Article by Rebecca Romani
September 17, 2019
The year is 1823 and Antonio Salieri, elderly former Imperial Kapellmeister to the Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph is planning his ultimate finale. But not before he reaches back into his memory to present a final composition: “The Death of Mozart…or Did I Do it?”
It’s a question that has intrigued many over the centuries, causing speculation to run rampant well past the era of classical music. Director Richard Baird’s masterfully directed “Amadeus,” by Peter Shaffer, now in revival at the North Coast Repertory Theatre, takes on these rumors, envisioning a vengeful court musician and composer, Antonio Salieri, who first ruins and then (perhaps) poisons the impudent and brilliant Mozart, who dies at the age of 35.
While at times leaning a bit too heavily on the film of the same name (Salieri looks very familiar, some gestures seem like déjà vu), The NC Rep’s take is a slightly paired down, highly inspired staging of a tale in which envy, desire, and unbridled talent undo the faith of one man and cause another to self destruct like a Roman candle.
Salieri (Tony Amendola) is a composer’s composer. His talent and courtly behavior have earned him a place at the court of the Emperor (Louis Lotorto). Dedicating his art to God and the Emperor, Salieri envisions a steady if not entirely remarkable career.
Until Mozart (Rafael Goldstein) blazes into Salieri’s life like a giggling, avenging angel.
Mozart, the overgrown boy who plays cat and mouse with his fiancée on the floor and tosses off flawless arias like the discarded peels of ripe fruit.
Mozart, oblivious to the effect his talent has on others and wildly incapable of reading the room (“this note [in your piece], it doesn’t quite work…” he tells Salieri, who has composed it in Mozart’s honor).
This “obscene child” is brilliant where Salieri is merely excellent.
For Salieri, who feels mocked and abandoned by the God he has vowed to serve, it is just too much.
He vows to get back at God by destroying Mozart.
Under Baird’s judicious hand, Act II, Salieri’s revenge, becomes a tour de force. Salieri rises at court while his obsession with Mozart’s downfall grows. His venticelli (Christopher Williams and Alice Sherman), deliciously catty gossips, carry tales of brilliant compositions, the inspired scribbles of an ill man.
The tension is palpable and when Mozart delivers his darkest opera, Don Giovanni, Salieri is ready to solicitously push him over the edge into poverty, illness, and eventually, for Salieri, anyway, blessed silence.
Until, like an earworm, Mozart rises to haunt Salieri in his final hours, who wonders with us, did he do it.
“Amadeus” at two hours plus is not an easy play, but the casting is brilliant and the performance sails along, without dragging for a second.
Amendola’s Salieri’s descent in simmering envy has a control and pacing that is simply elegant. Perhaps Amendola’s finest moment comes when Salieri reads one of Mozart’s arias, and from the depths of his envy and self-loathing, hears the voice of such spiritual perfection that for one brief pause, almost too painful to watch, he stands in wounded awe.
Goldstein’s Mozart is light and mercurial, much like the crazy pastels he wears in Act I; but by Act II, Goldstein seamlessly shifts Mozart into deeper waters, with an almost unexpected emotional heft.
Goldstein gives Mozart a profound resonance when he learns his imperious father has died. As Mozart suddenly melts into a weeping penitent, doomed to write the specter of his father into his darkest opera, Don Giovanni, you can hear the audience trying not to sob.
Amendola and Goldstein are supported by an incredibly strong cast. Kathryn Tkel as Mozart’s wife, Constanze more than holds her own and her timing is impeccable. Louis Lotorto as the Emperor makes every “So. There it is,” count. Leigh Ellen Akin as Salieri’s pupil and Mozart’s lead soprano is joyfully incandescent each time she is on stage. Her voice is extraordinary, her interpretation of Salieri and Mozart’s work, an unexpected gift in an already strong cast.
Marty Burnet’s set designs are gorgeous understatements-perfect for the Rep’s smaller stage. The wide drawing room backdrop works well with the various doorways and the judicious use of props like the piano and chairs works well to create additional dramatic space.
Sound designer Aaron Rumley has created one of the most beautiful uses of classical music in local contemporary theatre. His music cues help the play to soar, and his judicious use of incidental music facilitates the smooth scene changes.
Elisa Benzoni’s costumes are both gorgeous and integral to the staging. Too frequently period costuming looks like it barely holds together, but here the sumptuous fabrics and beautifully worked pieces strike a note of refinement that plays well against the less than genteel workings of the court. Her costuming for Mozart stands out, especially as his costume starts to reflect his rising hysteria and disintegration.
Two things could use some attention. One of them is the conducting scenes in which both leads are a bit awkward. With conducting such an important part of both lead characters’ personas, it would add depth and nuance to the performance if some of the local conductors could be consulted on how to look like you are really conducting. The other issue is the use of the word “wop.” It’s a 20th century, mostly American pejorative that is anachronistic in the play and needs to go.
So, did Salieri kill Mozart? The Venticelli would say yes…and no, while history says otherwise. Regardless, North Coast Rep has created a stellar revival of Shaffer’s 1979 play. With gorgeous music, soaring voices and outstanding cast, this is a show you do not want to miss.
“Amadeus: continues at the North Coast Repertory Theatre through October 6. For dates and details, please visit: