Tuesday, August 15, 2023

Canberra Repertory Society's "Amadeus" a triumphant success

by Tony Magee

Written by Peter Shaffer, “Amadeus” is a play giving a partly fictional account of the lives of composers Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Antonio Salieri, first performed in 1979.

It was inspired by Alexander Pushkin’s short 1830 play “Mozart and Salieri”, which Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov used in 1897 as the libretto for an opera of the same name.

Also containing many scenes which are largely factual, the play went on to inspire director Milos Foreman’s 1984 movie “Amadeus”, starring Tom Hulce as Mozart and F. Murray Abraham as Salieri.

Abraham and Hulce were both nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor, with Abraham winning.

Upon release, it received widespread acclaim and was a box office hit, grossing over US$90 million. Considered by many to be one of the greatest films of all time, “Amadeus” was nominated for 53 awards and received 40, including eight Academy Awards (including the Academy Award for Best Picture), four BAFTA Awards, four Golden Globe Awards, and a Directors Guild of America award.

But back to the play.

Canberra Repertory Society’s production of Amadeus, which closed on Saturday night, is a masterpiece of acting skills and direction.

Michael J.Smith (Venticelli 1) and Justice-Noah Malfitano (Venticelli 2) and Jim Adamik
as Salieri. Photo: Karina Hudson

I attended the Saturday matinee performance with my friend Lauren and we both adored it.

Jim Adamik as Salieri delivered a tour-de-force performance, beginning with him in a wheel chair in a mental hospital in Vienna, aged 75.

Facing away from the audience he was heard mumbling incoherent rants, calling out “Mozart, Mozart - forgive me - what have I done?”

The play then dissolves into a multitude of brilliant flash-back scenes from the past, as Adamik transformed into a young Salieri, currently the top and most highly respected composer in Vienna, employed at the Court of Emperor Joseph the II of Austria, a role played with delightful indifference by Neil McLeod. There it is.

Enter the foul-mouthed, dirty and disgraceful, ill-mannered, immature and highly annoying Mozart, aged 26.

Mozart has been invited to Vienna to premiere some of his works, something Emperor Joseph eagerly awaits hearing.

It isn’t long before Salieri’s place of “golden boy” is usurped by Mozart and a game of Cat and Mouse amongst the two ensues.

Mozart is played brilliantly with astonishing silliness, bizarre language, unpredictable behaviour and unbelievable naivety by Jack Shanahan.

Whilst this is not necessarily an accurate portrayal of the real Mozart, Shaffer has none-the-less given his character these qualities which Shanahan delivered with continuous, almost exhausting, acting prowess.

Sienna Curnow as Constanze Mozart (nee Weber), and Jack Shanahan as Mozart.
Photo: Karina Hudson

In his book, “Mozart’s Letters, Mozart’s Life”, compiled and translated by author Robert Spaethling, Mozart is given a voice as son, husband, brother and friend.

Spanning his life from age 14 until his death aged 35, this compilation of hundreds of his letters is astounding and compelling reading.

They reveal clear evidence that Mozart suffered from tourettes syndrome. Shanahan picks up on this, no doubt coached by director Cate Clelland.

When I was a high school music teacher in the 1980s, I had a twelve year old boy in one of my year seven classes who had this condition.

His father rang me one day and told me that at a Canberra Symphony Orchestra concert the night before, the boy stood up and yelled out at the top of his voice, “shit bugger bum poo dick wee” and then sat down.

Back to the letters:

Mozart’s letters to his father are very formal, constantly searching for approval as to what he is doing and his presence in Vienna. The gruff and overshadowing Leopold is usually sceptical, disappointed, disapproving and discouraging in his replies, also pleading with him to return to Salzburg.

Letters to his sister Nannerl (the family nick-name for Maria Anna Mozart) are playful, funny and full of nonsense and hilarity, something to which she responds to equally in her replies.

Letters to his mother, Anna Maria Mozart, are the most bizarre combination of gutter language, school-boy smut and a bewildering if not astonishing penchant for discussing the size and stench of his shits and the smell and power of his farts, dialogue which she replies to with eager glee and also descriptions of her own experiences in these arenas.

Mozart's Letters, Mozart's Life by Robert Spaethling. W. W. Norton & Co., New York

I found myself constantly being reminded of passages within this book, a book I’ve read with joy, wonder and amazement a multitude of times, by Jack Shanahan’s wonderfully bubbly, nonsensical (at times) and over-the-top bounding around the stage - leaping, falling, laughing, giggling, spewing forth reams of verbal diarrhorea, in his attempts to enthuse everyone around him with his sometimes outlandish plans for composition, particularly opera and the boring and conservative responses and thoughts from those at court, with the exception of the emperor, who is impressed with Mozart’s boundless enthusiasm and talent.

The only person who seems to understand Mozart, counselling him in fatherly, cautious and very caring ways, is the Baron Gottfried van Swieten, played superbly by Ian Russell. The two become friends and van Swieten does have some limited success in taming the out-of-control Mozart, qualities which Shanahan delivered expertly.

Sienna Curnow gave an outstanding performance as Constanze Mozart (nee Weber), showcasing her love and devotion to her husband, but also capturing her frustration at his unpredictable ways, constant messing up of their house and towards the end, despairing at Mozart’s infatuation and disturbing work on his Requiem Mass, perhaps a belated and guilty offering to his late father, Leopold, or perhaps an unconscious offering to himself.

Tony Falla played the scheming Count Orsini-Rosenberg extremely well, capturing his distain for Mozart and Mozart’s compositions with the satisfying alacrity he wanted, determined to unhinge Mozart and bring him down.

I should also like to mention the outstanding contribution by Michael J. Smith and Justice-Noah Malfitano as the two “Venticelli” who both bound onto the stage at frequent moments, progressing the plot with interesting details of who’s doing what in Vienna, who’s just died and other tidbits of often amusing information.

Their over-the-top deliveries where often hilarious and very colourful.

In the movie version, their roles are replaced by a singular house-maid, a young girl working for the Mozarts in their home, but her wages being paid for by a “secret admirer” - none other than the insatiably jealous Salieri, who through the maid’s daily reports to him, gathers some of the information he needs in his quest to bring about the downfall of Mozart.

The eighteenth century costumes were beautifully done, transforming the cast into their respective roles most convincingly.

A few minor criticisms: Jim Adamik’s Italian accent came and went to some extent, and his Italian pronunciation wavered at times, for example “Mascarpone”. Most of the cast mispronounced Mozart’s Christian name “Wolfgang”.

Also, the German pronunciations of “Habsburg” and “Salzburg” were wanting. 

When not being played as underscore to dialogue, I felt the musical excerpts could have been louder, with more impact, so we could better immerse ourselves in the music, so integral to the story.

Worst of all, was the lowering down of the Square and Compasses, which looked cheaply and poorly made. There was no need for them at all actually, as they were projected in magnificent resolution on the back screen at the same time. Puzzling.

Director, Cate Clelland. Photo courtesy Australian National University

Finally though, I should like to pay tribute to Cate Clelland, whose direction was masterfully done, bringing to life Shaffer’s play in a glorious portrayal of musical life in eighteenth century Vienna and the people who participated in it, particularly Mozart and Salieri.

It was one of Clelland’s finest directorial achievements and served to make the production an outstanding and most professional success.

Also published at Tony's blog Art Music Theatre, August 13, 2023