An operatic treatment for the blind pianist who seduced Mozart – but not her own family

Eighteenth-century pianist Maria Theresia von Paradis had been blind since childhood, but celebrated for her performances on European tours. She was taught by Salieri, had a concerto written for her by Mozart, and had a long and distinguished teaching career. (Ironically, the best-known piece attributed to him today, a Sicilienne which Sheku Kanneh-Mason performed at the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, is almost certainly a modern invention of violinist Samuel Dushkin.)

The drama inherent in its story makes it a good subject for The Paradise Files, a new chamber opera written by Errollyn Wallen and assembled by the Graeae Theater Company, whose commitment to representing disability is evident throughout the company. Alongside six vocalists and a five-piece band are two performance performers, Chandrika Gopalakrishnan and Max Marchewicz, who are fully integrated into the action and whose expressive use of signature elevates it. Jenny Sealey’s spirited, bustling production makes the most of the restrained Queen Elizabeth Hall stage, and conductor Andrea Brown pushes the score forward.

As Maria Theresia, Bethan Langford does not feign blindness, but lets her excellent singing express her pain as she endures misguided efforts to heal her. Wallen’s opera focuses on the conflicts between the pianist and her controlling parents (performed well by Maureen Braithwaite and Omar Ebrahim): first her father’s disappointment at not being a son, then her mother’s rejection. (Strangely, the line that her mother loved her until she went blind gets the only big laugh of the evening.)

But it’s a shame that these generic emotions dominate the libretto by Nicola Werenowska and Selina Mills, when so many specific details in Maria Theresia’s story – her endless resilience on tour, audience reactions to her musical creation, her inventiveness in the design and use of typewriters and typewriters – is not celebrated here.

We understand that this is not a history lesson but a dramatic vanity, and the invention of a maid, Gerda (Ella Taylor), who stands between Maria Theresia and her mother, is well managed. Less certain is the chronological interweaving of the story, or the use of the characters as a chorus of gossip, echoing Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus. Salieri (Ben Thapa) is portrayed here as a suspicious character, but Mozart is not seen, hidden in the shadows, admired by Maria Theresia.

The tricky problem of how to write music for an opera about a musician is well tackled by Wallen. She follows the words and writes backing and supporting elements that only collide when the popular idioms she rightly includes push the score to bathos – as happens at the very end, when it echoes to scales and exercises whose purpose is to remind us of the constant of the pianist. practice. That may be right, but we also need something to enliven Maria Theresia’s exceptional playing talent for us because, through this adventurous production, we will rediscover her music today.


On tour until May 12. Tickets : graeae.org

About Antoine L. Cassell

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