Yes, Ernest Hemingway was born centuries after Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s death.
And it’s true that Hemingway is in no way a character in Peter Schaffer’s drama, Amadeus.
But he once said something about the world breaking people that could map out the entire plot of Schaffer’s play.
“The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places,” Hemingway said. “But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.”
And he was right. The world was in no special hurry to expedite Antonio Salieri’s death, which is ironic in one way, because Salieri was the respected one, the Austrian imperial Kapellmeister responsible for music at the court chapel and its attached school.
He had money and status, yet he’s popularly remembered as Mozart’s mediocre rival. Yes, mediocre, because Salieri’s name doesn’t warrant superstar status more than 200 years later.
Mozart’s does. He was innovative, exciting and passionate. His music came from somewhere beyond his heart, maybe even outside his soul.
But his behavior was erratic. Emperor Joseph II even declared that Mozart’s compositions had too many notes.
The emperor was Marie Antoinette’s older brother, by the way, and Mozart did cross paths with the doomed Queen of France.
But neither emperor nor queen were responsible for his death, and even as Salieri begins his confession when the curtain opens Thursday, March 7, at Ascension Community Theatre’s production of Amadeus, the Italian composer wasn’t responsible for Mozart’s death, either.
Now, those familiar with Schaffer’s story already know that Salieri’s commission of Mozart’s Requiem is the force that drives the young composer to his grave at age 37, but historians speculate acute rheumatic fever to be the true cause of his death.
Hemingway is probably closest to the truth.
The world couldn’t break Mozart, so it killed him.
Now, this doesn’t mean Schaffer’s story is a downer. On the contrary.
“The first part of the play is funny,” Ronald Coats said. “The second part is more serious. So, Mozart gets to be theater’s happy and sad masks in the same play.”
Coats plays Mozart in the Ascension troupe’s production, which isn’t a musical but incorporates Mozart’s music into the story. “The sound in this play is a character by itself,” Lorna Culmone Bourgeois said. She’s one of the theater’s founding members, as well as director of this play.
“Amadeus is a work that’s so big that it’s like producing a musical,” Bourgeois said. “It’s big for us.”
It’s big for any theater company. Amadeus debuted in 1979 at the Royal National Theatre in London, then moved to New York to make its Broadway premiere in 1980.
That production starred Ian McKellen as Salieri, Tim Curry as Mozart and Jane Seymour as Constanze.
Joining Coats in the Ascension cast is Nick Cardona as Salieri and Heidi Frederic as Constanze, Mozart’s wife.
“And Constanze was very much in love with her husband,” Frederic said. “She will do anything to see that he gets a position. She goes out at night by herself at a time when women didn’t do that, but she’s willing to risk her personal reputation to secure a job for her husband.”
She eventually contacts Salieri, who, she says, understands Mozart in a way others can’t. Salieri is, after all, a fellow composer.
“And she doesn’t know that Salieri is her husband’s killer,” Frederic said.
Well, killer in the figurative sense. Salieri is jealous of Mozart’s genius and renounces God, vowing to do everything he can within his power to destroy Mozart, thereby getting back at his creator.
But in reality Mozart is ill when Salieri commissions the Requiem. The Requiem wears down Mozart’s spirit, much like the world. “So, the play opens with Salieri as an old man, confessing,” Bourgeois said. “But he’s not seeking God’s forgiveness; he’s seeking Mozart. The whole story is told in flashbacks.”
And the story is played out on a sparse set, which allows the characters to drive the story. But don’t misunderstand. The set may be sparse, but actors will be dressed in full 18th century fashion, which takes some coordination for some actors to conquer.
“I’m really excited about the dress, but I’m no fan of the wigs,” Frederic said.
Think of the paintings of Marie Antoinette with her really tall hair. This was the same time period, and Constanze kept up with fashion.
“That’s going to take some practice,” Frederic said.
But Amadeus isn’t requiring much practice for Cardona. Oh, he has to rehearse; that’s necessary. But he played Salieri in Baton Rouge Little Theater’s production of the play in the 1990s, and the character is still with him.
“I remember a lot of it,” he said. “It comes back to me as we rehearse.”
Still, there are a few differences. Schaffer has revised his play 19 times up to this point. He even adapted one of those adaptations for the 1984 Academy Award winning film, Amadeus.
“I was curious about the changes he made and how they improved the story,” Cardona said.
“This version is his last, and it’s really the best,” Bourgeois said. Bear in mind that Schaffer’s story is a fictionalized account of the relationship between Mozart and Salieri based on real anecdotes, along with gossip through the centuries.
And in the end, the question of how this genius could be doomed to die at age 37 goes unanswered. Or does it?
Maybe Hemingway’s assessment was right.
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