Review: The Drama of Mozart’s Music (and Life) Fills Geffen Hall In NY Philharmonic’s ‘Amadeus: Live’
By Joanne Sydney Lessner, Contributing Writer, April 16, 2018
The New York Philharmonic’s April 14 screening of Milos Forman’s Oscar-winning movie Amadeus, with the musical score performed live, was bittersweet; Forman died the day before, at eighty-six. Conductor Richard Kaufman dedicated the presentation to Forman, and it was hard to imagine a more fitting tribute to the director, who shepherded the 1984 film to eight Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor.
It’s always a thrill to hear a film score played live, but unlike previous offerings in the Philharmonic’s “Art of the Score” series, which have included West Side Story and the original Star Wars trilogy, Amadeus is a movie about music: the writing of it, the performing of it, the insecurity it engenders, the sacrifices it demands, and its ultimate ability to both entertain and absolve. Peter Shaffer based the screenplay on his Tony Award-winning play, and while he completely reconceived the material for the screen (the scenes and dialogue are quite different), the story is the same. It may come as a surprise to those who have seen neither that the protagonist is not Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, but his rival at the Viennese court of Emperor Joseph II, the Italian composer Antonio Salieri. The title refers not just to Mozart’s middle name, but to its literal meaning “love of God.” This reflects Salieri’s perceived betrayal by the God he worships, who has denied him divine inspiration while preserving his ability to recognize it in the manic, foul-mouthed but undeniably brilliant Mozart. Shaffer’s tale is an unparalleled examination of vanity, hubris, desire, and redemption. If Salieri is not precisely the “patron saint of mediocrities” he declares himself to be after confessing his alleged murder of Mozart to a dismayed priest, he certainly stands in for any person faced with another’s superior abilities.
The movie features F. Murray Abraham’s award-winning turn as the solipsistic Salieri, one of the richest, most nuanced screen performances of all time. There are iconic contributions by the volcanic Tom Hulce (Mozart), cherubic Elizabeth Berridge (Constanze), and wryly terse Jeffrey Jones (Joseph II). Simon Callow, Shaffer’s original stage Mozart, makes a memorable cameo as impresario Emanuel Schikaneder, along with a kittenish Christine Ebersole as vain prima donna Katerina Cavalieri, and a teenaged Cynthia Nixon as the diffident maid Salieri hires to spy on the impecunious Mozarts.
Shot on location in Prague, the lavish production stints on nothing, least of all the score, conceived by Shaffer and Forman together, and originally conducted by Sir Neville Marriner. Some of the musical excerpts, like scenes from Mozart’s operas, are dictated by the plot, but others—such as the Commendatore’s indictment from Don Giovanni, which accompanies every appearance of Mozart’s intractable father, or Mozart’s transformation of his mother-in-law’s indignant shrieking into the Queen of the Night’s high-flying coloratura—provide ingenious commentary. Just as powerful are subtler moments, as when Salieri first hears Mozart’s music, the deceptively simple but sublimely beautiful Serenade in B-flat major, or the montage during which he realizes that Mozart’s original manuscripts contain no corrections.
Perhaps nothing can match the intimacy of the final scene between the two composers. Mozart, on his deathbed, ekes out the “Confutatis” from his Requiem one vocal and instrumental line at a time, while Salieri acts as his amanuensis, a role taken in real life by Mozart’s pupil, Felix Süssmayr. Admitted finally into the genius’s mental and physical inner sanctum, Salieri witnesses Mozart’s creative process and comes as close as he will ever get to possessing it, even as he struggles to keep up with the dying man.
Meanwhile, in Geffen Hall, the singers of Kent Tritle’s Musica Sacra and the various sections of the orchestra seemed to be composing the “Confutatis” live as Hulce, on screen, called for the tenors and basses, the bassoons and basset horns. While the vocal soloists, which included Thomas Allen, Felicity Lott, and June Anderson, were left intact on the original soundtrack, the choral excerpts were performed live with the orchestra. Kaufman, in his Philharmonic debut, could not add much interpretive gloss; his primary responsibility was to synchronize all the elements, which he did with a click track in his ear and a small video screen with streamers signaling important musical arrival points. His precise, unfussy leadership provided a fascinating contrast with the romanticized gestures of Hulce and Abraham as they “conducted” their onscreen orchestras.
The Philharmonic played with a richer, more romantic sound than the crisper, chamber-sized Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, and stayed flexible enough to move with Kaufman when incremental tempo adjustments proved necessary. All the instrumental soloists sounded as good as those on the original soundtrack, including pianist Eric Huebner, who played the second movement of the Piano Concert in D Minor, which runs through the closing credits.
Amadeus: Live has its final performance on Tuesday, April 17 at 7:30 p.m. at David Geffen Hall.
Art of the Score — ‘Amadeus: Live’ presented by the New York Philharmonic in David Geffen Hall, Lincoln Center, April 11-17, 2018. Conducted by Richard Kaufman; Musica Sacra, Kent Tritle, conductor; Alec Baldwin, artistic advisor.
Cover: Richard Kaufman conducting the New York Philharmonic in ‘Amadeus: Live;’ photo: Chris Lee.