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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Requiem for a Tortured 'Mozart'

Though thoroughly discredited by historians, the tale of Mozart's alleged poisoning by rival composer Antonio Salieri nevertheless continues to live on in the theater. Over the past weekend, in the Kremlin Palace of Congresses, Moscow's young and enterprising Novaya Opera took its own crack at the familiar myth, with the premiere of a huge spectacle of song and dance entitled "O, Mozart! Mozart..."

Unhappily, the result added up to two hours of theatrical madness and pretension. Indeed, it seems quite amazing that Novaya Opera, which has worked so hard in recent seasons to bring opera of real quality to Moscow audiences, should have chosen to pour its time, effort and money into such a dubious undertaking.

"O, Mozart! Mozart..." takes as its starting point Rimsky-Korsakov's brief opera "Mozart and Salieri." To this it adds chunks of Mozart's last great work, the unfinished Requiem Mass, the slow movements from two of his best-known piano concertos, and a bit of music by Salieri.

Musically speaking, it is hard to say which of the principal composers, Rimsky-Korsakov or Mozart, suffers most from Novaya Opera's concoction. "Mozart and Salieri" is one of the former's least flamboyant and most intimate works. Based on a short verse play of Pushkin, it amounts simply to a set of monologues and dialogues involving only the two protagonists. Clearly, it has no place in the cavernous reaches of the Kremlin Palace.

Presented by itself, and in more appropriate surroundings, Novaya Opera's "Mozart and Salieri" would no doubt have the makings of a fine production. Conductor Yevgeny Kolobov and his orchestra obviously have the music in their bones, while the protagonists on Sunday evening, bass Tigran Martirosyan in the role of Salieri and tenor Anatoly Ponomarev as Mozart, both upheld high vocal standards -- at least to the extent it was possible to discern the actual sound of their voices through the Kremlin Palace's hideous amplification.

Nothing, however, seems more wrong-headed than the notion of interrupting the taut drama and decidedly late 19th-century music of "Mozart and Salieri" with long stretches of music by Mozart himself. This proves not merely a distraction. It actually amounts to nothing less than a travesty.

While conductor Kolobov clearly has the measure of Rimsky-Korsakov, his ideas regarding Mozart's music seem at least half a century out of date. While the chorus and the orchestra did indeed perform the Requiem movements with accuracy and, at times, beauty, the real Mozart lay buried under leaden tempos and massive waves of sound.

Attempts to stage religious music nearly always have their dubious aspects. In the case of "O, Mozart! Mozart...," taking great pieces of the Requiem out of context proves utterly destructive. Toward the end, matters reach a point of absurdity, as a flippant dance routine plays itself out against the heartfelt cries of the Mass's magnificent "Kyrie."

The two concerto movements, both employed to accompany the dancing of soloists Natalya Balakhnicheva and Viktor Barykin, were reduced to little more than salon music.

Novaya Opera has expressed considerable pride in securing the famed dancer and choreographer Vladimir Vasiliev -- reportedly being considered as a successor to the Bolshoi's Artistic Director Yuri Grigorovich -- to stage its production. But neither his choreography nor his handling of the chorus and vocal soloists proved a revelation. The dancing seemed flat and cliche-ridden. Mozart and Salieri moved awkwardly across the vast expanses of the stage. And the chorus simply walked on and off in thoroughly routine fashion.

In its short existence, Novaya Opera has added considerable brilliance to Moscow's operatic scene. Let us hope that "O, Mozart! Mozart..." merely amounts to an aberration, not a new direction.