crest”. 

The news convinces a distraught and broken Suor Angelica to sign over her inheritance to her younger sister.  The deed done (literally), her aunt leaves with the nuns left to try and raise Suor Angelica’s spirits.  They are unable to, and Suor Angelica who is familiar with the healing properties of plants and herbs, poisons herself in her grief.  Committing suicide, her final cries for mercy to the Virgin Mary for the mortal sin she has committed before her death are undoubtedly moving and emotive.  A final moment of rapture – the mercy given, and (one can hope!) reunification with her lost son in heaven – is caught both in expression and voice. 

A large cast for a short one act opera makes it difficult to name all those deserving – overall the performance was excellent.  Ravenhill as the eponymous character is the dramatic and vocal keystone of the performance, clearly a woman of tenderness – although one interesting moment is when she recommends milk of euphorbia to alleviate wasp stings to Sister Chiara’s face (who we do not meet).  Those with green fingers will know that the sap of euphorbia is toxic, caustic, and a skin irritant.  If anything, it would be far more likely to cause a lot more pain on top of wasp stings, making the next line – “That if she laments / more severe will be her torments” – take on an almost darker tone.  This provoked my curiosity so much as some potential darker insight into her character, I looked through the original libretto in Italian for whether that plant is named, but could not find it.  Amusing oversight with the surtitles, or intentional Easter egg for the green-fingered?  It’s unclear to me, but an enjoyable diversion into perhaps a darker side of Suor Angelica’s character.

Perry portrays Suor Angelica’s aunt, the princess, as a stoic and uncompromising woman, with an authoritative tone to match.  The contrast between the bright and impassioned tone of Ravenhill’s soprano and Perry’s mature and clipped contralto bounced particularly well off each other, giving additional contrast in their vocal tapestries.  Ravenhill performs the aria Senza Mamma with touching sincerity and it’s impossible not to feel for poor Suor Angelica.  Another nun, Sister Genovieffa (Olivia Bell) also comes across with boundless enthusiasm, a positive and endearing force with a matching tone, which helps to build us up in rose-tinted anticipation and joy with the hopes and dreams of the characters.  She sings in earnest fervour to once again hold a lamb and hear it bleat – perhaps she also has an illegitimate child of her own?

Musically, once again the orchestra does not disappoint, with the score perfectly highlighting and encapsulating the action taking place on the stage.  Unashamedly romantic and with lyrical mastery, it would be impossible, even for cynics, to not be stirred by Puccini’s composition.  Once again, the orchestra effortlessly transported us.  I got the impression, though, that many of the musicians preferred playing the Puccini over the Rimsky-Korsakov, and this enjoyment seemed to come through in their performance.

Eugene Broad, May 2022

Photography courtesy of Rose Opera

From → Opera, Rose Opera

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: