The 2009-10 season at the Repertory Theater of Saint Louis has opened with a lively and polished production of Peter Shaffer's Amadeus, a semi-historical, semi-hysterical account of the relationship between Antonio Salieri, court composer to the emperor Joseph II of Austria, and the wildly talented and (in Shaffer's version) practically feral Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. It is crucial that Shaffer locates the play in Salieri's memory, and at a distance of a quarter century or more from the central eventsthat explains the liberties taken with the generally accepted biographical facts about both men. This is not Mozart as he lived and worked; this is Mozart as Salieri remembers him, at once more ridiculous and more sublimely gifted than the reality. And this is Salieri as Shaffer chooses to have the character remember himself, both less talented and more corrupt than historians have judged.
This sorts well enough with the fact that the play's epiceven Prometheanconflict between big God and little Salieri might seem ludicrous if taken literally. In the real world, Salieri was the most famous musician of the age, wrapped in public glory and accompanying wealth. In the memory of Shaffer's Salieri, he has desired only to glorify God but has been frustrated by his own mediocrity, at least as measured against what he believes are Mozart's divine gifts. Thus, he has rebelled, and vowed to frustrate God's plan (as he sees it) by destroying His chosen vessel.
From the first lines, Amadeus is deliberately stagy, deliberately designed to violate modern theatrical conventions. Two characters, nameless, each called simply Venticello, or "little wind, lead a chorus of whisperers hissing Salieri's name and floating rumors about his treatment of Mozart. This introduces the aged composer, who addresses the audience directly, and even requires at one point that the house lights be brought up so that he can see the audience.
From that point, the success of the evening is in the hands of director Paul Mason Barnes and actor Andrew Long, who must somehow haul the audience into the depths of Salieri's despondent and manifestly hysterical consciousness and make them care what goes on there. Though our sympathy is drawn to his remembered version of Mozart, especially during the scenes of Mozart's decline and death, this play is a concerto for Salieri and ensemble. Howling and whispering, hobbling and strutting, laughing and wailing, Long fleshes out Shaffer's dazzling lines with uncommon stagecraft, and creates a character both complex and convincing. Barnes conducts this intricate score with meticulous attention to detail.
Jim Poulos plays Salieri's Mozart with reckless abandon, but even the faint hint that Shaffer allows him of Mozart as a kind of pre-Romantic rebel doesn't give him enough of a toehold to make anything more of the role than an expertly rendered caricature. Except for Constanze Weber Mozart (nicely acted by Elizabeth Stanley) and the Emperor (a deft cameo by Joe Hickey), the background characters blend into the fabric of the composition.
Production values, as we have come to expect from the Rep, are at a very high level, indeed. Bill Clark's set looks and works well with the sizeable and frequently bustling cast; Dorothy Marshall Englis's costumes are convincingly of the period and beautifully made; and Peter Sargeant's lighting is both complex and subtle, a major element in the play's many shifts of mood and tone.
The Rep's production of Amadeus will run through October 4 on the mainstage; for ticket information, call 314-968-7340 or visit www.repstl.org.