This part is true: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was a musical prodigy who performed in the courts of Europe from age 5. A prodigious as well as revolutionary composer of operas, concertos, and symphonies, he was socially awkward, foolish with money, and utterly confident of his genius. He died, sick and impoverished at age thirty-five, and was buried in an unmarked grave. His music lives on.
The Italian musician and teacher, Antonio Salieri, was respectable, sought after, and well paid by Emperor Joseph II as the court composer. After his death in 1825, a monument was raised to his memory. His compositions are mostly forgotten.
In 1831, Pushkin wrote a play and Rimsky-Korsakov an opera which gave voice to the rumor that an envious Salieri had undercut, if not destroyed, Mozart’s career. In 1979, Peter Shaffer’s play “Amadeus” appeared, and with the 1984 Academy Award winning movie, the legend hardened into just-as-good-as-fact.
Richard Clifford directs this acutely beautiful play and teases a deeper level of truth out of curious speculation. In the process, what unfolds before us is much like Mozart’s operas – complex, colorful, and strewn with unexpected movements. The excited gossip of two “venticellos” (Amanda Bailey and Louis Butelli), those carriers of half-truth, information, and rumor, updates us between scenes of light humor, angry denunciations, and, in Salieri’s case, passionate quarrels with God.
That is, after all, the real conflict in “Amadeus”: Salieri’s bitter recognition that Mozart, the impertinent prankster, was God’s chosen conduit for the sounds of Heaven while he, the devout Salieri, might pray for such an honor but, in the end, be little more than a well-fed mediocrity. This truth has the power to sour his soul into devilish connivance, to see that “goodness is nothing in the furnace of art” and God is a cunning enemy.
He’s starred before on the Folger stage, but Ian Merrill Peakes has never shone brighter than he does here in the role of Salieri. Slipping from his old age in the present (1823) to scenes from his prime and back again, he conjures the audience into ghosts of the future to witness the ignominy he bore and the cosmic wrong done him.
As Mozart, Samuel Adams hits every note in contrast with Salieri. An unimpressive physical being with an annoying laugh, the young musician blunders his way about society, full of inappropriate humor and an obtuse lack of grace. But when he sits down to the piano, time stops; when he works furiously to decode the music in his head onto the score sheet, the music itself layered into Sharath Patel’s sound, we grasp Salieri’s despair. The two of them form a harmony of highs and lows – one plodding out the basic structure, the other weaving complications.
Mozart’s exquisite wife, Constanze, (Lilli Hokama) treads the balance between advocating for him and rebelling against the insecurity that comes of life with him. She is less impressed with his genius than with the poverty that overwhelms them and is delicately forceful when driven to the brink, a rapier among broadswords.
Personalities throughout “Amadeus” are played with diamond clarity. Count Orsini-Rosenberg (James Joseph O’Neil) would be delighted to see Mozart starve, and the simple Emperor Joseph II (John Taylor Phillips) is all for patronizing composers, but prefers music with a crash at the end so you know when to clap.
Tony Cisek’s formal scene design overlays a late eighteenth century salon with the motif of musical strings – giant concert harps, it appears. They allow for swift entrances, exits, and changes from the Emperor’s court to Mozart’s disordered chamber. Salieri eats confections behind a post while overhearing useful information; Mozart scampers eagerly after Constanze; the upper tier bureaucrats of Vienna meet and conspire. What may seem a long evening by the watch dissolves into timelessness.
Splendid costumes by Mariah Hale embrace the frothy confections we associate with the rococo period, but I object to the occasional blue or rainbow dyed wigs Mozart wears when being particularly manic. The scenes alone – and Adams’ adroit performance – convey the message without provoking my disbelief.
Did he do it? Salieri is a sympathetic villain, and it is true that he attempted suicide in his old age, babbling about Mozart’s death. Against this background, the virtuosity of Shaffer’s opus comes stunningly alive and the ultimate irony lives on: the rumor that Salieri sought to destroy Mozart out of fear of being neglected by posterity. It is because of the fiction in “Amadeus” that the true Salieri is remembered today.
WANT TO GO?
Where: Folger Shakespeare Library, 201 E. Capitol St. SE, Washington, D.C.
Call: (202) 544-7077 or visit www.folger.edu/theatre
Playing through Dec. 22