Mozart or Less
The Denver Center Theatre Company has staged a glittering, sumptuous version of Peter Shaffer's Amadeus that focuses more on a clean, elegant delivery of the play's text than on the passion at its core. The central figure, Antonio Salieri, was the best-known composer in eighteenth-century Vienna, an upright man dedicated to serving his God through music. Enter Mozart -- as the playwright envisions him, the distorted product of life as a child prodigy under his father's heavy hand. He's a giggling boy, given to lewd behavior and scatological speech, completely unaware of how people are expected to behave in the emperor's court. This is not the real Mozart, an informative program note informs us, but the characterization embodies a common paradox. Great artists aren't always possessed of great souls. Some are petty, some full of rage, some cruel to their families. Shaffer's Mozart is as coarse and vulgar as his music is exquisite and full of emotion.
Salieri resolves to bring his rival down. His quarrel isn't really with Mozart, though, but with God -- the God whom he has always faithfully served and who seems to require his musical service without having given him the talent to fulfill it honorably. But Mozart serves no one except his own genius, and music pours from his mind like a cascading waterfall. Pretending to be a supporter, Salieri works behind the scenes to make sure that Mozart sinks into penury and never gains the audience or financial security he deserves. He even tries to seduce Mozart's playful little wife, Constanze. And finally, he plots to hasten Mozart's death.
Among other things, the play is an extended study of envy. Salieri was hardly without talent; there's a reason he was the foremost composer of his time until Mozart came along. So his predicament is not really that of a mediocrity, but of a talented artist faced with genius of an incomprehensible magnitude. What he feels in response is more complicated than hatred. No one, not even a lover, will follow the career of an artist -- and more than the career, every word, movement of the mind, rumor and action -- with the passionate attention of someone who envies him. And as a musician himself, Salieri is perhaps the only person in gossip and celebrity-addicted Vienna who can truly understand Mozart's achievement. It is Salieri who swoons in response to Mozart's work while others comment only that it contains "too many notes" or that he's "coming along nicely." Mozart needs Salieri, the engine of his own destruction, because Salieri can understand his music.
Shaffer takes these concepts and embodies them in amusing and recognizable characters; he knows how to translate ideas into action. As Salieri, Brent Harris holds the stage with authority. His speech is crisp and strong, his tapped consonants and drolly satiric rendering of certain lines very reminiscent of Laurence Olivier, particularly in the monologues where -- like Olivier's Richard III -- he invites us to share in his mischief-making. What's lacking in this skilled technical performance is heart. You don't really feel for Salieri during his pain-filled rants against God. Most problematic, when Salieri hears Mozart's music -- Mozart's music, can you imagine what it would be like to actually hear that for the first time? -- Harris doesn't seem to be paying much attention, and just gallops through his responsive description.
By contrast, it's a purely wonderful moment when Douglas Harmsen's Mozart describes his ideas for the half-hour-long finale of The Marriage of Figaro -- four voices becoming five and then six, the sounds winding in and out of each other and rising together in a facsimile of the way the world must sound to God. I wasn't altogether sold on Harmsen at the beginning. His jumpy Mozart with his halo of ruffled white wig seemed even more of a caricature than the playwright had intended. But he had me completely by the play's end, as we watched the arrogant, silly youth transmuting his personal weakness into transcendent art while at the same time devolving into a terrified little boy, huddling under the table, cut off mid-giggle.
These two main figures function within a pretty strong ensemble. Bill Christ is hilarious as Emperor Joseph II -- puzzled by the music yet determined to appear cultured, and flanked by variously absurd advisers played by Philip Pleasants, Michael Mandell and a Randy Moore so pinched and disapproving that you fear if he sucks in his cheeks any further, his face will dissolve in black bile. David Ivers and Sam Gregory are very funny as the two gossips, Venticelli One and Two, and Kathleen M. Brady is a forbidding presence as the -- alas! -- always-silent Mrs. Salieri. Playing Constanze, however, Stephanie Cozart gives a performance that seems more superficial than felt, though she does have some good moments -- as when she matter-of-factly offers herself to Salieri -- and she's very touching in the scene where she returns to the dying Mozart.
Courtesy of sound designer Craig Breitenbach, Mozart's music has its own definitive way of entering the conversation, illustrating the delicious caprice of eighteenth-century Vienna, adding playfulness and humor when the text threatens to get heavy, or deepening moments of pure emotion. Though overall the production favors clarity and story over feeling and wonder, it does provide a charmingly amusing evening of theater.
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