Historically, Amadeus is baloney. Theatrically, it’s a feast. Musically, the National Theatre’s 2016 production of Peter Shaffer’s 1979 play — a recording of which is being streamed online through July 23 — arguably shares something of the same fate as Mozart’s supposed rival Salieri. This Amadeus suffers from comparison with the 1984 film directed by Milos Forman, which won eight Academy Awards, including for Best Picture and Best Sound. Perhaps most to the point, the soundtrack of the film Amadeus won the Grammy Award for best classical album in 1985.
This is not to say that the musical interludes are mediocre in the 2016 production; they still thrill; the play is just not as awash in the music as the movie. The production even features an orchestral accompaniment by Southbank Sinfonia, whose musicians not only perform on stage, but do so at times while mingling with the actors, as if they too are characters in the drama. I imagine this worked wonderfully during the live performance; it makes less difference watching the recording on a computer.
Still, under the direction of Michael Longhurst, this Amadeus has much to recommend it, including the gorgeous costumes, and a fine cast led by Lucian Msamati as Antonio Salieri, the court composer who recognizes Mozart’s brilliance, sees it as a betrayal by God, and sets out to destroy him with Iago-like cunning and deceit.
Historians say there were rumors of such a conflict, but little evidence that it was real – indeed, more evidence that it wasn’t. The play fudges this question by framing the story as the unreliable, perhaps delusional, recollections by an aging, ill Salieri.
There is no such fudge for Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. As written by Shaffer and acted by Adam Gillen, he exhibits such vulgar, childish and over-the-top behavior that the character frankly feels like a theatrical invention. Gillen seems to be modeling his performance on Pee Wee Herman, until the very end, when his character, facing death, feels freed by writer and director from the artifice
“I came up with the idea for this play after reading a lot about Mozart,” Shaffer recalled in 2015 (a year before his death at the age of 90.). “I was struck by the contrast between the sublimity of his music and the vulgar buffoonery of his letters. I am often criticized for portraying him as an imbecile, but I was actually conveying his childlike side: his letters read like something written by an eight-year-old. At breakfast he’d be writing this puerile, foul-mouthed stuff to his cousin; by evening, he’d be completing a masterpiece….”
But there is apparently no evidence he behaved this way in public, and a 21st century analogy to argue against it: How many people behave the same way in person as they do in anonymous chat rooms?
If Amadeus is a “fantasia on the theme of Mozart and Salieri,” as Shaffer put it, there is nevertheless within it a hard-to-face core of truth about human behavior in general – the corrosive power of envy, the day-to-day elevation of mediocrity.
In a series of scenes that are among the most riveting in the production, Salieri tries to seduce Mozart’s equally vulgar wife Constanze (Karla Crome, another standout), who has come to him to seek employment for her husband as a royal tutor. It’s awkward, embarrassing, a “fiasco,” as he says berating himself again and again. “What has he done to me, this Mozart?” he says, blaming the composer for his own behavior. He picks up the scores that Constanze has left with him in order to convince him of her husband’s qualifications. As he reads the score, the orchestra plays them, the choir sings them, and Salieri explains, as if to himself, what makes them so perfect. He writhes in anguish and sobs, declares God his enemy, because he is struck with the realization that Mozart is a genius — and that he, Salieri, is a mediocrity. He is so consumed with his own inadequacy that he does not give himself credit for recognizing Mozart’s gift. One need not revisit 18th century Vienna to witness such feelings. This dramatically imagined reaction hits far closer to home.