Review: ‘Amadeus’

On the eve of Mozart's 250th birthday, his music is everywhere. But what about the little fellow himself as seen through the eyes of Peter Shaffer more than a quarter-century ago in "Amadeus"? Cornelia Crombholz takes a bold new look at this modern classic, streamlining the playwright's tendency to bang us over the head with history lessons.

On the eve of Mozart’s 250th birthday on Jan. 27, his music is everywhere. But what about the little fellow himself as seen through the eyes of Peter Shaffer more than a quarter-century ago in “Amadeus”? Cornelia Crombholz takes a bold new look at this modern classic, streamlining the playwright’s tendency to bang us over the head with history lessons and incorporating elements of Shaffer’s screenplay for Milos Forman’s 1984 epic film treatment.

Crombholz goes for a lean, economic look punctuated by grand operatic gestures, beginning with Salieri (Gerhard Balluch) rising from the orchestra pit in a veil of fog. When Mozart (Thomas Prazak) plays, from memory, the march composed by Salieri to honor his arrival at the Viennese court and, in the course of “improving” it, finds the germ of one of the hit tunes from “The Marriage of Figaro,” the chandelier inexplicably brightens, becoming as blinding as Mozart’s genius. As Mozart’s mind fills with tunes for “The Magic Flute,” pages of written-out music manuscript paper begin to rain down like a gift from Salieri’s punishing God.

It may be a dramaturgical mistake to cut Salieri’s final monologue, in which he accepts his fate as the Patron Saint of Mediocrity and offers us his absolution, but Crombholz concludes with an indelible image: Salieri, soaked with blood from his botched suicide, is dragged down to hell just like the protagonist of “Don Giovanni,” while Mozart, done up as a punk angel, rises into the heavens as his unfinished Requiem resounds.

No giggly idiot savant, Mozart is portrayed as an angry young man, an androgynous, dissipated glam rocker who demands what the world owes him for his talent, and becomes violent when the cosmos seem to conspire against him.

Even though Salieri was a mere six years older than Mozart, he remains the old man of the opening scene throughout. Making the show Salieri’s desperate, frazzled flashback justifies the anachronisms: Aside from Mozart’s Iggy Pop wardrobe and eyeliner, he is treated like a pop star by frenzied female fans who toss undergarments at him and tear off his clothes (when he scores a success, Salieri is merely hoisted on shoulders and paraded around).

Interpolated from the screenplay, a sequence depicts Mozart, on his deathbed, dictating the individual musical lines of the Requiem’s “Confutatis” to Salieri. However historically implausible and dramatically flaccid the scene may be (aside from being a musicological absurdity, it totally halts the plot’s momentum), it serves as a fascinating glimpse of how, apparently, Mozart’s mind functioned.

Balluch’s Salieri is no courtly gentleman well versed in subtle irony, but a shrewd manipulator spewing vinegar with the reptilian rage of a great Iago. Whenever this villain hears a note of Mozart’s music, Balluch pathetically crumbles in jealousy and awe, like a superhero suddenly struck powerless.

Sporting an iguana Mohawk, Prazak reminds one more of Sid Vicious than of his well-known predecessors in the role. Displaying penchants for sequins, feathers, anal sex and a vocabulary far more obscene in German than its English approximation, his omnipresent laughter sounds like some horrific chimera of Jim Carrey and Fran Drescher. Despite his bottle-smashing, drunken, loose-cannon antics, Prazak weaves enchantment when a multivoiced argument jolts him into the inspiration for an ensemble in “Figaro”: By using opera as a means to convey many simultaneous and conflicting emotions, he seeks to make his audience hear the world through God’s ears.

Reduced to a delirious child by his fatal illness, Prazak reminds us of the speculation that Beethoven surely sits at God’s right hand, but Mozart sits on His lap.


Schauspielhaus, Graz, Austria 564 Seats; E30 ($36) Top


A Schauspielhaus, Graz production of a play in two acts by Peter Shaffer. Directed by Cornelia Crombholz.


Sets and costumes, Susanne Maier-Staufen; lighting, Christoph Steffen; musical arrangements and concept, Sandy Lopicic. Opened May 12, 2005. Reviewed Oct. 13. Running time: 2 HOURS, 45 MIN.


Antonio Salieri - Gerhard Balluch Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Thomas Prazak Constanze Weber - Susanne Weber Emperor Joseph II - Erik Goeller Count Franz Orsini-Rosenberg - Franz Solar Count Johann Kilian von Strack, Venticello 1 - Thomas Kornack Baron Gottfried van Swieten, Venticello 2 - Johannes Lang
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