'Where God only says one name – Mozart'

For Michael Hurst's performance alone, Amadeus is worth the watch.

Author Peter Shaffer
Director Oliver Driver
Musical Director Leon Radojkovic
Auckland Theatre Company
ASB Waterfront Theatre
To May 20

A child prodigy contrasts with a bitter old man eroded by decades of feverish jealousy – Amadeus is a story of music and madness, rejection and rivalry, divinity and darkness, where God “only says one name: Mozart.”

Peter Shaffer’s psychologically thrilling musical, winner of seven Tony Awards including best play is a powerful tale of ambitious envy versus inspired talent. Director Oliver Driver focuses on the central characters of the two musicians, Mozart and Salieri, whose rivalry is historically true. We are introduced to a sense of the latter's disordered world well before the opening scene.

With an untidy heap of crumpled music sheets emerging from under the opening curtain, we soon realise the sheets are merely the tip of a much larger, demented iceberg – every corner of the stage is swallowed up by clouds of angrily discarded compositions that surge and push upward to meet our protagonist: Antonio Salieri. The Italian classical composer, conductor and teacher, played by the brilliant Michael Hurst, is a dishevelled mess.

Embalmed in this mass of disarray, Salieri is portrayed as a 72-year-old, mentally warped and broken man, spitting rage at God for the fame that was never granted him but a "giggling child" instead. Having met the newly arrived Mozart in the Vienna court of Habsburg under emperor Joseph II, where Salieri is the official court-appointed composer, the musical genius of the rowdy young Wolfgang becomes immediately apparent. Salieri feels his emptiness “as Adam felt his nakedness.” His lusting for musical heights which he can only climb but never conquer, lead him to devise a plan that causes the blocking of opportunities and downfall of Mozart.

Contrasting the sometimes claustrophobic backdrop of Salieri's lair, Mozart, played by Ross McCormack, is young and spritely. He moves with ease and lightness, confidently carving and weaving musical notes into compositions that cut to the marrow of divinely inspired music over which Salieri can only salivate but never attain: “I was born a pair of ears, and nothing else. It is only through hearing music that I know God exists.” Slowly however, Mozart's character begins to unravel, and despite several microphone scratches that threaten to dismantle his performance, McCormack carries on without a flinch.

Born on January 27, 1756, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart began composing at the age of five, made public appearances by seven and, before dying at age 35, had produced a prolific body of work with more than 600 musical works and 24 operas such as The Marriage of Figaro and The Magic Flute. But with an intensely ambitious father in Leopold Mozart – himself a professional violinist – who pushed his young son to succeed, the pressure was often stifling.

In Driver’s version, Mozart himself is no saint, his bawdy humour and foul mouth belie a gifted but boorish and impulsive figure. His childish ways are echoed in that of his wife, Constanze, embodied by Morgana O’Reilly who is best known for her role as Kylie in the 2014 feature film Housebound. With her youthful cheekiness and charm, she participates in her husband's infantile games but also acts to remedy the seriousness of their financial decline, even at the humiliating hands of Salieri.

Soaring above the floating cumulus of music sheets encompassing other impressive cast members and band, is Madison Nonoa’s soprano role of Katherina Cavalieri. The “opera super star in the making” as described by Driver, offers welcome melodious beaks to the sometimes relentlessly morose dialogue of Salieri.

Still, Michael Hurst is a force to be reckoned with. For his performance alone, Amadeus is worth the watch. He is compelling, dripping with resentment and shaking with passion that wages war not with Mozart but through him toward God. Salieri will never “blaze like a comet” nor become the musical mouthpiece of God that is Mozart. He sourly accepts the taunting knowledge of his musical shortcomings but Salieri is not a figure to pity. Instead he demands his audience to submit and accept the same fate he has resigned himself to: “Salieri: Patron Saint of Mediocrities!”

Greatness is reserved for the deities and the chaotic mounds of crumpled sheets, broken dreams and unsung melodies are not only Salieri’s but ours.