When I was growing up in the mid 1980s , Mozart was all the rage. Peter Shaffer’s play Amadeus had been made into a film by Milos Forman, Vienna was getting ready to mourn the passing of 200 years since his death (1791) and Falco was the first Austrian singer/rapper to go global with his ‘Rock Me Amadeus’ (apologies for the poor image quality – pre-HD music videos have not aged well).
Meanwhile, I was labouring with Mozart minuets and sonatas, having my knuckles rapped by my fearsome (but much loved and missed) piano teacher. It didn’t put me off him, however. He has remained, to this day, my favourite composer.
So the National Theatre’s production of Amadeus last week was a wonderful way to reconnect with my childhood. (And also an excellent form of self-medication for uncertain times.) Lucian Msamati gave a mesmerizing virtuoso performance as Salieri (his Italian was most convincing), while Adam Gillen was suitably foppish and vulnerable as Mozart (in Shaffer’s vision). All in all, Msamati is only off-stage for 13 seconds, while changing into a shinier outfit, so it’s a real tour de force.
Of course you have to allow for dramatic licence: no one seriously thinks that Salieri poisoned Mozart, or that Mozart was as childish and foolish as he appears in the play. Although he did live beyond his means and left his wife and children in debt after his death, he was not as unsuccessful and ‘tormented’ as he appears to be in the play. He certainly enjoyed scatological humour, loved his wife dearly, but he did not write his musical compositions effortlessly, from divine dictation. (He worked very hard, and if his manuscripts appear remarkably clean, it’s because his wife destroyed many of the earlier drafts.) Schikaneder did not cheat Mozart out of the money for The Magic Flute (in fact, he put on a special charity performance for Mozart’s widow). Constanze was not a naive little girl, but quite a shrewd businesswoman who managed to turn her fortunes around after Mozart’s death. Salieri was highly respected as a composer and teacher, but it is true that he felt fashions had moved on, so he stopped writing operas for the last 20 years of his life. Salieri’s music fell into oblivion – and do you know what boost led to its modest revival in recent years? The success of the film ‘Amadeus’!
But it’s drama, not historical accuracy we’re after, and boy, does it deliver it in spades! The conversation between Salieri and Mozart prior to the death scene was particularly moving, while the final salute to mediocrities is one of the most memorable speeches about jealousy and resignation ever:
Salieri : I will speak for you, I speak for all mediocrities in the world. I am their champion. I am their patron saint. Mediocrities everywhere… I absolve you… I absolve you… I absolve you… I absolve you… I absolve you all!
The South Bank Sinfonia were both actors and players in this version, and there were some very good singers among the actors. This whetted my appetite for Mozart’s music and I listened all day Friday (Mozart’s birthday) to his Masses. On Saturday evening I also attended a local semi-staged performance of The Magic Flute, performed by St John’s Opera and Chamber Orchestra, and Renaissance Voices choir. It was a contemporary adaptation, with Sarastro being the CEO of a foundation and giving Tamino a gruelling job interview. Meanwhile, Papageno worked as a ‘model scout’ for the Queen of the Night (hunting for birds, right) and also ran her social media, doing occasional Tweets for her. Great fun, the music of course sublime and I’d never heard Mozart sung in English before. Clever translation at times!