Peter Shaffer has rewritten his twenty-year-old Amadeus. The play concerns the alleged but historically undocumented rivalry between Antonio Salieri, court composer to Emperor Joseph II of Austria, and the younger and much more gifted Mozart, whom he is supposed to have persecuted and perhaps even eventually poisoned. Pushkin wrote a play about this, which Rimsky-Korsakov turned into an opera, and the minor artist’s envy of the major one, despite the former’s success and wealth and the latter’s burial in a pauper’s grave, is a catchy subject.
It is unclear exactly what changes Shaffer has wrought beyond making Salieri less obviously antipathetic. The play, once again directed by Peter Hall, certainly feels less strident than either the original production or the lowbrow movie version it engendered. But it still strikes me as, however cleverly, contrived. Salieri’s quarrel with God, for denying him, a good Christian, the talent he lavished on the irreverent Mozart, feels like an artificially dragged-in metaphysical conceit and gets in the way of the more credible contentiousness between two competing composers. Further, the idea that only Salieri, the mortal enemy, fully appreciated Mozart’s genius – albeit clandestinely and self-tormentingly – also feels excogitated and incredible. Envy does not even secretly admit such things; it simply pretends to be equal, if not superior, to its object.
Also militating against Amadeus is that it rehashes Shaffer’s preceding work, Equus, where, too, an older, convention-bound man envies the anarchic freedom of a younger one, which makes it all seem like obsessive authorial compulsion rather than concern for historical possibility or universal truth. And even if Mozart was an often bumptious prankster, I cannot buy Shaffer’s unhinged buffoon, especially when Michael Sheen, camping sky-high, is disgraceful in the early clownish sequences and creepy in the later pathetic ones. Contrariwise, David Suchet’s Salieri is a magisterial performance, imbued with melancholy wit and dignified pathos. It makes Salieri the true hero of the play, unbalancing things but also, ultimately, saving the situation.
Aside from its black hole of a Mozart, this is an accomplished production. I lack space to catalogue the wonders of William Dudley’s décor and costumes. Kudos also to Paule Constable’s supportively enhancing lighting, and to a cast of rare excellence. Cindy Katz, far outshining Jane Seymour in the original Broadway mounting, is a fetching and mercurial Constanze, acutely sensitive to the teasing ambiguities of the character. David McCallum’s Joseph II charmingly combines that imperial trimmer’s droll pawkiness and irritating fatuity. The rest blend easefully into a seamless ensemble under Hall’s engrossing direction. So, at a time when much of Broadway is crass and witless, Amadeus looms large.