The Olivier Theatre at the National Theatre on London’s Southbank is a cavernous space. Yet, when it plays host to Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus, it almost seems like it is confining the soaring egos that Shaffer’ play so wonderfully evokes. Antonio Salieri’s deathbed confession, as directed by Michael Longhurst and beautifully designed by Chloe Lamford, returns to the National Theatre with a quite staggering aplomb, anchored by three incredible performances from Lucian Msamati, Adam Gillen and soprano Fleur de Bray.
Amadeus opens with Antonio Salieri (Msamati, best known to most these days as the pirate Salladhor Saan in Game of Thrones) aged, “dying” and forgotten in Vienna. In his fevered state he calls out for forgiveness for the death of Mozart. As this spreads around Vienna, Salieri calls out an incantation for the ghosts to hear his confession. Enter us, the audience, to be told of his deeds. Jumping up, Salieri tells of us his pious entreaty of God to be his musical conduit and of his rise in Imperial Vienna. We are introduced to his wife, Teresa Salieri (Wendy Dawn Thompson) and his star pupil, Katherina Cavalieri (de Bray). While he boasts of his achievements, he also lets us in on his vices, sweets and lust for Cavalieri, for he holds true to his virtuous vow to God. Until, that is, a young brash man arrives in court, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Gillen).
Mozart is introduced at a party, with Salieri hidden in a high back chair, chasing his future wife, Canstanze Weber (a luminous Adelle Leonce), around and under a piano. Salieri introduces Mozart to court and while astonished by his musical genius, cannot comprehend the boorish child that he sees before him. While listening to Mozart’s work, Salieri comes to the realisation that God, against the agreement he thought he struck, is using Mozart as his conduit. Deciding that God has broken their deal, Salieri decides to battle God by throwing away his virtuous vow and destroying Mozart. And yet, at each turn, while pretending to befriend while undermining Mozart, Salieri is astonished by the genius of Mozart.
Which is the beautiful crux of Shaffer’s play. Salieri is the villain of the piece, but he is our guide and we are his confidant. Msamati draws us to him with a charm and slyness that is a wonder to behold. We really shouldn’t like Salieri but we do, helped enormously because Shaffer’s Mozart is a dick. Dressed in flamboyantly floral coats (which I rather liked), Mozart’s behaviour is beyond the pale every moment he is on stage. Adam Gillen plays Mozart as a full blown ADHD case study, the squeaky, childish voice cutting through Salieri and us. And yet, just when you are hoping someone will push him off the stage, Mozart’s music floods into you. Here is where another element of Longhurst’s staging is so effective. Throughout, he has the Southbank Symphonia as part of the production. Dressed in black, they play the music but, also freed from the orchestra pit, they interact with the actors, the music becoming a part of the piece. Then there is Fleur de Bray.
Katherina Cavalieri is a tricky part. The Cavalieri role needs to bring the operas to life. While the Symphonia beautifully entrances you with Mozart’s genius, de Bray’s Cavalieri takes their groundwork and electrifies you with the song. Having to literally nail the “best bits” from Mozart’s operas, each moment leads to the first staging of The Magic Flute (an opera that makes utterly no sense, but like A Midsummer Night’s Dream, is enchanting), where lifted onto a column, de Bray’s Cavalieri sings Der Hölle Rache and, frankly, blows us all away. Any lingering doubts about Mozart’s genius are gone. On stage before us, de Bray towers and her voice soars, lifting us, into those moments that we wish we could never leave. The is the power of opera, even when it is in German.
Sitting down in my second row seat, my only real previous with Amadeus was with Miloš Forman’s film adaptation and, more recently, when I learned Mark Hamill played Mozart on Broadway. Having missed the 2016 run of this production, I was determined to make sure I wouldn’t miss this a second time around. There was not a moment that I was not captivated and conflicted in my loyalties to the characters on stage. This Amadeus is ambitious, barnstorming in places, anchored throughout with superb performances and utterly, utterly wonderful.
Amadeus runs at the Nation Theatre until 24th April 2018. Tickets can be bought here.