After being dark last season, during a £22 million redevelopment, the 1962 Grade II* listed Chichester Festival Theatre returns brightly with Peter Shaffer’s music melodrama Amadeus. The place hasn’t changed too much but it has been enhanced, with more spacious foyers, and a new café and bar opening out onto terraces overlooking the parkland, an increased capacity, refurbished seating and steeper raking bringing better sightlines, as well as a flexible stage and improved backstage facilities. And Shaffer, whose association with the theatre goes back 50 years to The Royal Hunt of the Sun, is a fitting choice for the reopening.
His controversial 1979 play (later turned into an Oscar-winning film) focuses on the relations between rival composers Mozart and Salieri at the court of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in late 18th-century Vienna. The extremely unreliable narrator/protagonist Salieri, as an old, wheelchair-bound man in the 1820s, brings to life the events of 40 years before when he claims to have murdered Mozart. Having made a ‘deal’ with God to dedicate himself to a virtuous, devout life in return for fame as a composer, he feels betrayed when the brash and irreverent young Mozart threatens to outshine him, his natural, uninhibited talent making Salieri all too aware of his own disciplined and repressed mediocrity. His bitter jealousy spurs him to ruthlessly calculating revenge.
The historical accuracy of the sensational scenario and clashing personalities depicted in Amadeus may be highly contentious (though of course we see everything through the distorted if not demented eyes of Salieri), but we do know from Mozart’s letters to his father that he thought Salieri and the Italian contingent who then held sway at court were preventing him from getting the work he desperately needed. However, proven fact does not matter too much in this imaginative exploration of the nature of artistic creation and the relationship of man with God. Shaffer’s operatic play is a brilliantly structured account of a conflict between two fundamentally opposed approaches to art and life.
It resonates thrillingly on Chichester’s famous thrust stage in Artistic Director Jonathan Church’s superbly fluid production, moving easily from the intimate to the public, with whispering scandalmongers and applauding audiences adding social context. Simon Higlett’s excellent baroque design of ornate chandeliers, tarnished mirrors and marble-like black sun-ray floor contributes much to the darkly seething and decadently sensuous story.
Rupert Everett – returning to Chichester following his success as Professor Higgins in Pygmalion a few years ago – gives a bravura performance as the ever-present Salieri, convincingly morphing from hunched septuagenarian to elegant courtier, his scheming envy shot through with mordant humour, always aware of the sharp irony that it is only he that fully appreciates Mozart’s musical genius. And he is matched by Joshua McGuire’s arrogantly childish and naively iconoclastic Mozart, a potty-mouthed force of nature who somehow acts as a conduit for some of the most divine music ever created.
Jessie Buckley also impresses as his equally high-spirited but more pragmatic wife Constanze, while John Standing is suitably po-faced as a count outraged by any breach of etiquette and Simon Jones makes an amusingly cheery, none-too-bright Emperor Joseph II who has little idea of the intense struggle going on around him.