Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus caused quite a stir at its premiere in 1979 – the shocked reaction to the presentation of Mozart was almost as stunning as the play itself, interweaving as it does genius and mediocrity as well as music and words. Since then, productions such as that with Keith Michell (who remains the best Salieri I’ve seen) in 1983 and David Suchet in 1998, have given audiences the chance to re-assess the work, although none has gone quite as far as this new one, directed by Michael Longhurst and with Simon Slater in charge of the music.
Most productions employ recorded music for the snippets of Mozart which cause Salieri both agony and ecstasy, but here we have an orchestra on the stage, playing and accompanying the pieces – it’s certainly a novel device and one much appreciated by the audience on this occasion, although the richer, louder sound does tend to mean that Lucian Msamati’s Salieri has to shout (even though he is miked) above the sound, rather than it being lowered to accommodate such reflections as, of the Serenade for Thirteen Wind Instruments, ‘It would have been comic except for the slowness, which gave it instead a sort of serenity.’
The members of the Southbank Sinfonia are almost as much ‘stars’ of the evening as the dramatic protagonists, performing both Mozart’s music and the ‘additional’ pieces with forthright commitment as well as delicacy. There’s especially fine work from the Oboes (Anna Turmeau, Helen Clinton) and the Flute (Simon Gilliver) and the partnering of the various singers is finely done. Fleur de Bray is a superb Katherina Cavalieri, totally convincing as the “insatiable” soprano and singing with confidence and style, even when she has to tackle one of the Queen of the Night’s arias standing on a rather wobbly plinth. There are also fine vocal contributions from Wendy Dawn Thompson, as Salieri’s wife, whom he calls “La Statua,” and Eamonn Mulhall as Salieri’s Valet – this is a tenor to watch.
Msamati is a wonderful actor, and he gives the role his customary total commitment, although I did wish that he would keep to one accent when not speaking in Italian, since he tended to go from cultivated man about town to Mr J.L.B. Matekoni (Mama Ramotswe’s husband in the No 1 Ladies’ Detective series (another part he has played)) within a few sentences. Adam Gillen’s Mozart seems to be based on a combination of David Threlfall’s Smike in Nicholas Nickleby, and Ade Edmondson’s Vyvyan in The Young Ones – it’s an energetic, funny display but is not so strong on making us see Mozart’s greatness behind the crude exterior. Tom Edden steals the show as Emperor Josephs tend to do – well, there it is.
Very little was made of the Venticelli, who relay gossip to Salieri – phrases such as ‘The Prater… the gutter!’ should at least get a chuckle, and the Court officials were insignificant save for Geoffrey Beevers’ tense Baron van Swieten. Karla Crome was a vivacious Constanze. Why most of the cast wore pastel Doc Martens, there was much flaunting of mobile ‘phones (that ceased to be novel in school plays circa 1999) and Krispy Kremes stood in for crema al mascarpone, I have no idea.
It’s a wonderful spectacle of course, and predictably sold out. However, it should look ravishing in the cinema, and it’s being broadcast live to over 680 cinemas on February 2nd – for your nearest venue, go to ntlive.nationaltheatre.org.uk