Monday, December 17, 2018

Amadeus as opera

One of the ways to approach the movie "Amadeus" is to think of it as opera--as a drama with a story and a lot of spectacle. There are in fact several things the movie has in common with operas that Mozart himself wrote.

The very first sounds we hear in the movie are the opening, crashing chords from Mozart's opera Don Giovanni. They are the very opening chords from the beginning of the overture, and they are there to foreshadow the chords that will sound in the opera's final scene when the dead commandatore, whom the Don has killed, comes back from the beyond to drag him to his punishment in hell. In the movie, these chords are also there from the beginning, and then don't come back until near the end of the movie. In this case, they have been repurposed to represent Salieri, in costume, trying to kill off Mozart by commissioning a Mass for the Dead, and then scaring him into thinking it is for his own funeral. These chords also represent Mozart's father in judgement over his son (at least in Mozart's imagination) and their second use is the scene in which Mozart sees his father, who is visiting Vienna, and bounds up the stairs joyfully. In this case, the somber music seems not to make any sense, but it paves the way for the later sepulchral symbolism, not to mention hinting that Mozart's relationship with his father may be a bit complicated!

This kind of use of a recurring idea is common to art, and in opera can depict characters or ideas, as in Wagner's celebrated letimotives. But this motivic connection isn't used so bluntly in many of Mozart's operas, and, in the movie, this is really the only instance of a repeated musical cue. The other pieces used in the soundtrack are heard only once.

Mozart's opera Idomineo includes a character making a vow to God in order to secure victory in battle. Enlightenment thinkers were not keen on the idea of vows to God. There were several reasons they didn't work, among them that a contract needed to be between equal parties, and obviously God and a human are not close to equal. There is also no way to be sure that God accepts the deal (an anxiety that Salieri deals with in the movie by saying to the priest after he relates the death of his father "If you were me, wouldn't you think God had accepted your vow?"). Finally, the enlightenment thinkers were deists, who didn't believe God interfered directly in the affairs of men anyway.

There is a long tradition, in opera and literature (and Greek tragedy, etc.) of persons trying to get their way by vow and oracle, and generally coming to a bad end, because in the end, God, or the gods, or fate, turns out to be too strong, or just plain inevitable. Salieri tries to have his way and it doesn't work, either. Yet he persists in his plot to scare Mozart by coming to his door in a mask and asking him to write a Requiem.

Salieri's plan to wear a costume represents another operatic convention. In Mozart's Cosi fan Tutte, for example, a major plot point revolves around two men dressing as foreigners to woo each other's girlfriends (in order to win a bet, which obviously makes it a great idea, right?). That the girls don't recognize the lads is essential in order to make this farce work. That Mozart would somehow not recognize Salieri, his close colleague, who in real life spoke poor German with an Italian accent, doesn't really make any sense unless you are so immersed in the drama not to notice.

Amadeus is full of such resonant connections. Even Mozart's own Marriage of Figaro, with its tale of servants one-upping their noble lords finds an echo in Mozart, the commoner with an attitude, somehow besting the aristocratically appropriate Salieri.

Of course, the relationship between art and life is often tantalizing, and Peter Shaffer plays this card frequently, as in the line about Hercules vs. the hair-dresser, or when Mozart's scolding mother in law morphs into the Queen of the Night (one of my student's favorite scenes).  Like Shakespeare's Hamlet, with the play inside the play, there are many levels to this movie. It is a movie whose characters are creative artists, whose subject matter seems to deal so often with artistic products, and whose story is itself another tale told by a creative genius. Like the character who wakes from a dream only to find himself inside another dream, there is no inside and outside. The works of art present in the movie (and some that are not) shine light on the plot of the "real life" itself. Mozart and Salieri, and everyone else in 1780s Vienna, are living inside the plot of their own opera. 

Oh, heavens!

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I'm going to take a break from my Monday series on Amadeus for a couple of weeks due to the holidays. There will still be blogs on Mondays, but the subject matter will be different. 

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