(4MBS Festival of Classics)


By Peter Shaffer

Grand Hall, Masonic Centre, Brisbane

Professional production

We’ve seen the film Amadeus, so we know that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was a potty-mouthed precocious little genius who managed to rile all those in contact with him, while dashing off sublime music with a billiard cue in one hand. So it must be incredibly difficult to strike the right note in playing Mozart without either tarnishing his hallowed gloss or burying him under lathers of burlesque. Especially in this, his anniversary year, when audiences are already overwhelmed with Mozartiana. It’s a remarkable balancing act that actor Tamu Matheson can keep us on-side, laughing though often aghast with Wolfgang in his excesses, barracking for some shreds of patronage from the snooty upper-class, feeling his frustrations and then desolation at the news of his father’s death.

Was precious young Wolfgang really so foul-mouthed, so obsessed with bodily matters, so flighty? Unfortunately for those who try to preserve him in chocolate-boxed marzipan coating, his letters are testament to that. Young Mozart was all too prone to shooting his mouth off and himself in the foot. It’s been suggested that his genius was spiked with Tourette Syndrome, typified by his love of word play, hyperactivity, fidgets and mood swings. Matheson plays him with frenetic vitality and yes, with that infectious high giggle the latter less grating than in the film. His airy hand flourishes while improvising the now famous Figaro March are slick and witty. Peter Shaffer’s brilliant text gives him fast streams of nonsense rhyming talk along with its dense layers of psychological insights.

Matheson portrays a convincing lively and likeable character. After his frenetic high spirits rolling Constanza on aristocratic carpets, the despair of his last scenes contrasts darkly. We share his struggles through failing health to finish his Requiem, fending off visions of a beckoning grey-caped figure.

Nose-thumbing the patrician moneyed-class when starving is hardly a wise career strategy, yet would the upper class hierarchy have put more commissions and students his way in spite of his offending them if it were not for the crafty machiavellian manoeuvrings of Antonio Salieri, his rival? It would seem the early prayer of Salieri, who became that court composer for the Emperor of Austria in the late eighteenth century, has been answered: “Lord, make me a great composer. Let me celebrate Your glory through music and be celebrated myself. Make me famous through the world. Dear God make me immortal. After I die let people speak my name forever with love for what I wrote. In return I will give You my chastity, my industry, my deepest humility, every hour of my life, Amen.” So far so good.

Until he hears Mozart’s sublime music and compares his own mediocrity with its sheer genius the “voice of God” coming from an “obscene child”. “That was Mozart. That! That giggling dirty-minded creature I had just seen, crawling on the floor!” The battle front changes, as does the theme from professional jealousy and subterfuge, to God’s granting divine inspiration and mediocrity. “From now on we are enemies, You and I. Because You choose for Your instrument a boastful, lustful, smutty, infantile boy and give me only the ability to recognize the incarnation.”

Despite its title, the play belongs to Salieri and his determination to destroy his rival. The real battle is with God: “Because You are unjust, unfair, unkind I will block You, I swear it. I will hinder and harm Your creature on Earth as far as I am able. I will ruin Your incarnation.”

Ann Street’s Grand Masonic Hall is a fitting performance venue, as Mozart was himself a Mason and his opera The Magic Flute is steeped in Masonic rituals though one wonders how the host Masons of today might take Mozart’s words: “They say the Masons poison people who offend them.” However the venue presents challenges and limits the staging options; the production is presented in the round or rather, the rectangle. To the direction’s credit, one rarely feels alienated by actors’ backs and the resulting intimacy is a plus, if one can call saliva sprays, sweat stains and visibly unhooked bodices such. There’s a sense of voyeurism as Salieri bares his soul barely a metre away. Yet it’s a brave venture to use this venue, as the sheer logistics of lighting the stage often risk power-surges. Given these challenges, it managed to rise to the scope of Salieri’s dramatic opening invocation: “I wanted fame to blaze like a comet across the firmament.”

Kerith Atkinson as Constanza, Mozart’s wife, is charming and vital; the delivery of her second baby is affected on-stage with no-nonsense ingenuity. Of the minor characters, the two Venticelli characters (Dragitsa Debert and Nicole Denington) whose whispers of “Assassin” introduce the opening scene, are crisp in enunciation; Emperor Joseph II (Nick Backstrom) is perhaps too bumbling and homespun; yes, he’s famous for the “too many notes” comment, but surely even with Hapsburg inbreeding some patrician nobility filtered through? It doesn’t help that his costume appears derived from an antiquated dressing gown.

This is, of course, Salieri’s play and Eugene Gilfedder is nothing short of brilliant, commanding the stage with nuances ranging from the subtle to powerful, making it his own. He effects seamless transitions from age 31 to 78 by donning a dressing gown and changes of posture. It’s obvious that for Gilfedder this play is a passion rather than a mere role. He lives and breathes Salieri, bringing out the dignity and intelligence, relishing each word. The combination of Shaffer’s powerful script and Gilfedder’s depth of portrayal means that as villains go, this Salieri wins the audience vote. It’s an engrossing and satisfying evening.

Directed by Tama Matheson

Playing Friday 19 May, Saturday 20 May and Sunday 21 May, 2006 at 8pm

Duration: 2 hours 30 minutes with a 20 minute interval

— Ruth Bonetti
(Performance seen: Fri 19th May 2006)