If a show is only as good as its villain, then Amadeus is a great show. The title might refer to Mozart, but the show opens and closes with Salieri, the villain.
The play, by Peter Shaffer, was premiered in 1979 and has undergone several revisions by the author since that time. Of course, in 1984, the movie Amadeus won eight Academy Awards including best picture and best actor — for F. Murray Abraham as Salieri.
Shaffer was intimately involved with the production of the movie, but there are significant differences between play and film. Most notably, Mozart is relatively underdeveloped as a character in the play, and serves primarily as a foil for the development of Salieri’s character.
In my opinion, it is this villain-centric approach that makes Amadeus a compelling show. We experience Mozart through Salieri’s lens, and that is for the best. Any author's depiction of Mozart will naturally include the (posisbly distorted) perspective of the author. Putting Salieri in charge of the narrative relieves us of any controversy regarding the depiction of Mozart, since we experience Mozart as Salieri saw him, as opposed to Shaffer.
The format also keeps us music geeks from getting caught up in what was composed when, etc. Though for the record, the timeline of music within the show is pretty spot-on when compared to the historical timeline of Mozart’s compositions.
The show takes place in four large segments, each of which revolves around one of Mozart’s operas. We start with The Abduction from the Seraglio, then proceed through The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni before concluding with The Magic Flute.
It is his opposition to Mozart’s music which makes Salieri a great villain. Salieri’s relationship to Mozart is not man to man, but man to music. Salieri moves easily through the court of Emperor Joseph and outmaneuvers Mozart at every step, but Mozart’s music remains Mozart’s music.
And at the end of the show, Salieri is a defeated man. The victor is Mozart’s music.
Amadeus runs through October 6 at North Coast Repertory Theatre.