Thursday, 14 February 2013

Exeter University Theatre Company production of Peter Shaffer's 'AMADEUS' Exeter Northcott Theatre Wednesday-Saturday 6-9 February 2013

Emma Cann
Peter Shaffer's 'Amadeus'
Many thanks to Producer, Emma Cann, and actors, Sam Rix and Michael Smith, for their fascinating interview on Tuesday 5th February interspersed with the music of Wofgang Amadeus Mozart and Antonio Salieri. We heard that they were preparing a production of Peter Shaffer's 1979 play 'Amadeus' - which is perhaps better known in Milos Forman's 1984 film version.

Stepping into the shoes of Tom Vulce and F. Murray Abraham as Mozart and Salieri were Exeter University Theatre Company actors, Ryan Whittle and George Watkins. George had most of the lines. He not only acted the part of Salieri in his thirties, but also narrated the whole story as the 74 year old Salieri, sitting in a bath-chair and anticipating his imminent death.

The play is a dramatisation of the possible cause of Mozart's early death - persecution by the jealous, previously established, court musician, Antonio Salieri. In the original play by Alexander Pushkin, made into an opera by Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Mozart is poisoned by Salieri. In Shaffer's version, Salieri exploits Mozart's eccentricities to engineer his social downfall and financial ruin. Mozart then dies a pauper and is buried in a 'common grave'.

We must remember that this is not a very accurate account of Mozart's career. Mozart and Salieri were rivals for some posts - for example, Salieri was given the position of music teacher to Princess Elisabeth of Württemberg in preference to Mozart - but no great enmity existed between them. Mozart's career was very much in the ascendant when he died, tragically young, at the age of 35. The clinical signs recorded include 'miliary fever' (a raised rash) implying infection, and the current thinking tends towards rheumatic fever as the cause of death.

Mozart was buried in a common grave, as described in the play, but that was true of everyone in Vienna at the time who was not a member of the aristocracy. There was nothing exceptional about Mozart's case.

The play is therefore more fiction than history - a fiction which makes a very handy vehicle for extracts of Mozart's own musical work.

In this EUTCo production we were treated to Mozart's music played live by members of the Exeter University Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Jack Campey and led by Kit Fotheringham. Ali Board was at the tympani providing a thrilling percussion sound, and Emma Bettany led a brilliant brass fanfare.

Also in that small orchestra was violist Zoe Fitzsimmons, who was recently a soprano soloist at the Exeter University Choral Society performance of Bach's 'B Minor Mass' on the eve of World AIDS Day (Saturday 1st December 2012), which was repeated at the Great Hall on Wednesday 5th December.

For the solo arias in this production of 'Amadeus', Zoe's voice could be heard rising from the orchestra pit. A beautiful and haunting sound, rightly described by Emma Bettany as 'the voice of God'.

For the extracts from Mozart's 'D Minor Requiem' (completed by Franz Süssmayr after Mozart's death) the men and women of the Exeter University Choral Society came into the auditorium and sang directly towards the stage, a very effective piece of stage management.

For coordinating all this wonderful music we must remember one person in particular - 'former' Director of Music (although still working just as hard!), Marion Wood.

On a less positive note, the use of recorded music was not so successful. The sound did not evoke the mood of the period, and drowned out the cameo lines of many of the actors with minor parts. This was a great pity, but understandable as the script calls for more music than the small orchestra and choral group could have provided.

Giving George Watkins a concealed microphone to enhance his narration was an inspired innovation, but made the inaudibility of the other actors more noticeable. Attempts by the tech team to adjust George's volume to compensate for the swell of the recorded music were admirable, but jarring to the ear anticipating a 'classical' sound.

In addition to magnificent performances by George Watkins and Ryan Whittle, Felicity Gardiner Cant stood out as Mozart's fiancée, and subsequently wife, Constanze. Felicity's natural red hair was exquisitely coiffed in the style of the time (no wig needed!). Whoever was responsible for that work needs a special mention. ('Your name here'!)

And what of Sam Rix and Michael Smith, who gave such an entertaining and informative interview with Producer Emma Cann on Tuesday? They appeared on stage as Court Chamberlain, Count Johann Killian von Strack - puffed up and pompous with a jutting lower lip, and Court Librarian, Count Gottfried van Swieten - humourless, but unintentionally humorous. They added that sparkle of comedy to every scene, which kept the production light, despite its tragic theme.

At the opening night, as the clock ticked towards a full three hours of performance, George delivered his final unfinished sentence as the dying Salieri, racked by remorse for his (supposed) mistreatment of Mozart. sitting among the strewn manuscripts of Mozart's compostions, his words were drowned by swelling funereal music.

An incredible, flawless performance. Congratulations once again to the Exeter University Theatre Company (expertly directed by Josh Lucas), Exeter University Symphony Orchestra, and Exeter University Choral Society, for an evening of truly classical entertainment.

The final curtain call
on a stage littered with manuscripts
of Mozart's music.
Mozart (Ryan Whittle) exits stage right.
Centre stage: Antonio Salieri (George Watkins)

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