National Theatre, Olivier
Broadcast on NT Live – 2 February 2017
ONE OF THE GREAT NIGHTS… The old man’s eye is unforgiving, his squat wrecked strength of will cows the vast room as he invokes us – “ghosts of the future” – to hear his confession. “You must understand me. Not forgive: understand”. Antonio Salieri, opening and closing a stormy three hour memory-play, must persuade posterity that he killed the upstart genius Mozart, and thus share a twisted immortality.
The decade’s destruction of his soul is brought before us by Lucian Msamati in the performance of a lifetime (even for him). He evokes all the great immortal yearnings that his rival’s music brings, all the rage of virtuous mediocrity unrewarded, all the agony having your soul moved by the God-given, effortless talent of “an obscene child!” who is the great artist. Msamati seethes, struts, writhes and falls like Satan himself, never loosening his grip on the pain . Or on us.
Set against his enraged solidity is the preposterous figure of Mozart himself: the slight, exuberantly silly prodigy kept childish and dependent by his father, the frolicking, foul-mouthed pest who without laying down his billiard cue or his latest mistress can conjure miracles of grace and spirituality and have whole operas complete in his head to scribble down on hands-and-knees on top of the nearest fortepiano.
It is a famously daunting part, because he must be both appalling enough to repel us a bit yet – in the desperate final decline Salieri manages for him – aware like a desperate child of the greatness and eternity of his gift. Adam Gillen goes at it with unsettling energy: think Fotherington-Thomas on benzedrine doing a Kenny Everett impression with a bad dose of Tourettes. In the second half her draws out with particular finesse the vulnerabilityo of the man-child; his final scene with Salieri is almost unbearably painful, as the great Requiem throbs around us.
It was time Rufus Norris’ tenure at the national saw one of those landmark, memorable five.star opening nights: two thirds of the audience on their feet calling back a huge ensemble (its never all, NT regulars tend to think standing ovations are common). Now we have that great moment. Peter Shaffer’s extraordinary imagining about great art and great envy in the 18c Austrian court has its first revival to be staged its original home, and under director Michael Longhurst, designer Chloe Lamford and Imogen Knight’s movement direction, everything the play needs for perfection and awe is thrown at it. It is stupendous. Some revivals skimp on the moments of music, for few can afford an onstage orchestra and singers , and if you do it is hard to use them in abruptly cut-off fragments which serve Salieri’s furious, overwhelmed glances at sheet music; or to create great swelling chorales and full-dress chunks of opera. almost as asides.
But here, on the Olivier’s vast stage, we have it all. And each of the envious Kapellmeister’s pained, jealous descriptions of a high lone oboe or a cascade of crunching harmonies is there, before us, live, astonishing still. The Southbank sinfonia clamber, reform, sink into a pit or, in one terrifying moment, on a stepped platform slide triumphantly downstage towards the sobbing, retching Salieri, their celestial harmonies and glowing brass and varnish nearly running him off the edge. The soloists – especially Fleur de Bray – are marvels, the chorales stirring, the moments of ornate 18c absurdity and carnival make your eyes pop. And the orchestra becomes a Greek chorus at times, emitting alarming musical pulses and discords or moving in their black suits like a threatening sea.
Nothing jars, except that the whole theme is jarring: asking questions of all who try to create and know far they -we – fall short. Tom Edden is very funny as the crisp philistine Emperor Joseph II, as are Geoffrey Beevers, Alexandra Mathie and Hugh Sachs as his courtiers; Karla Crome earthily touching and real as Mozart’s longsuffering wife, particularly fine in the seduction scene. It’s wonderful. That the author died this year before he could see this production is painful to think.
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On screens nationwide 2 February 2017
Sponsor: Travelex, 14th season!
(this is an extra one for the musicians)