The title says “Amadeus,” but this well-known play’s subject is the sin of envy. More specifically, it’s about the composer Antonio Salieri, a contemporary of Mozart’s who, in Peter Shaffer’s 1979 play, at least, allows his envy of Mozart’s work to degenerate into an utter moral breakdown.
Historians differ over how much Salieri was influenced by Mozart, either negatively or positively, but in “Amadeus,” a revival of which just opened at the Denver Center Theatre Company, it’s much more compelling to imagine how any composer in Mozart’s presence might have felt. What Shaffer set out to explore in his play is just how far off the deep end one might go if confronted with a similar situation.
Whether it’s Gary Kubiak to John Elway, Ed McMahon to Johnny Carson or any other person whose mediocrity is illuminated by proximity to greatness, how one handles such a relationship says a lot. In the case of Salieri, he makes a fateful decision to “defy God” and attempt to destroy Mozart, who he identifies as the vessel through which the Almighty is communicating – musically, at least – with the world.
The Denver Center’s production is directed by new artistic director Kent Thompson and lavishly styled by designer John Iacovelli. We’re in 18th Century Vienna, the court of Emperor Joseph II (hilariously deadpanned by Bill Christ), and new musical compositions are the stock in trade of struggling musicians looking to make a living. On the inside track is Salieri, played with precision by Brent Harris. The upstart newcomer in town is Mozart, whom Salieri soon discovers is a boorish child prone to fart jokes and philandering and hardly worthy, so Salieri thinks, of being the
instrument of God.
In the 1984 film “Amadeus,” which won the best-picture Oscar, Tom Hulce as Mozart nearly overpowered F. Murray Abraham’s Salieri. In the Denver production, Thompson lets the wonderful Douglas Harmsen run with his own over-the-top Amadeus, but the story remains firmly in the realms of Salieri, where it belongs. This is, after all, not about a nutty but brilliant composer but, rather, about the man in his shadow who finds himself in position to bring down the genius.
We know what’s coming, so it’s fun to watch Salieri go to work on the unsuspecting Mozart. That the former gains the confidence of his younger counterpart makes the underlying malice all the more sordid, and Harmsen’s ability to be both awful and charmingly ingenuous completes the effect.
Talent lands where it will, and it’s disturbing to see its ugly side in the case of Salieri, who recognizes soon after Mozart arrives in Vienna that he simply doesn’t have enough of it. He might implore to God that he’s worked hard to get where he is, he might question why Mozart is the chosen one, but none of that changes the reality on the ground: that Mozart has more talent in his little finger than Salieri does in his entire being.
It’s a tremendous scene when Salieri gets the opportunity to review some of Mozart’s first drafts and realizes that he transcribes the music note for note from his head with no corrections. Faced with the undeniable proof of Mozart’s greatness – and his own mediocrity in the face of it – Salieri makes his fateful decision to destroy him for no apparent reason other than that it might make him feel better.
Which, of course, it doesn’t. Flashing back and forth in time, we find Salieri mad and suicidal in his dotage, pursued by the voices of shame and regret. Mozart is long gone while Salieri lives on. Musically, however, Salieri’s works are long forgotten whereas Mozart’s continue to grow in popularity. And so it goes.
Under Thompson’s capable hand, this production of “Amadeus” is strong and compelling, even if the second act drags a bit. It’s a good play, but I couldn’t help but wonder why Thompson chose it. After all, millions of people saw the film and know the story, so there’s not much in the way of new territory to mine here. Even so, it’s worth seeing for outstanding performances by Harris, Harmsen and Stephanie Cozart as Constanze Weber, Mozart’s wife. Strong showings also come from Randy Moore as Count von Strack and Michael Mandell as Count Orsini-Rosenberg.
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