Throw Mozartʼs life and music into a pot, add his most famous predecessor and successor, stir in hefty helpings of musical education and what do you get? A wildly imaginative but ultimately bland mash-up like Mozart...and the Others, served with a snicker in the maestroʼs own dining room.

Alžběta Poláčková (Mozart) and Michaela Zajmi (Maid) © Patrik Borecký
Alžběta Poláčková (Mozart) and Michaela Zajmi (Maid)
© Patrik Borecký

The recipe for this half-baked homage, staged where Mozart premiered Don Giovanni in October 1787, has two main ingredients: Letters, Riddles and Writs, a made-for-TV meditation by contemporary British composer Michael Nyman, and The Classical Style, a satire on the tradition, constructs and rarefied airs of classical music by the late American composer Steven Stucky with a libretto by pianist and author Jeremy Denk. While both draw heavily on Mozart for content and scoring, the end result is neatly summed up by the title of the BBC mini-series that featured Nymanʼs piece: “Not Mozart!”

That series offered five composer/writer teams an opportunity to pay tribute to the composer on the bicentenary of his death. Nyman and actor/director Jeremy Newson responded with a collage of historical texts drawn mainly from letters between Mozart and his father, portraying the latter as a domineering tyrant and his son as a tortured artist who in his final moments has even the shirt ripped off his back by scavenging creditors. There are occasional tender, even whimsical moments, but mostly itʼs a painful reverie with funereal music to match. And confusing. The choice of texts seems almost entirely random, and with Mozartʼs attentive maid reading/singing his parts for the first half of the piece, itʼs difficult to follow exactly who is talking to whom.

Josef Moravec (Snibblesworth) and Ivo Hrachovec (Commendatore) © Patrik Borecký
Josef Moravec (Snibblesworth) and Ivo Hrachovec (Commendatore)
© Patrik Borecký

Nymanʼs gift for minimalist scoring falls short, perhaps not surprisingly, since most of the music is Mozartʼs, transposed to other instruments or deconstructed into individual elements elongated to the point of inscrutability over a pulsing contemporary rhythm. The rhythm never varies, and because it fails to create a hypnotic effect, it comes off as monotonous. That fits the overall flat tone of the piece, which, like its central character, never got off the ground. Was it the deathbed setting? The dampening effect of miking the singers and instruments? The logistical problems inherent in moving a television production, breaks and all, to the stage? By comparison, the riddles referenced in the title, created by Mozart for the 1786 Viennese Carnival, seem easy to solve.

The Classical Style is a long (80-minute) inside joke based on the eponymous book by the curmudgeonly pianist and scholar Charles Rosen. It opens with Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven in heaven, grousing about what has been made of their music and reputations. The only person who truly understands them, they decide after reading his book, is Rosen. An earthly excursion to see him brings encounters with the concept characters Dominant, Subdominant and Tonic, a lost “Tristan chord” and an amusingly annoying musicologist aptly named Henry Snibblesworth. Rosen also gets plenty of time to offer lengthy excerpts from his book.

Daniel Klánský (Tonic), Lucie Hájková (Dominant), Veronika Hajnová (Subdominant) © Patrik Borecký
Daniel Klánský (Tonic), Lucie Hájková (Dominant), Veronika Hajnová (Subdominant)
© Patrik Borecký

Much of the dialogue is witty, and much of the music is clever quotations from the composersʼ works. But the jokes get old fast, and the lessons in music theory wear thin. Ultimately, the piece comes off as something cooked up at summer camp, with musicians poking amiable fun at their profession and teachers, and everybody having a good laugh about subjects too erudite for a general audience.

The smartest turn of the evening was casting National Theater regular Alžběta Poláčková as Mozart (Ute Lemper played the role in the original BBC production). Dashing about madly in a fright wig and nightgown, she was equally adept as a tormented son in Letters and mischievous, money-minded genius in Classical Style. Michaela Zajmi served up some captivating vocals as the maid in Letters, and Josef Moravec showed a fine comic touch as Snibblesworth.

Daniel Klánský (Don Giovanni), Josef Moravec (Snibblesworth) and Jiří Hájek (Charles Rosen) © Patrik Borecký
Daniel Klánský (Don Giovanni), Josef Moravec (Snibblesworth) and Jiří Hájek (Charles Rosen)
© Patrik Borecký

Director Alice Nellis did as much as she could with the material, keeping the pacing brisk and lively, and filling the stage with background projections and other visual condiments to add spice and flavor. But the pieces were too weighty to develop legs, and in hindsight, probably not a good match for the venue. At first blush, the birthplace of Don Giovanni would seem an ideal setting for both tragic and comic reconsiderations of Mozart. But thereʼs no escaping the high bar and expectations that come with the theater, which can render even the most sincere tributes frivolous and forgettable.

***11