Poor Salieri. Not only were the man's rather brilliant compositions dwarfed by those of a contemporary, but he is here also turned into a version of Cain for the sake of a good story. It seems both God and playwrights can prove equally unfair in their treatment of hardworking men. Peter Shaffer's tale of the mostly imagined rivalry between Mozart and Salieri examines a frustrating fact that is so profoundly confusing to the moral, industrious soul: One does not need to deserve genius, one has it or one doesn't. Salieri may dutifully labor over his compositions; Mozart takes dictation. As Shaffer makes Salieri say, "Goodness is nothing in the furnace of art."
Director/producer Brian Newell has chosen a surprisingly difficult play to produce; not only does it require lavish, transporting costuming--more than satisfied here by the extraordinary costumes of Lisa Book and Heidi Newell--but so many of its scenes are so lean, so loyal to the march of plot, that few of them give the actors a full arc to develop. The trick is making even those skeletal moments nevertheless theatrical. Newell mostly succeeds, offering us a clear, conservative staging that turns the audience into the opera house stage.
In the role of old Salieri, narrating the tale, Paul Castellano offers a solid, surprisingly unbuttoned performance dripping with pathos and frustration over his unfair God. The equally compelling Frank Tryon plays Salieri's younger incarnation. As Mozart, David Herbelin is giddy, charismatic, and sensitive, enraptured by the music in his head.
Herbelin and Tryon offer one particularly breathtaking scene that raises the level of the production from solid to captivating: the scene in which Salieri offers to take dictation from an ailing Mozart so that Mozart may complete his Requiem. A key moment in the play, this is perhaps the only moment in Salieri's entire life when he will know how it feels to effortlessly transcribe the music of God. Tyron plays this so smartly; rather than be irritated by this ability of his supposed rival, he is absolutely thrilled--almost ennobled--by this experience, as are we. It seems Salieri's pure love of music is perhaps deeper even than his desire for genius.
Sophie Areno shines as Mozart's dutiful wife, Constanze--radiant, generous, and suffering. Andy Brendle is another highlight, both as Father Vogler--Salieri's confessor--and as Schikaneder, the vile vaudeville house owner who presses Mozart for an opera.
The production is limited by several factors: Now and then actors fail to enunciate as well as we might wish, and they occasionally slip into very casual cadences and physical mannerisms that are unmistakably modern and American. Whether it's casually holding a hand on a hip or slouching, or whether it's how a phrase is pronounced, these are unfortunate blemishes that need to be promptly cleaned up. They threaten an otherwise solid production.