Commedia dell’Arte and Mozart and Salieri

Mozart1Genius and villainy.

Are the two incompatible?

Hard work and lifelong dedication versus careless talent, and mediocrity malevolently overpowers brilliance. What a plot!

In reality, Salieri was probably a nice guy, who got lucky and got a cushy job working for the Duke … with a handsome salary… benefits… a nice retirement to look forward to. And here you go, young brilliant Mozart effortlessly gives birth to one masterpiece after another, freelancing for his countless female students, countesses, Dukes, courts and god knows who else. If nothing else, Salieri should have felt guilty, even without poisoning Mozart, for taking such a cozy place in society, when Mozart was a poor genius. He should have said, “Wolfgang, my friend! You deserve this more than I do, take my life and I will rightfully become your slave, and carry your pianoforte after you everywhere you go.”

Well, believe it or not, that did not happen. It would be too perfect for the human race to behave like that. And I am positive that any poisoning did not happen either, it would be too perfect for the poets to miss, and Pushkin did not… He makes Mozart and Salieri, one of his six Little Tragedies, into a tragedy of Shakespearean caliber. By the end of the piece you love Mozart, hate Salieri, and wonder if bad guys can justify anything, even murder. Consider this justification:

No, now I can resist my fate no longer.
I have been chosen: I must be the one
To stop him. Otherwise we all will perish,
All of us priests and ministers of music,
Not only I with my dull-ringing fame.
What use is it if Mozart stays alive
And reaches even newer summits yet?
Will he uplift the art by doing so?
No; it will sink again when he is gone;
He leaves us no successor. What’s the use
In him? He brings us, like a cherub, certain
Songs of paradise, and afterwards,
When he has roused in us, us children of
The dust, a wingless longing . . . flies away!
So fly away! The sooner you do, the better.

dominosWhen it comes to theatre, I love Commedia dell’Arte. I love all kinds of comedy but this is my favorite. When I heard that the McNay Art Museum was presenting Commedia dell’Arte, produced by an Italian born and Italian trained theatre director; I gathered my troops (MBAW board members) and we went to see it.

It turned out to be not an actual play, but a very interesting presentation about an upcoming Commedia dell’Arte show at Trinity University, where Roberto Prestigiacomo is Associate Professor and the Director of Theatre. His students did a great job demonstrating different moods of iconic characters like Arlecchino, Pierrot, and Columbina, as Roberto shared the history of this quirky theatrical genre.

Then and there, I thought it would be great fun to work with this classically trained, Rome educated, extremely charming Italian director. As these things happen, this season we are producing Mozart and Salieri, a one act tragic opera by Rimsky-Korsakov, and Roberto, master of Italian comedy, will stage it. There is a thin line that separates laughter and pain, comedy and tragedy, and we are determined to prove it.

Pushkin translation by Alan Shaw

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