You would think that, faced with a choice between a genius composer who speaks for God and a musical hack, there would be no contest. But Peter Shaffer’s “Amadeus” stacks the deck, giving his protagonist Antonio Salieri the irresistibility of an ordinary Everyman evolving into evil. Jonathan Epstein’s perf is as delicious as the brandied chestnuts his character savors in this summer season opener in the Massachusetts Berkshires.
It may be the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birth, but it’s Salieri Day in Stockbridge in this sharp and stylish production, helmed by Eric Hill. At the center of it all is Epstein’s narrator-protagonist, a devout, hard-working and generous man who made it to the position of Viennese court composer.
When upstart prodigy Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Randy Harrison) arrives on the scene,his staggering musical gifts are evident only to Salieri, who in recognizing Mozart’s greatness bitterly realizes his own mediocrity.
Epstein displays all the icy charm of a compassionate conservative, all the cold-hearted management skills of a corporate climber, all the cool PR know-how to seemingly support while actually stifling the new kid on the block. Salieri’s piety turns poisonous as he works behind the scenes to keep Mozart down, manipulating the tone-deaf courtiers and the simpleton emperor (marvelously played by Walter Hudson). Though Salieri fails at seducing the composer’s young wife (Tara Franklin), he succeeds with priest-like guile in playing Mozart like a Stradivarius.
After starring in Berkshire Theater Festival’s “Equus” last year, Harrison returns with another Shaffer battle between man and his god/gods, giving Mozart a vibrant physicality, energy and joy. The virtuosity is so overwhelming it cannot be contained in his body: Harrison jumps, skips, kicks and practically levitates onstage as he gets carried away with his music — as well as his libido.
But Harrison’s scatological man-child is oddly endearing, too. He is playful more than petulant, passionate about music (even if it is just his own), with a chastened boy’s regret in knowing he has gone too far. His second-act decline is rich in emotional detail, with just the right modulated sparks from his former self to buoy his last gasps of genius.
Shaffer’s highly theatrical and confessional conceit provides one juicy scene after another and remains engaging for the audience.
But just as Mozart was criticized by the emperor for having “too many notes,” Shaffer’s melodramedy — especially in act two — suffers from having too many words, or at least repeating its themes, detailing court history and chronicling Mozart’s many falls to a fault with one aria after another. The puckish coda, however, offers the right grace note for the play.
Production values are enviable for a summer staging, with veteran designer Karl Eigsti’s handsome set serving the play as well as the period with a smart framing device, enhanced by Matthew E. Adelson’s lighting that illuminates the court’s splendor as well as its shadowy intrigues. Olivera Gajic’s costumes don’t scrimp on the petticoats, ruffles and wigs.
Only the thin sound system undercuts the need to experience the grandeur and beauty of the music at its fullest.