Mozart murdered? Unlikely, but it makes for an unusual play; Amadeus, Play by Peter Shaffer. Directed by Peter Hall. Starring Ian McKellen, Tim Curry, Jane Seymour

"Amadeus," the National Theater of Britain's controversial hit, has come to Broadway in a production that can only enhance its reputation, while giving New York playgoers the opportunity to discover what the controversy is all about. If the cheers of a first-night audience are any criterion, Peter Shaffer's complex, darkly probing, richly theatrical version of a real-life musical rivalry may well equal its London success.

"Amadeus" hangs on a much-discussed notion in music history: that Antonio Salieri (Ian McKellen), the 18th-century Viennese chapel-master, may have poisoned his contemporary, Mozart (Tim Curry). Salieri himself "confessed" this late in life, but although the old man's claim is not taken very seriously today , Mr. Shaffer suggests it may be true (based on Shaffer's own research -- he's a former music critic). Mr. Shaffer is concerned, however, with something far more disturbing than literal circumstance. Salieri presents the hypothetical case of an outwardly successful mediocrity who can not endure the fact that Mozart -- whose middle name means "loved by God" -- has been blessed with genius.

More perplexing and devastating to Salieri is that he has vowed to lead a pious and circumspect life if God will grant him fame as a composer. At first, Salieri keeps his pledge. But when it becomes obvious to him that, for all his fame, he is only a second-rater, the Italian compromises his vow. At the same time, he goes systematically to work to destroy Mozart -- in the end even helping induce the younger man's death.

For all of its satirical thrusts at the artificiality and hypocrisy of Viennese court life and its genuinely touching moments, "Amadeus" is mainly concerned with exposing the poison of hatred at work. There are no heroes on the stage of the Broadhurst Theater. Only as the play progresses does Mozart gain in sympathy. At the outset, this child prodigy who has never grown up is, in Salieri's words, "spiteful, sniggering, conceited, infantile." His language is scatological, his behavior often disgusting. He is no respecter of personages and he does not tolerate fools.

Yet the ultimate justification of his sublime self-confidence is the sublimity of the music he produced. In the face of illness and adversity, Mozart remains true to his genius and grateful for the help he thinks the hypocritical Salieri is proferring. In his extraordinary performance, Mr. Curry makes no false play for sympathy. The spectators' growing concern results from the complementary insights of playwright and player as they painstakingly explore the nature of the man.

If Mozart is the tragic figure of "Amadeus," Salieri presents the pitiable spectacle of an individual aggrieved by what he considers God's injustice and consumed with envy over a younger rival's superior talents. Mr. McKellen grasps the full implications of the vicious drives that gradually destroy what might have been a worthy man. The actor never lets the spectator lose sight of the malevolence beneath Salieri's bland exterior. Whether as the wasted figure of the prologue and final scenes or the composer in his prime, the magnificently delivered performance is filled with histrionic master strokes.

The beautiful Jane Seymour plays Mozart's long-suffering wife as a commonplace woman so devoted to Mozart that she is momentarily prepared to accept Salieri's advances as the price for her husband's preferment. Among the principals in the excellent company directed by Peter Hall are Nicholas Kepros as the fatuous Joseph II; Paul Harding, Patrick Hines, and Louis Turenne as court notables; Linda Robbins as Salieri's wife; and Gordon Gould and Edward Zang as the gossip-mongering "Venticelli."

The elaborate, stage-within-a-stage production designed by John Bury, who also did the costumes and lighting contrasts the gilded splendors of palaces and opera houses with the squalor of the impoverished Mozart's dwelling. The frequent musical quotations from Mozart -- plus a snippet of Salieri which Mozart mischievously improves upon -- were directed and arranged by Harrison Birtwistle.

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