It is repeatedly necessary to point out that the
film Amadeus, which made Salieri’s name more famous around
the world than it had ever been, also slandered him outrageously.
He and Mozart were friendly rivals, and they spent many cordial
hours studying scores together in Vienna archives. It was partly
bad conscience on the part of other not-so-friendly rivals of
Mozart (and rivals of Salieri) that caused them to turn on Salieri
and make him ‘the heavy’ in the story after Mozart’s death.
But Salieri got where he got by being a capable musician and
by being a gracious, beloved man. When he became Liszt’s tutor,
Salieri had a health crisis of some sort and Liszt’s family
kept the news from Liszt until after he had finished the evening’s
concert before telling him of it, for Liszt so loved his tutor
he would have cancelled the concert and rushed at once to his
bedside if he had known. We are not talking here about a murderer,
the “Patron Saint of Mediocrities.”
Vienna intrigues could have won for Salieri a few
more performances of his music in Vienna, but cannot have had
any effect on Parisian audiences who enjoyed Salieri’s operas
like this one and made them very popular and their composer
very rich. In the film, Salieri criticises Mozart for failing
to respect traditions and classical styles, something Salieri
evidently considered himself the guardian of. Whatever, Liszt
wanted very much to learn about operatic methods and styles
so he could write piano music which expressed the passion and
emotion of opera, and this he studied with Salieri. Liszt composed
many songs of which some in their original vocal versions, e.g.,
Lorelei, and some in their piano transcriptions, e.g.,
Liebestraum and the Petrarch Sonnet settings, were among
his most popular music. Arnold Schoenberg was 12 years old when
Liszt died, and he studied Liszt’s music carefully. What I am
pointing out is that between Salieri’s operas like Tarare
and Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire there stands only Franz
Liszt,* and it is that connection I am trying to understand.
Join me if you wish.
I approached this opera recording expecting to
see good theatre, good singing, and awful music, and that’s
just what I found. The amiable musical snippets of which the
score consists range from echoes of the Confederate anthem to
glorious moments from Beethoven and Mozart that they hadn’t
written yet. To begin with, Tarare is the original French
version of Salieri’s Axur, Re d’Ormus, the Italian opera,
revised and translated with the help of da Ponte, which opera
played 29 times in 1788, twice the number of performances for
Mozart’s Don Giovanni. And no wonder; Don Giovanni
isn’t very funny, while Tarare/Axur is an utter riot!
The vocal lines follow the words and stay in the centre of the
singers’ best range; everybody sounds good and you can follow
the words perfectly, without any distracting passion, anxiety,
or character development.
The plot has to do with the Gods creating men and
arbitrarily deciding that one will be a king and one a slave.
Then, in a brief closing of the curtain, we move forward to
the court of Atar the King who is furiously jealous of
his slave Tarare’s beautiful wife Astasie. The
King elaborately conspires to steal Astasie, but, with
all the odds against them, Tarare and Astasie
elaborately defeat the king with the power of their love and
the strength of their character which leads at last to the declamation
of the moral, that it is character and not worldly status that
defines the value of a person. In between we have nearly three
hours of riotous, colourful entertainment with singing, dancing,
and stage hi-jinx of every kind. Don’t expect anything to make
sense, with Muslims praying to Brahma, with ancient Egyptian
priests, Tatar warriors, and French peasants dancing together.
At one point Tarare is disguised as a negro and wears
a caricature mask that some may find not just politically incorrect,
but offensive. Whenever convenient, a trap door opens in the
stage to swallow someone or some thing. Eberhard Lorenz as the
courtier Calpigi, Anna Caleb as his compatriot Spinette,
and Hannu Niemelä as the sinister high priest Altamort
generally steal the show whenever they’re on stage, which is
much of the time. In fact at the curtain call there seem to
be more people on stage than sitting in the auditorium which
causes a moment of horrified reflection as to what the ticket
prices must have been. All praise the DVD!
Picture is clear and detailed, sound quality is
excellent, DVD-Audio quality, expanding nicely in your surround
*OK, and Rossini, but that doesn’t change my point,
even though the Act I finale of Italiana finds a startling resonance
in Pierrot Lunaire and the whole Act II of Italiana finds a
startling resonance in Tarare.