- Dramma giocoso in 2 acts
- Composer: Antonio Salieri
- Libretto: Caterino Mazzolà
- First performed: San Moisè, Venice, 27 December 1778. Revised: Vienna, 1783.
|BLASIO, A grain dealer||Bass|
|ERNESTINA, His wife||Soprano|
|LUMACA, Blasio’s servant||Bass|
|CARLOTTA, A chambermaid||Soprano|
|TENENTE [Lieutenant], Blasio’s cousin and a friend of the Count||Tenor|
Antonio Salieri has been rather hard done by. He was the leading opera composer in late 18th century Vienna; he triumphed in Italian opera buffa, opera seria, and in French tragédie lyrique. He served as court composer and later Kapellmeister to Maria Theresa, Joseph II, Leopold II, and Francis II. Gluck named him his artistic heir, and Salieri taught Beethoven, Meyerbeer, Liszt, and Schubert.
Most people remember him as the envious schemer who murdered Mozart, and a mediocre composer to boot. Neither is true. Pushkin, Shaffer, and Forman have much to answer for.
Salieri was born at Legnano, near Milan, in 1750, the son of a businessman who went bankrupt and died of shame when Antonio was a teen. His mentor, the Hapsburg court composer Florian Gassmann, whom he always loved and revered, brought him to Vienna in 1766; he made his operatic debut there in 1770 with Le donne litterate, after Molière: a modest success. Three more opera buffa and an opera seria, Armida (1771), drew the court’s attention to him, and on Gassmann’s death in 1774, Salieri succeeded him as its chamber composer.
When Vienna’s Italian opera company went bankrupt in 1777, Joseph declared that court-owned theatres would only perform ‘German’ music and drama – not Italian opera, French drama, or ballet. Italy beckoned. Salieri’s Europa riconosciuta inaugurated La Scala in 1778; the same year, his Scuola de’ gelosi was a hit in Venice. Five years later, its performance in Vienna (April 1783) marked that city’s return to opera buffa. Some, though, would consider his greatest service to the form bringing Lorenzo da Ponte, Mozart’s future librettist, to Vienna.
Two of Salieri’s greatest successes were in Paris: Gluck was commissioned to compose Les Danaïdes, a powerful tale of revenge and slaughter on a wedding night; the elderly, ill musician felt himself unequal to the task, and entrusted it to his protégé. Performed into the 1820s, it impressed the teenaged Berlioz. Tarare (1787) was another triumph, with a libretto by Beaumarchais; Rousset’s recording appeared earlier this year.
“Without possessing one of those creative geniuses that imprint a direction on the art of their time,” Fétis wrote, “his talent was certainly all the more remarkable in that he was able to modify its character and present it under various aspects.” Fétis singled out his writing for the voice – even when an enthusiast for Gluck’s declamatory style – and thought nobody knew better than he how to create a dramatic effect or return to an idea in his music.
By the mid-19th century, however, a black legend had sprung up around the Italian composer. He was the enemy of the deified Amadeus, who plotted against Mozart, then poisoned him.
“The salient feature of Salieri’s artistic physiognomy,” Clément (1878) wrote, “is all-consuming productivity. This musician had great successes during his lifetime, but posterity only knows fragments of correct craftsmanship, but denuded of feeling and warmth. Why such forgetfulness after so much vogue? Because for definite and lasting glory, the savoir-faire of a skillful man is not worth the naïve simplicity of a man of genius. Salieri may have fooled his contemporaries; he was able to eliminate the young talents who overshadowed him, and so conquer, by means foreign to his merit, a usurped reputation. What he could not do was to impress the character of immortality on works which he took so much care to secure momentary fortune.” (Almost identical sentiments were expressed about Meyerbeer and Wagner.)
True, Salieri, 32 years after Mozart’s death, tried to cut his throat; he apparently accused himself in his delirium of the crime. This story is based on a rumor spread by the hack librettist Calisto Bassi and Beethoven’s secretary and biographer Anton Schindler. Salieri denied the accusation; shortly before he died, he told the composer Ignaz Moscheles: “You know, of course, that I’m said to have poisoned Mozart. But I didn’t! Malice, nothing but malice! Tell the world, my dear Moscheles, that old Salieri said this to you on his deathbed.”
Mozart probably died from a streptococcal infection, food poisoning from rotten pork, or rheumatic fever. But legend loves a villain. Salieri – along with Jews and Masons, the other popular suspects – can probably be exonerated.
And the criticism largely repeats the Mozart myth, and calumnies Salieri. So we have the plotter, the poisoner, the Machiavelli, – all negative stereotypes of the Italian, circulating in a German-speaking country. The man himself, Fétis wrote, appears to have been amiable, benevolent, light-hearted, witty, and eccentric, with many friends among both artists and in the world at large, and a love of sweets, chattering in a mixture of Italian, German, and French – not the “little, dark, miserly, quaint, odd, rather vain (I judge), and envious Italian” Thayer (1863-64) described.
If anything, Mozart seems to have been envious of Salieri. We find him in 1781 telling his father “the only one who counts in [the emperor’s] eyes is Salieri”. Are any of Mozart’s operas unsuccessful? Salieri and the Italian “cabal”, with their underhand “tricks”. Mozart can’t get a court post, or teach piano to princesses? That fine Italian hand again. “Salieri and his tribe will move heaven and earth to put it down.”
Mozart was all too suspicious and hostile of other musicians; he “was by no means a good colleague,” Einstein (1946) admits, “astonished and even distressed to encounter in his letters … the most malicious reports about musical contemporaries”. Mozart slandered Jommelli, Michael Haydn, Beecké, Vogler, Schweitzer, Clementi, Fischer, and Hässler; and he seldom praised his musical influences Gluck, whom he distrusted, Boccherini, Viotti, or Misliveczek.
But the two were also colleagues, mutually respectful, even perhaps friends. They collaborated on a cantata for the recuperation of the soprano Nancy Storace. (Mozart later used Salieri’s melody for an aria in Così fan tutte, which the impresario Carl Rafferty told me was “Mozart recognizing quality in his colleague’s work, and paying a sweet homage”.) Salieri conducted Mozart’s masses and symphonies, and premiered the Clarinet Quintet and 40th Symphony in G Minor. Mozart took Salieri and his mistress to see The Magic Flute, which the Italian composer praised. (This has, of course, been reinterpreted as Mozart ‘buttering up’ an influential rival who blocked his promotion.)
In recent years, there’s been a move to rehabilitate Salieri – partly a response to Amadeus, which vilified him. A dozen of his operas have been performed, even recorded, with positive reviews. Cecilia Bartoli recorded an album of Salieri arias. In May, Alex Ross wrote an excellent piece in the New Yorker on this sympathetic, underrated composer.
Mozart was a greater composer, but not immeasurably greater. To call Salieri the ‘patron saint of mediocrities’, as Shaffer does in his play, sets the bar for mediocrity too high. Salieri’s operas are tuneful, excellently crafted, inventive in their orchestration, and sometimes startlingly progressive in outlook…
The classical-music world has fostered a kind of gated community of celebrity composers. Our star fixation produces the artistic equivalent of income inequality, in which vast resources fall into the hands of a few. That arrangement lands particularly hard on contemporary composers, who must compete with a group of semi-mythical figures who are worshipped as house gods. Salieri is better seen as the patron saint of musicians who prefer to live in a republic of like-minded souls rather than in an authoritarian regime where only certain voices count.Alex Ross
La scuola de’ gelosi was one of Salieri’s most popular comic operas – a witty meditation on the folly of jealousy. The grain merchant Blasio thinks his wife Ernestina is cuckolding him, and creeps into his own house in the middle of the night to surprise her with her lover – much to her indignation, since she’s innocently fast asleep. His groundless suspicions push Ernestina into the arms of the Count, who sees wives of jealous husbands as ideal prey – to the fury of his long-suffering Countess. Fortunately, a clever Lieutenant understands human nature; he pulls on their strings and works them like puppets to bring them to their senses.
The plot obviously anticipates both the da Ponte comedies and Rossini. (Behrens suggests Così fan tutte’s subtitle, La scuola degli amanti, is a nod to this work.) We have a philandering Count (part Almaviva, part Don Giovanni) and his wife (although Salieri’s is more of a hot-tempered Elvira than a Rosina). We have the shrewd observer who, like Don Alfonso, teaches a moral lesson (a more acceptable one than ‘Women are sluts’) – or, like the poet in Il turco in Italia, arranges the private lives of an elderly husband, his flighty wife, and her would-be lover.
Salieri originally composed La scuola de’ gelosi for Venice, then revised it for Vienna five years later. It was soon performed throughout Europe: in Dresden, Prague, London, Paris, and St Petersburg, translated into Russian, Polish, and Spanish.
“The opera is the favourite piece of the audience,” Goethe wrote in 1784, “and the audience is right. The opera is very rich [in music], very varied, and everything is written with good taste. My heart has been moved by every aria, especially the Finale and the Quintets, which are adorable.”
Similarly, Adolph Freiherr Knigge (Dramaturgische Blätter, Hanover, 28 March 1789) praised “the flourishing, light style, the pleasant, often new vocals, the fine autonomy, which prevails especially in the first finale, the good choice of wind instruments, and various original comic features [which] characterize this opera, and give it its own character”.
Salieri’s score is ironically detached, more cerebral and less heartfelt, perhaps, than Mozart, but always sensitive to character and scenic truth. If Mozart believed in absolute music, for Salieri, a disciple of Gluck, it was prima la parole, e poi la musica (so to speak). He admirably conveys Blasio’s hesitation at leaving his wife alone with a man, even a nobleman, then erupting into sarcasm, or, later, confusedly wondering if he should divorce her; or the Countess’s fears that her husband has grown tired of her. Her “Ah, sia gia de’ miei sospiri” is the equivalent to “Porgi amor”, as she longs for her husband to come back to her, hoping days of peace will make up for the tears she has shed.
Salieri really shines in the ensembles. The first act contains an excellent terzetto, including a lovely passage where the Count and Countess appeal to the sympathetic but nonpartisan Lieutenant; the second, a duettino where the Countess’s feigned indifference excites her wayward husband.
Salieri totally nails the buffa finale, set in a lunatic asylum. The Count and Ernestina have come to watch the jealous madmen (what a strange idea of fun!), unaware that Blasio is spying on them, disguised as the statue of a Moor statue (à la Othello). Salieri takes us through a double trio of madmen and madwomen, a lively patter song for the warder, and the Countess and her maid disguised as gypsy fortune-tellers; by the time the brilliant stretta comes, all the characters seem fit for institutionalization.
Act II contains the longest ensemble in the middle of an opera to that point: an ingenious piece where the Count and Ernestina play cards (but she thinks her husband is leaving to meet his mistress), the Lieutenant and Countess practice music (to make her husband think she’s stopped caring), and Blasio dithers on the doorstep, singing scales.
Critics suggest the combination of musical inspiration and character insight influenced the great ensembles in Mozart’s mature comedies. Knigge praised it: “Harmony, without toleration, associated with clear, pure song, art with clarity and distinctiveness, and its own instrumental accompaniment, which moves away from the vocal parts but elevates them rather than obscures them, are united here, and woven into a masterly whole. This quintet is worth more than a hundred without meaning, expression or life, even though anxiously composed following the strictest rules of fugues. Here is art too, but it is not just a skeleton that we admire; the charming song casts a silken garment around her, which gently wraps her around from the nape of her neck to the heels, and gold curls play around her crown. Any man can diligently learn to assemble a skeleton, but only a celestial being that we call genius can breathe life into it, and give it the power to delight.”
Nor should we forget the masterly finale to the second act, where the Count waits for Ernestina to arrive, his words echoed by Blasio hiding behind a tree; pastoral topoi (three characters disguised as shepherds); a flirtatious aria for the Countess; and a nonet vaudeville.
Listen to: Emiliano d’Aguanno (Conte), Francesca Mazzulli Lombardi (Contesa), Federico Sacchi (Blasio), Roberta Mameli (Ernestina), Florian Götz (Lumaca), Milena Storti (Carlotta), and Patrick Vogel (Tenente), with Werner Erhardt conducting L’Arte del Mondo, 2015. Deutsche Harmonia Mundi.
- Wolfgang Behrens, “‘His Fame Shall Grow Further and Further’: Antonio Salieri and his opera La Scuola de’ Gelosi”, in La scuola de’ gelosi (CD), Deutsche Harmonia Mundi, 2016.
- Félix Clément, Les musiciens célèbres depuis le 16ème siècle jusqu’à nos jours, Paris : Librairie Hachette & Cie, 1878
- Alfred Einstein, Mozart: his character – his work, trans. Arthur Mendel and Nathan Broder, London: Cassell, 1946
- F.-J. Fétis, Biographie universelle des musiciens (2ème édition), Paris : Librairie de Firmin Didot Frères, Fils et Cie., 1869
- Charles Osborne, The Complete Operas of Mozart, London: Victor Gollancz, 1978
- Alex Ross, “Antonio Salieri’s Revenge”, New Yorker, 3 June 2019,
- Alexander Wheelock Thayer, Salieri: Rival of Mozart, 1863–64.
- “Antonio Salieri”, Wikipedia, <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antonio_Salieri >
- “La scuola de’ gelosi”, Wikipedia.de, <https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/La_scuola_de%E2%80%99_gelosi >