We find ourselves balanced, precariously but effectively, between the 18th and 21st centuries for director Pamela Schermann’s production of Rimsky-Korsakov’s brooding, poignant Mozart and Salieri. Yole Lambrecht’s simple, evocative set encompasses a small central dining table with elaborate candelabra, a small headless statue to our left and an opera box, with champagne in a cooler, to the right. A piano at the back of a stage hung with cascades of giant translucent leaves breaks up the severe lines of the Bridewell Theatre. Mozart wears jeans under his brocade jacket and white wig, and is sometimes found playing with his mobile; Salieri’s ruffled shirt is under a dark modern suit, its folds not quite concealing the tiny vial of fatal poison on a slim chain around his neck, a gift from his dying wife intended for his own suicidal use.

Although the action opens with Mozart scribbling letters to his wife with a quill, which we hear relayed in recorded speech, Nick Dwyer’s smouldering Salieri soon becomes the magnetic centre of this piece, frowning in his opera box as he listens to a recording of Don Giovanni: whether his frown is one of fury, or concentrated appreciation, is tantalisingly unclear. Dwyer, in his sumptuously lyrical and beautifully clear baritone, portrays a man acutely conscious of his hard-won skill as a composer: “I became a craftsman,” he concludes, reflecting with sour frustration on his own years of toil while Mozart seems set to excel effortlessly.

Roger Paterson’s playfully irrepressible Mozart, unintentionally radiating genius through his restless dynamism, soon reveals significant and intriguing inner depths with his sweetly crisp, pliant tenor. Mozart plays with everything on stage, even juggling apples from the fruit bowl: Paterson draws a young man who cannot sit still, who cannot hold back the rush of ideas and energy exploding from him, but who is nevertheless vulnerable to self-doubt and self-criticism, and who, behind his jokes, truly worships his art form. Passing Salieri a sketch of his latest musical idea, he seems genuinely unsure whether it is any good; this is true humility, but Salieri is appalled, interpreting it as Mozart’s profane disregard for the sacred talent which provokes his bitter envy. Mozart’s creative hyperactivity is paired with a childlike innocence, and joy in life, which tragically blinds him to Salieri’s darker intent: Mozart cannot believe a genius capable of murder, a passing comment which later comes to haunt Salieri as, after administering the poison, he tortures himself with his reaction to Mozart, and what it implies about himself as an artist. Rimsky-Korsakov’s dreamy, occasionally tipsy score comes across with accuracy, colour and drama from Musical Director Andrew Charity at the piano, with further breadth and depth from Nina Kopparhed on viola, in this small, sincere and brilliantly successful production.  

The scene changes to a misty Marylebone High Street for our second opera, Mascagni’s intense lost-love duet for two sopranos, Zanetto. In Pamela Schermann’s vision, Zanetto is a story of two women, rather than casting Zanetto traditionally as a trouser role: an interesting idea, it sadly doesn’t help to elucidate the rather lurid emotional dynamics of this short opera, where Silvia both falls in love with, and rejects, the wandering minstrel Zanetto, deciding it is better to be alone and sad forever than be tempted by a dream of happiness which could go wrong: and, in such a compressed timescale, the lesbian reading doesn’t make much more sense than the straight version. This highly melodramatic scenario doesn’t honestly bear much rational scrutiny, but certainly inspires fine soprano writing from Mascagni, here sung with passion and verve to a delicate piano and violin accompaniment from Andrew Charity and Nina Kopparhed.

Schermann’s real-life setting, with Zanetto as a busker sleeping on the street, while lucky Silvia seems to have a townhouse with both upstairs and downstairs terraces (a clever use of the stage balcony by designer Yole Lambrecht) creates more problems than it solves, casting a distinctly manipulative light over Zanetto’s approaches to Silvia, and throwing up practical objections (if Silvia truly loved Zanetto, and were that rich, would she really let her sleep alone on a London street?).

However, Becca Marriott’s elegant Silvia is drawn with high psychological realism as an older woman convinced her love is “fatal”, a conclusion drawn, we suspect, from tragically low self-esteem as well as some sad previous experience. Sophie Goldrick’s perky Zanetto, all large prints and hippy beads, wanders into Silvia’s life with a guitar, a rucksack and not much else: Goldrick’s easy, yet poised demeanour, and her creamy mezzo, make for a cheerfully independent Zanetto, mainly unaware of the passion she has provoked, but undoubtedly moved to care (on some level) for this fragile, haunted woman, eventually leaving her with anxiety and regret. With exceptionally fine singing from both principals, this piece is only let down by its own inherent dramatic flaws; Marriott and Goldrick triumphantly inhabit the fabulously demanding score.