For most people, the life and music of Antonio Salieri was defined by Peter Shaffer’s 1979 play Amadeus and the subsequent Academy Award-winning 1984 film. In the play, Salieri and Mozart are depicted as ferocious and bitter rivals, with Salieri thwarting the younger, arrogant and brilliantly talented Mozart. According to the play, Salieri was a disciplined, devoted, but ultimately mediocre composer, whereas Mozart was naturally extraordinarily gifted.
Classical music buffs and fans of the music of Vienna in the late 18th century know that the play and the film take substantial artistic licence, and that Mozart and Salieri were actually on a much more level playing field than they’re presented.
“It’s not accurate in any way, unfortunately,” says Erin Helyard, co-artistic director of Sydney-based Pinchgut Opera. “Mozart and Salieri were rivals, as Mozart was a rival of any operatic composer in Vienna. But there’s a lot of evidence that suggests that Mozart and Salieri were actually quite collegial, particularly towards the latter part of Mozart’s life. There’s a lovely letter Mozart wrote to his wife after the premiere for Magic Flute, where he says that he specifically ordered a carriage for Salieri, and that Salieri was so generous in his acclamation.”
Mozart is now one of the world’s most frequently-performed composers, both in opera houses and in concert halls, but Salieri’s compositions are almost never heard. So how did Salieri’s music fall out of favour and Mozart’s star rise so high?
Portrait of Salieri by Joseph Willibrord Mähler
“Salieri, at the time, was actually way more famous than Mozart,” Helyard says. “He was Gluck’s successor. He was probably the greatest opera composer of that period, and more influential than Mozart, in terms of operatic developments. But Mozart became very famous following his early death. He died very suddenly in 1791, and his career was just starting to take off. His wife created this cult around him and the early death. There was a sense of this suffering, sickly composer dying before his time.”
Pinchgut, a company which specialises in staging rarely performed operas, is reviving the music of Salieri by performing his opera The Chimney Sweep (Der Rauchfangkehrer). The opera, first performed in 1781, was hugely successful and was revived consistently until the early 1900s. But since then, the opera hasn’t been performed professionally anywhere in the world, with the exception of a semi-staged production in Austria in 2011.
The Chimney Sweep was, unusually, set contemporaneously in 18th century Vienna, and follows an Italian chimney sweep, Volpino (played by Stuard Haycock) who exposes the hypocrisy of his social “superiors”. The cast also features Opera Australia star Amelia Farrugia, and the 40-member strong Sydney Children’s Choir as sooty apprentice chimney sweeps.
“It’s really fun,” says Helyard, who serves as musical director for the production. “The liberating aspect of it is that no one has ever heard it. You don’t have that weight of expectation of repeated performances and presentations of it. If you put on another Marriage of Figaro, everybody already knows it.”
Pinchgut works to give audiences an experience as close to the thrill that audiences would have experienced in the heyday of opera. That’s not to say they stage stuffy, traditional productions of well-worn works. Pinchgut intends to inject something lively and novel into the operatic world, often by staging unseen operas.
“In the 18th century, they didn’t repeat old works,” Helyard says. “They always had new works. There were revivals, and they held the stage for about two seasons, but there was no such thing as a canon.”
As part of their desire to create a relevant, authentic experience, they’ve also translated the entire opera into English.
“That was inspired by the original commissioner, Joseph II [of Austria], who wanted a theatre in the local vernacular. The original production came about because he didn’t want opera in Italian; he wanted it in the language of the people to encourage broader audiences.”
Helyard has had to prepare and edit the score for the orchestra, which has involved copying note by note from a facsimile of the original score. When it comes to the performances, audiences might be surprised to find Helyard not standing in front of the orchestra, but sitting behind a pianoforte.
“I conduct the orchestra, as Salieri would have done in the premiere, rather than waving my hands around in an ahistorical manner. That way of keeping the pit and stage together didn’t really happen until the mid-19th century.”
With The Chimney Sweep, Pinchgut is intending to restore Salieri’s music and his good name. While they mightn’t reach the audiences Shaffer did with Amadeus, the truth will soon be heard. At least by a few.
Featured image: Amelia Farrugia, Alexandrea Oomens and Janet Todd in rehearsal. Photo by Bridget Elliot