There is a moment in "Amadeus," Peter Shaffer's drama about Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, that is simultaneously wrenching and enchanting. That is when Antonio Salieri, Mozart's less-talented rival composer, hears Mozart's music for the first time.
He hears the Adagio from the B flat Wind Serenade. It is famous now. Most recently, it was adapted as the main theme for the movie "Bright Star," about English poet John Keats. But to Salieri it was new -- and devastating.
"The beginning -- simple, comic," he marvels. "Just a pulse, bassoons, bassett horns. Like a rusty squeezebox. Then -- suddenly -- high above it! An oboe. A single note, hanging there, unwavering. Until ... a clarinet took it over, sweetened it into a phrase of such delight! This was no composition by a performing monkey. This was a music I had never heard. Filled with such longing -- such unfulfillable longing! It seemed to me I was hearing the voice of God."
"Amadeus" goes on to pose a series of questions. What if the wealthy, successful Salieri found himself consumed by envy and by despair at his own mediocrity, next to Mozart's genius? What if -- as was rumored at the time -- he went so far as to bring about Mozart's death?
The questions confront such issues as envy, ambition, immortality and God. They hinge on the beauty of Mozart's music.
That is why the Chautauqua Theater Company's "Amadeus," taking place Thursday at the Chautauqua Amphitheatre and Saturday at Artpark, promises to be something special. The music is taking center stage.
Instead of recordings, the audience will hear the music played by a live symphony orchestra. In Chautauqua, the play features the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra and Music Director Stefan Sanderling. The Artpark audience will hear the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra and its music director, JoAnn Falletta.
Director Vivienne Benesch sees the live orchestras as contributing humanity to the drama.
"Every orchestra has its own personality comprised of individuals. JoAnn Falletta and Stefan Sanderling are both phenomenal music directors in their own right, with different points of view," she says. "I'm excited to see what happens with these different energies."
Benesch adds that music has mysterious powers.
"You feel immediately connected to a part of your soul that often words distract you from," she says. "In a lot of ways, this is true of musical theater. The power of music is, it circumvents all of our defenses -- language is one of our defenses -- and gets straight to the soul."
>The lethal curve ball
Salieri will be played by Michael Stuhlbarg, who made his movie debut last year starring in the Coen Brothers' "A Serious Man." He is looking forward to stepping into the shoes of the bedeviled Italian maestro.
"Salieri is the only one who understands the depths of Mozart's achievements," Stuhlbarg reflects. "He wishes he has a greater gift. He wishes he could create music like that."
To Salieri, Stuhlbarg suggests, Mozart's music is vivid and personal.
"If there's one music he knows better than his own, it's Mozart's," he says.
Most people know "Amadeus" chiefly through the 1985 Milos Forman movie. Stuhlbarg saw the film way back when, but does not plan on watching it again as he readies for his role. He fears being too influenced by the performance by F. Murray Abraham.
He has, however, been turning Salieri over in his mind. He finds a lot to admire.
"I think a young man who at the age of 16 who devotes himself purely to music, who promises to live virtuously, and to celebrate God through music and to also look out for his fellow man, he sounds to me like a very noble person," he says. (In real life Salieri was known for kindness, often accepting students -- including Beethoven and Schubert -- at no cost.)
"I think he is surprised at what happens to him during the course of the play," Stuhlbarg continues. "He starts out in life with great ambition and hopes, and he gets thrown a curve ball by the presence of another person in the world. It changes him completely. He finds he's capable of very dark things."
Mozart's sense of humor could be coarse, and Shaffer exaggerated these qualities to make his dramatic points.
Blake Segal, the 24-year-old Chautauqua Conservatory actor who plays Mozart, sees the positive side of his character.
"To me, Mozart is what people would want to be if they weren't concerned by social norms, about impressing certain people," he says. "He's human, for better or for worse, mostly for worse. Everything that children have, that we think is beautiful in children, and distasteful in adults, Mozart still has."
Segal notes that even seen in a more mature light, Mozart is emotionally uninhibited.
"You see a man really engaged without the fear of doing it publicly. He battled all of his demons constantly with whoever was in the room. I don't think we deal with problems unless we're with a therapist. You deal with your own things, not wanting to make anyone have to suffer. Mozart was so beautifully human. Everything came out."
The idea of contrasting Mozart and Salieri did not begin with Shaffer. When Salieri died, in 1825, it was rumored that he had confessed on his deathbed to poisoning Mozart. Beethoven and his friends talked about it.
The Russian poet Pushkin wrote his poem "Mozart and Salieri" only a few months after Salieri's death. The poem was subsequently made into an opera by Russian composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.
It adds a poignant note to the drama that while Salieri rages against Mozart's genius, he recognizes the greatness of Mozart's music, and feels it deeply.
Benesch loves the part of the play when Mozart's wife, Constanze, brings Salieri a portfolio of Mozart manuscripts. As Salieri looks at them, he hears the music in his head, and despairs.
"He gets frantic, thinking, how can Mozart write that?" Benesch says. "How are there no markings? His reaction to the music leads him to this manifesto, where he literally says, 'Now, my war is with you, God. Now for the first time I feel my emptiness as Adam felt his nakedness.' He had prayed to God, 'I will be good and virtuous, if you will let me serve you in music.' And for most of his life he thought it was all going well."
Benesch points out that Salieri's conflicts resonate with all of us.
"We all understand jealousy and envy, no matter what you do in your life, and why are some people granted something and others not," Benesch says.
She even hints that Shaffer identifies with Salieri.
"Peter Shaffer is a notorious rewriter. It completely relates to this play," she says. "He is the artist who is never satisfied, somehow, trying to get it better. I think Peter Shaffer has great empathy for Salieri. I don't think he is minimizing his gift. Because Peter Shaffer is Salieri. Most of us are Salieri."
If that's true, everyone wins. It could be that, partly because of "Amadeus," Salieri has turned out to be immortal after all.
He has a substantial entry in Wikipedia, which reports that more and more of his music is being recorded. A piano concerto by Salieri was used in the 2008 movie "Iron Man." Opera superstar Cecilia Bartoli released "The Salieri Album."
In Venice, a bust of Salieri sits in front of the beautiful Teatro Salieri, which plays host to an annual Salieri Opera Festival.
In short, though the movie "Amadeus" shows Mozart having the last laugh, Salieri could be getting in a few laughs of his own, as this strange story of music and madness takes hold of us once more.
It is a powerful drama.
"It haunts me in the best way," Benesch says. "That's why I'm excited, we get to tell this fabulous story."
Amadeus, through the years
1791: Mozart dies, age 35.
1825: Antonio Salieri dies, age 74. Pushkin writes poem, "Mozart and Salieri."
1896: Rimsky-Korsakov writes opera, "Mozart and Salieri."
1979: Peter Shaffer writes "Amadeus."
1985: Milos Forman's film of "Amadeus" wins eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
1985: Patrick Stewart stars as Salieri in "The Mozart Inquest."
1985: Viennese-born rocker Falco sings "Rock Me Amadeus," with videos set to scenes from the movie. The song is a massive No. 1 international hit.
1991: Observance of the 200th anniversary of Mozart's death.
1998: Falco, 40, dies tragically after his car is hit by a bus. He is buried in Vienna's Central Cemetery, the final resting place of many musicians including Beethoven, Schubert and Salieri.
2007: Debut of "Wunderkind Little Amadeus" on public TV. The cartoon whimsically portrays Mozart's childhood, along with bad guys out to get him and his family.
2009: Debut of French comedy musical, "Mozart L'Opera Rock."
Summer with the BPO
7 p.m. Wednesday: Cheektowaga Town Park. Paul Ferington conducts. Flutist Jilene VanOpdorp performs Mozart's Flute Concerto in G. Free.
8 p.m. Friday: Buffalo waterfront. "Hollywood at the Harbor." Matthew Kraemer conducts. $22.
3 p.m. Next Sunday: Kloc's Grove, West Seneca. BPO tribute to the Grateful Dead. $15.
2 and 8 p.m. July 26: Artpark. Clarinetist Sal Andolina in tribute to the big-band era. $24.50-$29.50.
8 p.m. July 31: Artpark. JoAnn Falletta conducts Part 1 of a two-day Beethoven and Brahms Festival. Cellist Jules Eskin and BPO Concertmaster Michael Ludwig solo. $15-$48.
3 p.m. Aug. 1: Artpark. Soloist is pianist Jon Klibonoff. JoAnn Falletta conducts. $15-$48.
For Artpark events: call 754-4375 or visit www.artpark.net.
For BPO events: call 885-5000 or visit www.bpo.org.