“Amadeus” in the Concert Hall: Great Theater, Fine Playing


Roy C. Dicks, What's the Score?

By Roy C. Dicks: What’s the Score?

Raleigh – Dec. 5, 2010

Like most performing arts groups these days, the N. C. Symphony is trying out innovative ways to counter sagging ticket sales. It hit pay dirt Friday night with its own version of Peter Shaffer’s play, “Amadeus.” A co-production with Chapel Hill-based PlayMakers Repertory Company, the program was one of the most inventive and successful in many a season.

On December 3rd, Raleigh’s Meymandi Concert Hall was packed, the audience an abnormally broad mixture, including a number of teenagers. A factor was the appearance of popular “Ugly Betty” actor Michael Urie as Mozart; many also were fans of the 1984 film. They sat quietly rapt for the whole of this longer than usual program, proof of the venture’s quality and appeal (two additional performances took place on December 4th and 5th).

PlayMakers director Joseph Haj pared the play down to its essentials using only seven actors. This effective streamlining kept the plot focused and lively, especially with Haj’s adroit use of the space in front of and behind the orchestra, aided by Bill Black’s vivid period costumes and Michael Baumgarten’s dramatic lighting.

Four actors had been in Haj’s 2008 PlayMakers’ staging, including Ray Dooley as Salieri. Although arresting then, here Dooley rose to a different level, with riveting intensity, astonishing range and extraordinary control – a career-capping performance. Urie supplied wonderful contrast as Mozart: brash, conceited, child-like and scatological. Janie Brookshire’s long-suffering Constanze, Haj’s dim-but-kindly Emperor Joseph II and Jeffrey Blair Cornell, Jeffrey Meanza and Matthew Garner as a range of well-drawn characters, added to the high standards on display.

Music director Grant Llewellyn led his players in astutely-paced performances of Mozart excerpts (and one by Salieri), sampling serenades, concertos, symphonies and a number of vocal works. These were deftly integrated into the story, with fine contributions from soprano Jodi Burns and baritone Jason McKinney in arias and choral solos, as well as the orchestra’s 16-voice chamber choir, directed by Susan Klebanow.

The performance lasted two hour and forty minutes, the second act bogging down somewhat with lengthy excerpts that slowed the dramatic flow. Although this was meant to be a concert as well as theater experience, programming the complete first movement of Piano Concerto No. 23 (played with sparkling warmth by Bruce Murray) only a few minutes into the second act, and lining up three solemn choral selections in a row for the last 20 minutes, took some tension out the drama. Similarly, playing the full five-minute “Masonic Funeral Music” (K. 477/479a) as a coda, after the dramatic suicide of Salieri that ended the play, made for anti-climax. There also were some audio difficulties with the actors’ head mikes, the sound fuzzier the closer one sat to the stage (and, therefore, closer to the huge amplifiying speakers).

Despite these blemishes, this concert was a striking example of fresh programming. The public’s strong response should embolden the organization to continue such thinking for survival in new times.

[a version of this review appeared in the Raleigh News & Observer on December 5, 2010]