Whispers and murmurs of murder echo through 18th century Vienna as the elderly court composer Antonio Salieri recounts his glory days and the fateful meeting with the prodigy who captured the voice and sounds of God that would change the musical landscape of Europe forever – Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
Thus begins “Amadeus,” Peter Shaffer’s Tony Award-winning play, brought to life in stunning fashion by Folger Theatre, expertly directed by Richard Clifford. This “Amadeus” is note-perfect, starting with the powerful leading performance by Ian Merrill Peakes as Salieri.
This ‘Amadeus’ is note-perfect, starting with the powerful leading performance by Ian Merrill Peakes as Salieri.
Stylish and profane, Shaffer’s 1979 play is a heady mix of political intrigue, courtly pageant, gossipy asides, and some of the most sublime music ever written. Clifford’s crisp direction brings to life the Viennese court and society where Salieri clashed with the young Mozart and – according to the play – worked to bring about his undoing. “Amadeus” is also a great example of speculative historical fiction. Shaffer blends historical fact about Salieri, Mozart, the music of the time, and other people surrounding Austria’s Emperor Joseph II, with the machinations which leads to Mozart’s untimely death at age 35. There are many details of Mozart’s life that are lost to history but in the hands of Shaffer, the plausible conflict between the upstart young genius and Salieri makes for a cracking good story even if historical liberties were taken.
If you remember the old “Columbo” TV series, you may appreciate the set-up of “Amadeus” – it’s more of a how and why-done-it than a who-done-it. From the opening moments, old Salieri pulls in the audience as ghosts from the future who serve as his confessors to his war on God manifested in his campaign to destroy Mozart. In his own time, Salieri was renowned for his compositions and held a prized position as court composer to the emperor. That is until he – and the rest of Vienna – heard the first strains of a Mozart composition and was transformed into a man overcome by envy at such a God-given gift.
This discovery scene (one of the most famous is the play and film adaptation) is rapturously performed by Peakes as Salieri. Like a virtuoso, Peakes mines the entire scene for maximum effect: surprised at the simplicity of the little tune; intrigued at how it is transformed into something more complex; and then the realization that such sublime perfection (“Serenade for Thirteen Wind Instruments, K. 361” to be exact) was composed by the same fart-loving, vulgar, man-child he had just witnessed menacing his attractive, young fiancée. “That was Mozart,” Salieri spews. “That! That giggling dirty-minded creature I had just seen, crawling on the floor!” The older composer is attracted to the musical perfection and repelled by the horrid creature at the same time.
Whereas Peakes commands the stage in grand fashion – easily switching from wizened old man to sharp and cunning middle age – Samuel Adams brings all the vulgarity and innocence of Mozart to life. His Mozart is meant to show a stark contrast to the middle-aged and – dare I say it? – mediocre Salieri. Adams finds the likable heart beneath the spoiled prodigy while not pulling back on his silly nature. The unfiltered Amadeus and the calculating Salieri become the bitterest of enemies, according to Salieri, and the rivalry is epic indeed. Thanks to Peake and Adams, both these performances are reason enough to get your tickets as to what will surely be a hot ticket this season.
The two leading actors are ably supported by a finely tuned ensemble who perfectly fit into the intriguing and courtly world. Folger veteran Louis Butelli and Amanda Bailey bring panache to their roles as Salieri’s “little voices” – the Venticelli – who serve dually as his eyes and ears throughout Vienna and as an ad hoc Greek chorus throughout the play. As Constanze, Lilli Hokama plays the loving and long-suffering wife of Mozart. The dry-as-dirt yet charming Emperor is brought to life with simplicity and impeccable comic timing by John Taylor Phillips. The other members of his court are properly haughty and are played by Justin Adams (Baron von Swieten), Jame Joseph O’Neill (Count Orsini), and Deidre LaWan Starnes (Madame von Strack). The cast is rounded out in fine fashion by Junior Gomez, Yvonne Paretzky, Ned Read, and Kathryn Zoerb.
The entire cast is impressively dressed in 18th-century finery by costume designer Mariah Anzaldo Hale, topped with whimsical wigs designed by Dori Beau Seigneur and built magnificently by Jamie Bagley and Lucy Wakeland. The brocades coats and layered frocks look right at home in the musically inspired setting designed by Tony Cisek who seems to have fashioned giant, gilded harps to serve as the backgrounds evocative of both the Viennese court and the embodiment of heavenly music. Max Doolittle’s subtle and rich lighting design adds appropriate accents to Salieri’s skullduggery. Finally, Salieri and Mozart’s music is woven throughout the action by sound designer Shareth Patel, a feast for the ears. Snatches of The Marriage of Figaro, The Magic Flute, several orchestral works, and Mozart’s Requiem are all featured among many other gems.
“Amadeus” has always been one of my favorite plays and this production reminded me why. It features plummy dialogue and a chance for two tour-de-force performances by masterful actors as the rival composers. Folger’s production carries on this tradition note for note.
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours and 45 minutes, with one intermission.
Advisory: Language and adult themes. Recommended for ages 13 and up.
“Amadeus” runs at the Folger Theatre through December 22, 2019. Call the box office at (202) 544-7077. For more information, click here.