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Photo by Martha Benedict
29 Apr 2016

Pacific Opera Project Recreates Mozart and Salieri Contest

On February 7, 1786, Emperor Joseph II of Austria had brand new one-act operas by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Antonio Salieri performed in the Schönbrunn Palace’s Orangery.

Pacific Opera Project Recreates Mozart and Salieri Contest

A review by Maria Nockin

Above photo by Martha Benedict


The contest was part of the celebration of the marriage of the emperor’s sister, Christine Marie, to the Governor General of the Netherlands. After dinner with incidental music by Salieri, singers and instrumental musicians performed operas by unnamed composers. After the first show, the audience turned their chairs around to watch the second performance at the opposite end of the hall.

On April 17, 2016, Pacific Opera Project (POP) created the same atmosphere for its performance of the same operas, Mozart’s The Impressario (Der Schauspieldirektor) and Salieri’s Prima la Musica e Poi le Parole (First the Music and Then the Words) at the recital-sized hall of the South Pasadena Library. Since The Impressario’s original text contained jokes that were popular in the 1780s, POP presented it in English with an updated topical libretto by Josh and Kelsey Shaw. POP presented the Salieri work in the original Italian text by Giovanni Casti along with projected supertitles. For both operas, Maestro Stephen Karr led the chamber orchestra in an expert accompaniment that gave the singers the leeway they needed to sing their music with elegant phrasing while creating believable characters on the stage.

Baritone Andy Papas was a feisty Impressario whose acting set a high standard for the rest of the cast. As The Poet, Alex Boyd created a convincing character and intoned his topical material with a memorable baritone sound. The tenor voice and comedic talent of Christopher Anderson West added to the setting of the stage for the appearances of competing sopranos. Called Mesdames Herz and Silberklang in 1786, famous sopranos Caterina Cavalieri and the composer’s sister-in-law, Aloysia Weber, sang those roles in the Mozart entry. POP called the sopranos Everly Squills and Meryll Shrills. Karen Hogle-Brown sang Squills with the creamy tones of her smooth lyric soprano voice while Brooke deRosa sang Shrills with exquisite coloratura technique.

After a short intermission, members of the audience drank refreshments and turned their chairs around to see the second opera staged at the other end of the auditorium. As with the first presentation, Maggie Green designed the attractive and sometimes amusing costumes.

In Prima la Musica, Count Opizio contracted the composer and poet to write a new opera. When the curtain opens it has to be finished in four days. The composer has already written the score, but the poet has not been able to produce a useable text. Andy Papas was a credible composer who could not get his poet to produce a libretto. As The Poet, Alex Boyd made us understand his frustration as he sang with stentorian tones. Francesco Benucci created the role of The Poet for Salieri and, a few months later, the title role in The Marriage of Figaro for Mozart. I’d like to hear Boyd as Figaro, too.

Nancy Storace, the first Eleonora, was also the first Susanna in The Marriage of Figaro. In the POP performance, popular soprano Tracy Cox sang Eleonora, the prima donna hired by the Count. Cox is an artist who will probably be seen performing with larger companies in the near future and she was a perfect fit for this diva role. Her tones were full and round, her articulation clear and her technique unmarred by the slightest flaw. As Tonina, the comedic singer with whom The Poet had a relationship, Justine Aronson used a variety of expressive devices to create her character while singing with clarity of tone.

Pacific Opera Project always presents extraordinary new artists to savor and interesting musical works to contemplate. This was but one example of their presentation. After their summer hiatus, they will be doing Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio and Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress. I, for one, don’t want to miss them.

Maria Nockin

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