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Caustic 'Amadeus' opens at Folger

Antonio Salieri (Ian Merrill Peakes) pleads with God in Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus. Photo: Courtesy of Folger Theater

The lead ingredient in Peter Shaffer's Amadeus is vitriol, from the character of Antonio Salieri and directed not at Mozart, his supposed rival, but at the God who created him. In the brilliant film adaptation directed by Milos Forman, a few years after the play was premiered, Shaffer's screenplay version softened this element somewhat. The script's caustic hatred is again in the spotlight in the new production of the play, directed by Richard Clifford at Folger Theater, seen on Monday evening.

Wielding the words in a tour de force performance is Folger regular Ian Merrill Peakes, who commands attention at all times on stage as the obsessed Salieri. Peakes navigated the emotional shifts of the character masterfully, veering among Salieri's worshipful devotion to music (even Mozart's), his courtly polish, his wry humor, and above all his spiteful resentment toward the God who gave him the gift to recognize sublime music but never to compose it.

Other Reviews:

Peter Marks, ‘Amadeus’ at the Folger will be music to your ears (Washington Post, November 12)
It is worth noting that Schaffer drew the lines of his fictional Salieri before the remarkable resuscitation of the real composer's music. In particular, the recordings of the operas made by Christophe Rousset with Les Talens Lyriques reveal a creative force, someone whose musical expertise, especially in vocal writing and counterpoint, made him among the most sought-after teachers in his day.

The remaining performances in the cast do not feel quite in the same class. Samuel Adams grapples with the unpleasant qualities of Schaffer's characterization of Mozart, the outsized ego, the vulgar humor, and the inane laugh all based on the composer's biographical traits. He did not quite manage to find the sympathetic core of the part. Nor did Lilli Hokama's Constanze, Mozart's wife, get far beyond the angry outer shell: her anger at Salieri's sexual harassment when she seeks his help was an emotional high point. The two whispering, gossipy Venticelli are a somewhat irksome plot device, given a biting edge more by Louis Butelli than his partner Amanda Bailey.

Clifford's direction keeps the play moving forward, an asset in a work that covers a lot of terrain, and the lavish costumes designed by Mariah Anzaldo Hale provide most of the show's 18th-century opulence. The single set, designed by Tony Cisek, evokes the strings and scrolled necks of the violin family, a pleasing gesture to the aura of music that fills the play. The crucial musical parts are integrated seamlessly by sound designer Sharath Patel. What remains at the end, though, is the righteous outrage of the Enlightenment mind of Salieri, an accusing finger raised to God.

Amadeus runs through December 22.

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