Opening night of Amadeus at Sydney Opera House garnered a well deserved standing ovation. For almost three hours the audience was rapt with the story of a madman racked with guilt for murdering his musical rival, motivated by obsessive jealously, spite and lust for fame. This revenge story is like no other, where murder is plotted slowly, deliberately, over the course of several years, culminating in a horrific gnawing realisation by the protagonist that killing the person he hated the most achieved the exact opposite of what he intended.
Peter Shaffer’s play is a wonderfully inventive piece of historical fiction charting the rival between Mozart and Italian court composer Salieri, two very talented classical musicians in their own right, both worthy of fame and recognition, except one is a gifted genius and the other…is not. Ay, there’s the rub.
Shaffer infuses Salieri with pathological narcissism that makes him request musical greatness to be bestowed to him by God, so that he can be famous and remembered throughout history. In return, he will do whatever it takes to keep God happy. Mozart, on the other hand, is an impudent, immature child prodigy now in his early 20s, charming the courts with his musical virtuosity that seems so effortless, exciting and divinely inspired. It drives Salieri into a a seething rage, a rage that is simmering, just for now, as he regards Mozart with a hateful but begrudging curiosity.
Michael Sheen as Antonio Salieri is simply outstanding, carrying some heavy vocal work for the entire duration of the performance with audible perfection. His lovely Welsh accent transforms to high-pitched Italian caricature as he summons the “ghosts of the distant future” to hear his confession. Every inch of his performance prizes open his soul a little more to reveal a man haunted by his past, forever tormented by shame of his own mediocrity and maddening sense of injustice.
There are sparkling moments of comedy gold too, such as his guttural emphasis on the word “blessed” into the microphone, making it sound like he’s going through an exorcism (speaking as ‘God’ – “Go forth Antonio. Serve me and Mankind and you will be bleeeeeessed!!”).
Sheen is renowned for being the kind of actor that gives generously to his community, and his spirit of generosity in traveling all the way to Sydney was warmly welcomed by the audience. As this interview in the Guardian reveals, it’s his first visit to our shores, travelling with a young family on a gruesome schedule. We are definitely lucky to have him! This interview podcast on ABC radio is also excellent – an insight into Sheen’s upbringing in Wales and his career arc in playing both roles in Amadeus from Mozart to Salieri.
Rahel Romahn as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is an Australian talent and the current recipient of the prestigious Heath Ledger Scholarship. His Mozart is as poetic and inspired as the prodigy himself, with a wonderful lilting vocal lyricism full of innocence, nimbleness and childlike wonder. His slow death by starvation and isolation engineered by Salieri is anguishing and paralysing to watch, gasping for one more breath to finish the music that is more precious to him than oxygen, more beautiful than life itself. He bravely continues to write music, willing himself to get out of bed, even when he barely has any strength left and the whole world tells him his work is “no longer fashionable”.
In earlier scenes, Mozart and Salieri have a lively debate on the merit of virtuosity, with the latter informing that “one must avoid music that smells like music”, as in, “music which makes one aware too much of the virtuosity of its composer.” It’s a cautionary reproach to being brilliantly and hilariously upstaged by Mozart during their formal introduction in which Mozart improvises on Salieri’s stodgy welcoming march, made famous in this scene from the 1984 film adaptation. It highlights the conflict not only in their musical approaches to composition, but also, their personality types: Salieri is methodical, meticulous and ambitious, with a wry and often cheeky sense of humour, but his capacity to express his feelings is limited by his own interior logic. Mozart in contrast is spontaneous, irreverent, and demonstratively expressive, with a desire to tell ‘everyday’ stories set in bedrooms and brothels rather than rehash same-old mythology themes, but his naivety and lack of self control makes it impossible for him to find work when his reputation is tarnished.
Rounding out the main cast is Lily Balatincz as Constanze Mozart, an intelligent and unpretentious woman who matches her husband’s playfulness, disregarded by many as a commoner, but with a fiery spirit who won’t put up with anyone’s shit without a fight. She knows perfectly well Salieri is the culprit of their sabotaged hopes and dreams, and survives comfortably long after her husband is dead and buried in a pauper’s grave.
For all the cruelty inflicted by Salieri and the finicky world at large for not appreciating Mozart more during his lifetime, there is justice: not only does Salieri feel God’s wrath by finally getting everything he wants, only to be disappointed by the hollowness of fame, he also lives long enough to see his own name fade into obscurity while Mozart’s music flourishes everywhere. But that’s not the worst part. The worst part is knowing his sins of envy and pride led him nowhere, from the start he was condemned to a life of mediocrity, being given an appetite for glory with no means to feed himself from within, so that he is forever hungry and searching for a meaningful existence to fill his aching soul. He can declare war on God and tell him “He’s blocked” for not endowing him with greatness, but he can’t escape the demons in his head. And in the end, there’s no worse feeling in the world than feeling naked and seen by God.