Sydney Opera House has kicked off its 50th anniversary program with the late Peter Shaffer’s best-known play Amadeus. The play has it all; ambition, obsession, betrayal, and a dash of comedy. Amadeus is everything you could ever want – theatre, opera, campy costumes and all set to some of the best music ever composed.
Having played Mozart in London and New York in 1999, acclaimed Welsh actor Michael Sheen takes on a new role as Antonio Salieri – court composer to Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II. Salieri, the leading composer of his day, believed he was touched by God and set to be his voice on Earth. However, he becomes utterly consumed by hatred and jealousy as he grasps the immense talent of a young virtuosic Mozart and recognises the limitations of his own mediocrity.
The play’s focus is on the inner turmoil and poisonous stew of Salieri. Rumours swirled around the Habsburg Court – and was even noted in Beethoven’s personal diary – claiming the frustrated composer poisoned his creative rival with arsenic leading to the untimely death of Mozart at the age of 35. We know it did not happen. However, the lie, further perpetuated by a deranged Salieri who in his years claimed he caused Mozart’s death.
Sheen embodies the essence of Salieri in all his complexities in a full and rounded performance. He demands attention as the revenge seeking achiever and garners our sympathies as the desperate creative eclipsed by a naturally gifted Mozart. Sheen’s delivery is eclectic, and the audience is under his thrall. He masterfully delivers each syllable with enough depth and breathe it becomes hypnotic. We wait eagerly as each word spills out of his mouth. His younger Salieri was sublime. Sheen portrays a full-bodied, witty, and clever man at the top of his game tortured by the greatness of another musician.
Rahel Romahn is the perfect Mozart and rival for Sheen’s Salieri. He portrays the free-spirited and uncouth prodigious genius with physical and vocal acuity. Romahn brings an unexpected magnetism and vulnerability to Shaffer’s infantile, vain, and vulgar Mozart. His descent into depression and madness is harrowing, while his iconic laugh is hilarious. Lily Balatincz as Mozart’s wife, Constanze, is just as impressive. She begins as the naïve and childish fiancé but later transforms into a mature and suffering wife.
Director Craig Ilott’s cast are believable – albeit the small roles they play. Honourable mention to Toby Schmitz as the cartoonish Emperor reduced to a comical catchphrase, Sean O’Shea as a facetious Baron Gottfried, and Michael Denkha as a stern Count Orsini-Rosenberg. The Venticelli, played by Josh Quong Tart and Belinda Giblin, are amusing as Salierie’s eyes, ears, and gossip mongers.
Under the baton of Sarah-Grace Williams, The Metropolitan Orchestra play exceprts of Mozart’s music live onstage. Musically, it is a rare treat and a genius move, which is further intensified when Salieri comments on Mozart’s work as it is being played. Award-winning costume designer Anna Cordingley teamed up with fashion house Romance Was Born to create a tantalising 21st century twist on the frocks commonly seen at Habsburg Court. The highly stylised costumes bring flavour and colour to Michael Scott-Mitchell’s deep-perspective set. A piano and antique wheelchair are situated on either side of the foreground, with a broad staircase leading to the rear of the stage, which is selectively obscured by two large sliding doors.
Whether the newly renovated Concert Hall is the appropriate fit for Amadeus is yet to be decided. The enormous auditorium and stage seems better suited for large-scale productions rather than dialogue-rich performances. Spectators seated far from the stage will miss nuanced facial expressions and exquisite costume details. However, the show’s scale – comprising of roughly 40 actors, musicians, and singers – amalgamates into a robust performance.
Salieri and Mozart are intrinsically linked. It’s hard-pressed to hear a conversation about Salieri without the mention of the musical genius. Amadeus explores the conflict between virtuous mediocrity and feckless genius. The feverishly imagined operatic tragedy directed by Craig Ilott for Red Line Productions is anything but mediocre. Amadeus is just as mischievous, surprising, and complex as a piece written by Mozart himself.
– Antoinette Milienos
Antoinette is a Journalist, Violinist, and chronic suffer of F.O.M.O (fear of missing out).
Amadeus runs for 2 hours and 50 minutes, including a 20 minute interval, and plays at The Sydney Opera House through to January 21, 2023. Buy tickets now. The venue is accessible.