A portrait of Smoktunovsky as Mozart in Rimsky-Korsakov's opera, Mozart and Salieri . Smoktunovsky's expression exudes a confiden...Thursday, March 07, 2013
Sergei Lemeshev as Mozart: The Master's Voice Imagined
|A portrait of Smoktunovsky as Mozart in Rimsky-Korsakov's opera, Mozart and Salieri. Smoktunovsky's|
expression exudes a confident and mischievous manner that is, in a word, Mozartian. Screenshot by Sherry Davis.
Mozart's writing for the voice, his understanding of its psychology and musicality along with his dramaturgy of character is unparalleled, and yet, his own voice is not often considered or explored as playing a role. Mozart as vocalist has been a subject of my fascination (and imagination!) since the time I began listening to his operas. The human voice was central to his art and his very being. Mozart sang on tour as a child prodigy, and as he matured from boy soprano to light tenor, his voice was utilized leisurely and professionally throughout his life, even in his final days for readings of his Requiem. He rehearsed singers, advised them about how to execute passages and explained characterization. He had almost as much influence on the libretto as he did the music. Mozart was actively engaged, not aloof, and vocal expression was an integral part of his musicianship.
There are many accounts of Mozart taking up his voice with friends and family, whether singing through his operas, scatological cannons, or conversing in recitatives. It's a shared dream amongst Mozartians to hear the master at the keyboard, but with equal curiosity and enthusiasm, I'd be very keen to hear his voice, his lesser known avenue of melody. Whenever I hear tenors singing in his operas, I always imagine Mozart singing these roles himself in the compositional process, or as parodies after he's had a few glasses of punch! I can easily envisage him as being similar to one of the vocal coaches from my young artist program, who so passionately and energetically accompanied the vocalists as though he were sparring, and all for the good of the artform. Mozartian, indeed!
In the words of Mozart's widow Constanze, as recorded in the Novello diaries (1829), "His voice was a light tenor; his speaking tone gentle, unless when directing music, when he became loud and energetic." Constanze also recalled the time when she and Mozart sang the Act III quartet Andrò ramingo e solo from his opera Idomeneo with his father and sister during their visit to Salzburg. Mozart "was so overcome that he burst into tears and quit the chamber, and it was some time before I could console him." Michael Kelly, the Irish tenor, recalled in his memoirs, Reminiscences, that when he visited Mozart during the writing of Figaro, he introduced him to a duet he was working on and they sang it together. The duet was Crudel! Perché finora (Cruel girl! Why did you let me languish so long?) between the Count and Susanna. In these known accounts, Mozart never fails to surprise us with his vocal adventurousness and versatility.
|In addition to showcasing his precociousness as a composer, keyboard player and violinist, Mozart also performed on tour as a boy soprano. Image: Color Lithograph (19th Century) by Vincente de Paredes, Bibilotheque Nationale, Paris.|
In the 1976 film, Mozart: Aufzeichnungen einer Jugend (Mozart: A Childhood Chronicle), the child prodigy sings, and this is a rare instance in which performance art emphasizes Mozart as a vocalist. Although Mozart is a character and not technically a singer in the one-act opera, Mozart and Salieri, composed by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov in 1897, it grants us license to imagine a Mozart in profile and voice type. Fictional plot aside, my primary fascination with this work is a performer's ability to capture the likeness of Mozart found in the accounts of his family, friends and other contemporaries. I've seen different interpretations of this work on film, including the English translation on Broadway in the 1980s with the Chamber Opera Theater of New York, but when I discovered Sergei Lemeshev as Mozart and Alexander Pirogov as Salieri, I knew I had found the definitive work.
"He was a modest and quiet artist. His voice reminded me of an Amati violin," Nikolai Bogolyubov, Director of the Opera Theater of Sverdlovsk, stated of the beloved Russian lyric tenor Sergei Lemeshev in his memoirs (Source: Sergei Lemeshev: His Life and Voice). As I discovered the man who's artistry transcended the scratchiest of old recordings and videos, so purely and beautifully, I could hear the crescendo of Bogolyubov's words. His reference to Lemeshev's voice as instrument (Amati violin) and to instrument as voice, afterall, is the very essence of Mozart. It has to be one of the greatest compliments a singer can ever receive and Lemeshev was certainly deserving. His technique was superb, his voice poetic, radiant. Like Mozart, he had a delicate voice, but it was powerful when necessary. A tenor like Lemeshev is rare today. It's lamentable that he never performed or recorded any of Mozart's operas (perhaps due to limitations of being behind the iron curtain), but how fortunate we are that his golden voice was used to even greater effect as the Maestro himself.
Pursuing interpretations of Rimsky-Korsakov's opera led me to discover Lemeshev, an artist I might not otherwise had known. I'm captivated by his voice and his story. Rising from an impoverished family to such renown (his work ethic was apparently impeccable), he then overcame the challenge of singing with one lung after contracting tuberculosis. He recorded Mozart and Salieri with this condition amongst other works, but his adaptation is so seamless that it isn't noticeable to the ear. Of Lemeshev's early footage, my favorite videos are his performances of M'appari and Questa o quella and La donna e mobile (in Russian translation!). His legions of fans were often referred to as "Lemeshevists" and I'm proud to join their ranks. For all of our limitations, there will never be an authentic portrayal of Mozart in performance art, but Lemeshev's depiction is a revealing and sensitive portrayal based on the authenticity of character.
|The 1947 recording has been digitally remastered and is available on Amazon and iTunes.|
In the first eleven minutes, Salieri's dialogue is dismally reflective as he sings of his lifelong musical servitude and how his honorable reputation is compromised by his envy of Mozart. *Cue video at the 11 minute mark. As Salieri glares at Mozart's portrait (Lemeshev), Mozart enters with "Aha!" startling Salieri and piercing the otherwise somber scene like a spire of magnetism. From this opening scene and beyond, Lemeshev transports us with moments of authentic manner described by those who knew Mozart personally. "In the circle of his good friends, he could grow quite merry, lively, witty and even at times and on certain subjects satirical!" (Johann Nepomuk Hummel). As Mozart (Lemeshev) swoops in and slides across the floor, opening the curtains of the darkened room, he tells Salieri that he was hoping to surprise him with a little joke. He was passing a tavern and never heard anything so funny, a blind fiddler playing his Voi che sapete, an aria from Figaro. "I had no choice, I had to bring him here to treat you to the pleasure of his art!"
As Mozart leads the fiddler into the room, he smugly makes a request. "Play us something good from Mozart, would you?" As we know, especially from his letters, Mozart was never at a loss for exuding confidence. When the fiddler begins to play Batti, batti, o bel Masetto, the aria from Don Giovanni where Zerlina resigns herself to punishment from Masetto for her indiscretion, Lemeshev displays anxious and excited energy with busy hands, curiosity and laughter. Mozart was very theatrical. He loved dancing. "His hands and feet were always in motion," recalled Constanze's sister Sophie Haibel.
|Smoktunovsky as a vulnerable and transcendent Mozart at the keyboard. Screenshot via Listal.com.|
|Authentic (drawn from life) silver-point drawing of Mozart by Doris Stock. Dresden, 1789. Credit: Imagno/Getty.|
Salieri asks Mozart to continue playing, but he declines, bidding him farewell. "I'm not well just now. Something oppresses me. I need to sleep. Farewell." Tears stream down Salieri's face as he looks out the window. "Your sleep will be a long one, Mozart." As he passes the blind fiddler on his way home and walks down the snowy lane, he turns around one last time, casting an almost eerie profile of the ailing Mozart, which bears an uncanny likeness to the authenticated silver-point drawing by Stock, one of the last renderings of Mozart from life (1789). It is the darkest of endings, but through an informed approach to the role, accompanied by his tenor of exquisite beauty, Lemeshev imagines for us the light and shadings of the master, a vulnerable, yet transcendent man.