Like the proverbial snowball rolling downhill, Peter Shaffer’s play Amadeus has grown into a formidable theatrical entity since its premiere 30 years ago. It has accumulated a number of theatrical versions, an adapted film script, and differing production approaches, all the while absorbing the ever-continuing Mozart scholarship and the sticks and stones of controversy thrown at some of the playwright’s characterizations. However, the Clarence Brown Theatre and the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra, in their current joint production of Amadeus, have apparently found a way to transform that snowball into something quite fresh—a tight and focused, multi-faceted gem that combines music and theatre in an entirely unique way.
The most visible (and audible) feature of this stunning production, stemming from the collaboration of director Calvin MacLean of the CBT and music director Lucas Richman of the KSO, was the use of an expanded selection of Mozart’s music blended brilliantly and seamlessly into the fabric of the play—and performed by the onstage KSO, singers, and chorus. This addition pushed the theatrical rhythm in a somewhat cinematic direction, where scene underscore becomes an essential part of the director’s narrative language. With the orchestra’s presence built into designer Ron Keller’s impressive, sweeping set, and the orchestral players and singers dressed in contemporary concert attire rather than period costumes, the orchestra represented neither actor nor audience, but rather the abstract ideal of sublime music that has transcended the details of the unfolding drama.
The center of the play’s premise belongs not to the title character, but to the character of Antonio Salieri, Mozart’s contemporary and rival, from whose perspective the story flows. However, it is in both characters that we see the complex difficulty that Shaffer has created for actors taking these roles. In this production, John Feltch’s Salieri was a joy to watch, his face and voice a feast of nuance, subtly supporting individual moments of reflection. But Salieri must take the role of both narrator of his own story, presenting his tragic justifications directly to the audience, and of participant in the story. Feltch’s Salieri, as narrator, asks God to allow him to become a composer and to have enough fame to enjoy it. In return, his vow is to better the lives of others and to honor God with music. Yet when he realizes that Mozart’s ability is superior to his own, and that Mozart has made no such bargain with God, his honor turns to bitterness. As participant in the action, though, Feltch’s Salieri did not seem to show us the hints of transformation from jealous colleague to a bitter and politically cunning enemy. Perhaps, though, the blame for this failing should fall more on the shoulders of the playwright rather than the actor.
Similarly insightful, Brian Sills brought a brash and delicious naughtiness to his Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Sills’ physical depiction of childlike arrogance seemed impeccable. His timing, too, was impressive, not only in the intricate comedic banter with his wife, Constanze, but also when seated at the keyboard (beautifully synchronized with KSO keyboardist, Carol Zinavage). Importantly however, Sills must also convince us, at least subtly, that beneath the buffoonery and the rude immaturity of Mozart lies some evidence of a musical genius—I, unfortunately, remained skeptical.
Amelia Mathews as the lovely Constanze did manage a quite believable transformation—from foolish fiancé to an aggressive, hardened wife ready to pursue whatever it takes for her husband’s success, and her own. Just when Terry Weber’s Emperor Joseph II had seemed a tad too superficial, he surprised us with some wonderfully developed comic rationality. So, there it is.
Although most productions of the play have, for obvious reasons, used recorded music for incidental dramatic purposes, the expanded amount of music and the onstage orchestra have taken this production of Amadeus to a creative level that is rarely experienced in theater, if at all. With additions such as this, one naturally fears that dramatic emphasis could have been lost, characters overwhelmed, or design compromised. In fact, just the opposite has happened. MacLean and Richman have been so successful in integrating the orchestra and music transparently into the play that one senses a completely natural transformation in which the visual and performance aspects of superior theater have become one with the sublime music of Mozart.