The Burden of Genius
There is simply no way of explaining musical genius on the order of Mozart's, and I think that's the puzzle at the heart of Peter Shaffer's glittering and celebrated play, Amadeus, which received all kinds of awards and attention when it first opened in London, in 1980, and again four years later, when -- with some essential plot changes -- it was made into a film. While musicologists may be able to pin down the architecture of Mozart's pieces, describe the influence of his predecessors or his times, speculate on the nature of creativity or ferret out the personality quirks behind his work, for most of the rest of us, his music induces only a kind of mute wonder, a sense that, upon hearing it, we enter a state of grace.
In Martin Amis's amusing novel The Information, the narrator, who writes knotty, headache-inducing works of fiction, spends several hundred pages trying to bring down a colleague whose shallow writing has won him wealth, the love of a beautiful woman and even respectful reviews. The joke is that every stratagem the narrator devises boomerangs and brings calamity back on him. In Amadeus, a similar concept is played out, with a difference.
Antonio Salieri (acted at Nomad Theatre by Terry Burnsed) is an admired and established composer who maintains a respectable life and has dedicated himself to creating music worthy of the God he worships. When Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart enters his world, Salieri suddenly understands full force his own inconsequence, his mediocrity in the face of his rival's blazing genius. The historical Salieri was in fact no slouch -- but the very existence of a Mozart, Bach or Beethoven hurls all the chips back into the air and changes the rules of the game. No normal human can hope to compete. Swelling with a huge, impotent rage -- aimed less at Mozart than at the God who, as Salieri sees it, made this boorish, overgrown child the conduit for such celestial sound -- Salieri arranges for Mozart's downfall. Given the latter's improvidence and his own power in the court, this is not hard to do.
As depicted in Amadeus, Mozart isn't a particularly charming child. He's spoiled, skirt-grabbing, petulant, skittish and given to fits of temper. It's another paradox illuminated by this play that great works of art frequently emanate from apparently unworthy artists.
I can't quite say whether Amadeus is a highbrow melodrama or a truly insightful work of art -- in other words, whether it partakes more of the spirit of Salieri or of Mozart. One of the things that lift it above the ordinary is Salieri's understanding of -- and bitter, reluctant love for -- Mozart's work. Of all the listeners in shallow, stylish eighteenth-century Vienna, he alone fully understands Mozart's free-flowing, form-breaking brilliance. There are wonderful moments in the script when Salieri listens to a piece for the first time and glosses what he's hearing, or realizes the beauty and elegance of the climax to The Marriage of Figaro just as the Austrian emperor, also attending the performance, stifles a yawn.
The play is put together with great dramatic skill. It begins as an aged Salieri offers to answer the question that has in fact persisted (though only in fiction) since Mozart's death: Did I kill him? (Pushkin wrote a short story with this plot, and Rimsky-Korsakov an opera.) Eventually, Salieri takes off his dressing gown, dons a wig and acts out the various scenes leading up to this moment. A group of gossipy townspeople serves as his chorus, in particular Venticello 1 and 2, played to presentational perfection by Maiz Lucero and Marian Rothschild.
Terry Burnsed fully communicates Salieri's bitter destructiveness. He's a grim, clenched figure who takes no pleasure in his own machinations. Stetson Weddle plays Mozart effectively, making him first a clown, then a moving, pain-racked figure, though we don't really sense the warmth and fecundity we'd expect from the composer. Lisa Rosenhagen is appealing as Constanze Weber, the silly, giggling young woman Mozart weds and who develops a necessary toughness as the couple slides into penury. Tim Grant makes a funny, goony emperor.
The set, designed by Peter Anthony, who also directed, is simple and well-conceived -- a couple of candelabra, a flight of stairs sweeping upward and providing various playing levels and a flexible space that can be anything from a concert hall to a boudoir. Both set and costumes effectively communicate the prettiness, frippery and finery of Mozart's Vienna, and Mozart's music periodically breaks through the web of words to remind us of what's at stake.
Get the Arts and Theater Newsletter
Weekly information keeping you in the know when it comes to the art and theater scene. Find out about upcoming performances, exhibitions, openings and special events.