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Playing off the genius of 'Amadeus'

Poor Antonio Salieri. Revered as the greatest composer of his day, wealthy, respected, virtuous, the darling of the court of Emperor Joseph II of Austria, he's sent into a murderous tizzy by an "obscene child" by the name of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who can whip up dazzling musical masterpieces without setting down his pool cue.

Such is the Salieri of Peter Shaffer's "Amadeus," a play that Shaffer once called "a fantasia on the events of Mozart's life." Irish Classical Theatre is currently presenting a brilliant production of the play, directed by Fortunato Pezzimenti with clarity and vigor. Peter Palmisano is Salieri, and he lends to the part regal grace, sly irony and sharp-edged wit.

It is Salieri, not Mozart, who is the chief protagonist, and Palmisano's beautifully wrought performance shapes the entire dramatic movement of the play. His slightly high-flown diction and stately inflection wonderfully convey the interior monologue of the old and ailing composer in 1823, 32 years after Mozart's death. From there Palmisano leads us seamlessly into the flashbacks that relate the story of those rancorous years when Mozart threatened to steal Salieri's thunder (and ultimately did), interrupting the action with wonderful prickly asides to the audience. Even when Salieri is silent, Palmisano's supple face is making constant sardonic comment on the proceedings.

Don't look for realism here. The historical Salieri -- despite rumors that have survived for more than two centuries -- did not likely poison Mozart (who died at 35 in 1791.) Nor was the real Salieri a person who could so readily condemn God -- as he so vehemently does in the play -- for imparting divine talent to a "giggling, dirty-minded creature" while consigning Salieri to the role of "The Patron Saint of Mediocrities."

For one thing, Salieri was no mediocrity. He simply was a composer whose antiquated style doesn't cut it with modern sensibilities. No, he wasn't a genius. But then the concept of genius had not yet quite been invented. Shaffer merely applies that 19th century concept to his characters.

Palmisano portrays the fictional Salieri as a tortured, introspective character who can psychoanalyze himself -- not to mention God -- for 2 1/2 hours and keep us spellbound. His modern, slightly self-deprecating self-view makes Salieri utterly charming even as he nefariously plots Mozart's downfall. I found myself both amused and sympathetic, half wishing that his music was more often played today. (There is a revival going on at the moment, and WNED, prompted perhaps by the play, aired a pleasing, if repetitious example of Salieri's music the other day.)

Shaffer does give his Mozart some of the composer's actual traits -- his childish playfulness, his scatological tongue, his astonishing speed at composition. But he compresses and exaggerates so much that Mozart comes out a bounding, giggling, somewhat ridiculous figure -- hardly the person who could delve deeply into the complex psyche of a "Don Giovanni" or make even trivial opera characters ring with nuance of feelings. Here Mozart doesn't seem to see much beyond his flopping hair.

It is a difficult role to squeeze much substance out of, and Michael Providence doesn't go for the impossible. He wisely plays him mainly as comic and dramatic foil for the grand agitation of Salieri's probing mind.

Critically, he also never lets the young genius slip into a state of complete idiocy either. This is a joyously lively Mozart, full of such extravagant zest for life that the lusty paddling of his backside administered so enthusiastically by his future wife Costanze (Katie Ann McDermott) in Act I seems like the proper expression of a congenitally bawdy mind.

Providence also pounces on the occasional informed remark that Shaffer allows his Mozart. At these moments the actor conveys a brightness and a surety that hints that this Mozart does indeed have a reasoning brain lurking among the scatological thoughts. I think he plays it just right, not too antic but with enough juvenile insolence to infuriate the upright Salieri and cause him to launch a war on two fronts, one on Mozart and the other on a god that would make a Mozart that would so torment him.

McDermott is another marvelous actor, lending to the frisky Costanze an exuberance tempered by a firmness of purpose that even unsettles the unflappable Salieri in a seduction scene that comes to naught. Her hair piled on her head and decked out in costume designer Geradine Duskin's resplendent gown, she even looks like the Costanze that I conjured up when I read of her checkered life with Mozart. McDermott is superb, completing the trio of performers who make this production sing.

One of the great ironies of the play that Palmisano exploits to the hilt is that Salieri, alone among his fellow observers, recognizes the full measure of Mozart's staggering abilities (another Shaffer fiction). He feels the ecstasy of this music to the point of swooning, hears in it "the voice of God." This is mighty painful for Salieri, given that as a teen back in Italy, he made a pact with God that if he would give him fame as a composer he would glorify God in his music. He got his fame. Only thing was, he forgot to mention talent.

The rest of the cast is fully up to the high standards set by Palmisano, Providence and McDermott. Gerry Maher creates a terrific study in self-righteousness in Baron Van Swieten. Christopher Standart is an appropriately haughty Count Orisini-Rosenberg. Peter Jaskowiak (Joseph II), David Oliver (Count von Strack) and Christian Brandjes and Michael Votta, as Shaffer's pseudo-Greek chorus figures, are impressive. A silent role by Susan Drozd as Salieri's pupil is well-done.

It may seem that sometimes Shaffer is interrogating God through Salieri, using the composer as mouthpiece for assorted metaphysical arguments. But there is enough humor, clever aphorisms (e.g., "Goodness is nothing in the furnace of art"), charming musical descriptions (a Mozart serenade as a gorgeous "squeeze box"), and some truly inspired daffiness to make "Amadeus" an incomparable entertainment.

It is great stuff beautifully done. It also has an added virtue: snippets of Mozart's greatest music. Who could ask for more?

Amadeus

Review: 4 stars (out of 4)

Continues through Oct. 16 in Irish Classical Theatre, 625 Main St. 853-4282.

e-mail: rhuntington@buffnews.com

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