Even by today’s standards, when pop stars are among the most lauded individuals on the planet, the claims made on music’s behalf in Mozart’s era can seem excessive. Absolute music was termed “God’s art,” and great composers, when they were recognized, received the special attention due to messengers bringing good news from beyond this world. When any art form aspires to such super status, there’s bound to be contention; with so much at stake, all is fair and anything goes. That’s certainly the notion driving Peter Shaffer’s still-juicy confection Amadeus, which takes copious liberties with the facts of history in order to deliver a message that’s part warning and part consolation. Yes, there’s danger in ambition, especially when it’s tainted by envy and despair, and, no, we don’t all have to be born with talent to experience beauty, even though the uneven distribution of genius is likely to register as unfair.
While from a marketing standpoint it would have been a disaster, from the point of view of the plot, Amadeus really should have been titled Antonio after Antonio Salieri, the court composer and musical rival whose stealthy vendetta gives the show its tension and energy. Daniel Gerroll is marvelous in this demanding part, switching easily from light comedy to extended bouts of introspection and exposition, all without losing the character’s heat. In his boldest departure from fact, Shaffer depicts Salieri as having murdered Mozart with poison, or at least as having intended to. Whole branches of the publishing industry would appear to have sprung up in the aftermath of this high-profile bit of slander entirely devoted to clearing Salieri of this spurious assertion. Fortunately, some of these volumes are excellent — I recommend Mozart at the Gateway to His Fortune: Serving the Emperor, 1788-1791 by Christoph Wolff in particular to those whose curiosity leads them to further research. Salieri most certainly did not poison Mozart, but Mozart’s final years were difficult, especially with regard to finances, and he did suffer and die at a relatively young age while writing some of his most exciting and advanced music.
As Mozart, Randy Harrison turns in a fine and vigorous portrayal of a man who lived, as we say in these times, with no filter. Mozart says what he thinks and lives with the consequences, and since what he thinks is never commonplace, nearly always irreverent, and just as often obscene, those consequences are grave. The court of Emperor Joseph II (a splendidly comic Bo Foxworth) fits Mozart like a gaudy straitjacket, and he suffocates in its dim atmosphere of obsequy and convention. Or so Shaffer would have it — once again, history is somewhat at odds with the play, but so be it. As Baron van Swieten, Robert Lesser voices many of the period’s accepted ideas about the proprieties to be observed when composing an opera.
For his part, Mozart lives to disrupt them. The evening’s most exciting pieces, apart from the beautiful and unpredictable muse Constanze Weber (Zoë Chao), are the ideas that keep spilling forth from Mozart’s silly bewigged head. When four characters spend too long arguing, Mozart’s attention drifts away from what they are saying and back to the idea of a quartet. Listening to the sound of four voices at once gives him the inspiration he needs for his next opera. Opera can do more than theater, he realizes, because in a quartet, the individuals do not need to speak in turn, allowing the composer to reveal all four characters simultaneously, rather than in sequence. If such insights seem overly abstract, there’s plenty of richly observed roughhouse play to pull them down to Earth in this fascinating season opener.