A fitting tribute to the late Peter Shaffer comes in the form of this excessive revival of one of his most famous works based on the rivalry and relationship between Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Antonio Salieri, the Italian born Viennese court composer whose battle with God and his own self worth drives the narrative in this compelling drama. On the vast Olivier stage Michael Longhurt's production reeks of opulence as he combines not only a cast of 16 but a 20 strong orchestra, courtesy of the Southbank Sinfonia and a set of singers that come together to create the sort of epic theatre that only seems possible at the National.
Central to his concept is the total integration of the musicians to the wider mise en scène which quite rightly places the music at the heart of the production. Salieri's two Venticelli who keep him abreast of the gossip in Vienna are both central to the orchestra, blurring the line between performers of all disciplines that comes into fruition as they reject his demands to play his own music, choosing instead to settle on Mozart. By the end of the narrative Longhurst has the ensemble whipped into a pulsating bacchae of loss and adoration, as we see Mozart die penniless despite his remarkable achievements that go largely under appreciated in his life time.
At first the production seems over-amplified, over-cast and over-styled, and it certainly takes a little time to settle into its tracks. Lucian Msamati, a piercingly good Salieri, fights for attention above the literal and metaphorical noise, but once the action reverses and the story of Mozart in Vienna begins in earnest the focus narrows and Longhurst's production is allowed to take off. The key to his delivery is the duality of character - his public self seemingly sympathetic to Mozart's cause, yet his private self wresting with his own creative and personal demons that provide the impetuous for his drive, a balance Msamati astutely achieves, providing much needed groundwork for the production as a whole.
As a drama Shaffer overly relies on narration that threatens to tire our relationship with our protagonist. Carefully directed, scenes melt into one another and the pace never suffers, but the play comes to rely too much on our repartee with Salieri, and we become overly conscious of his perspective. Just as the court chide Mozart for using “too many notes”, I found Shaffer overwrites some passages, at times using too many words, particularly in the final sections and in his protagonist's central relationship with the divine.
Adam Gillen's contemporary edged Mozart bounds around the stage like a teenage Cocker Spaniel, blustering and bouldering from character to character with never a drop in energy or intention. It's a bold and suitably heightened portrayal, from his maddened white curls down to his colourful Doc Martins – he teeters on a knife edge of likeability, but within the wider aesthetic and exaggerated production his performance is wholly justified. Not only does he effectively capture the sense of tortured genius but also draws on Mozart's childhood exploitation by his father which probes his psyche in later life, manifesting, the play suggests, in Don Giovanni. Gillen's ability to command the stage is impressive and he is perfectly balanced against Msamati's more Machiavellian nature that together create a highly watchable theatrical alchemy.
There's considered support from Karla Crome as Mozart's wife and appropriate period foppishness from the court of Joseph II which helps to heighten the atmosphere, but the threat of such central integration of the musicians and singers meant that the drama did become overshadowed. There were times when I wanted to simply sit back and indulge in passages from the comic operas and of course the glorious Requiem Mass that becomes central to the composer's decline. That is perhaps testimony to the ensemble's careful delivery rather than my lack of attention, which remained gripped and engaged throughout the full three hours thanks to the high energy of both performances and production.
A giddy, stylish and opulent revival of total music theatre at its most exciting.
What the Press Said...
"Musicians are thrust centre stage to epic effect in Michael Longhurst’s revival, and Lucian Msamati is excellent as the composer locked in battle with the divine."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"A note-perfect production by rising director Michael Longhurst that gives it a fresh, vital and musically inventive new reading, one which fully confirms its classic status."
Dominic Cavendish for The Telegraph
"Longhurst has let the air of today into Amadeus in bravura fashion. It's a pleasure to report that the fourteenth Travelex season at the National has got off to such a triumphant start."
Paul Taylor for The Independent