On the day after the horrific events surrounding this year‘s Boston Marathon finally found some closure, two local college productions resumed their schedules for the musical version of “Two Gentlemen of Verona” and the Mozart opera “La Clemenza di Tito” (both memorable, as is often the case in our culturally blessed city). Attendance at both necessitated a walk past one crime scene, Boylston Street, and its memorial to those killed and injured. Nearby, two women and a little girl held signs reading “Free Hugs”, a simple but moving response to the tragedy. Not to sound too maudlin, but one was reminded of how therapeutic theatre can be. Yet another reminder, blocks from a related crime scene in Watertown, occurred at the opening of New Rep’s production of Peter Shaffer’s 1979 play “Amadeus”, (Mozart’s middle name “Theophilus” translated into the Latin form he preferred, meaning “God’s love”), a work that celebrates the human and the divine in the process of creation. The final work of this stellar season, it became part of a larger transition to normalcy and much needed healing.
The original New York production, substantially rewritten after its London premiere, was the winner of no fewer than seven Tony Awards including Best Play. The 1984 film version won eight Academy Awards as well as a place in the American Film Institute’s list of the best hundred films ever made. With such a pedigree, the story of the renowned composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (here well played by Tim Spears as a boorish prodigy) and his nemesis Antonio Salieri (masterfully played by Benjamin Evett), an inferior composer, was a brilliant choice for the company and its Artistic Director Jim Petosa, who directs this version impeccably. This work by Shaffer (also known for “Equus” and “Royal Hunt of the Sun”) is a highly literate, witty and amusing near masterpiece. Its final version made Salieri less of an observer and more at the center of his rival’s ruin. As those who have seen the play or film will recall, the action takes place in Vienna in 1823, with flashbacks to the decade 1781-1791. It concerns the efforts of a hapless Mozart to obtain more gainful employment in a number of official openings, most of which are sabotaged behind his back by the jealous Salieri. The intrigues perpetrated by Salieri grow more and more vicious and dangerous. Even the debuts of some of Mozart’s greatest works (“The Abduction from the Seraglio”, “The Marriage of Figaro”, “Don Giovanni” and most of all “The Magic Flute”) weren’t enough to gain him his elusive fortune, given Salieri’s tactics, part of his “war with God and His preferred Creature, Mozart…in the waging of which, of course, the Creature had to be destroyed”. Shaffer shows how Mozart’s view of his father Leopold evolved from the accusing figure of the Commendatore in “Don Giovanni” to the more loving, embracing Sarastro of “Magic Flute”, all the while ignorant of the assassin in his midst. Salieri’s final blow is convincing Mozart to betray the Masonic Order’s most secret rituals. While this is Shaffer’s fictionalized version, it provides great opportunities for displaying acting chops.
Salieri’s machinations involve Mozart’s wife Constanze Weber (McCaela Donovan, delectably complex), Count von Strack, Groom of the Imperial Chamber (Paul D. Farwell), the Kapellmesiter Bonno (Mark Soucy), Emperor Joseph II (Russell Garrett), Baron van Swieten, Prefect of the Imperial Library (Evan Sanderson), Count Orsini-Rosenberg, Director of the Imperial Opera (Jeffries Thaiss), Teresa Salieri (Emily Culver), Katherina (Esme Allen), the Cook (John Geoffrion), Salieri’s Valet (Nathaniel Gundy), the “Venticelli”, a gossipy Greek chorus (Michael Kaye and Paula Langton), and Gabriel Rodriguez (Ensemble). This large cast of fifteen is uniformly wonderful, especially Evett as the scheming anti-hero, in a performance that would exhaust a thesaurus of positive adjectives; it’s the role of a lifetime, and he is amazingly, breathtakingly flawless. The technical credits are up to New Rep’s estimable standards, from the strikingly beautiful Scenic Design by Cristina Todesco, to the beautiful Costume Design by Frances Nelson McSherry, to the intricate Lighting Design by Mary Ellen Stebbins and the impressive Sound Design by David Remedios. It’s a triumphal voyage with Petosa at the helm.
Salieri, at first seemingly triumphant in achieving his immediate goals, realizes his own fame is an embalmment for work he himself considers absolutely worthless, his sentence being “thirty years of being called ‘distinguished’ by people incapable of distinguishing”. While he stated early in life that it was “only through hearing music that I know God exists; only through writing music that I could worship”, his envy drove him to destroy a far superior creation. Yet even he sees the tragic in his triumph, realizing it is short-lived, that “Mozart’s music sounds louder and louder through the world, and mine faded completely, till no one played it at all”, moaning that he “must survive to see myself become extinct”. His unforgiving rage is directed against the God who, in total unfairness, created him mediocre. In the end, he confronts the audience: “Mediocrities everywhere now and to come: I absolve you all! Amen”. Whether or not you require absolution, you should make a pilgrimage to this wonderful resurrection of a marvelous play, if only for its power to transport theatergoers to a higher plane. In a year that began with the terrific “Kite Runner”, this is the perfect bookend to a very satisfying season. This production is so divine, it borders on the infallible.