by Cathleen Myers
Yes, I loved Amadeus - both Peter Shaffer's play and his screen adaptation (directed by Milos Forman). Although it's not fashionable to say it, I prefer the film version with its many lush arrangements of Mozart's music, including scenes from the operas (In the play one wonders why everyone was making such a fuss over the little twit.). Yet there are some odd, unaccountable historical inaccuracies in the film. Truth is indeed stranger than fiction and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's real story is much stranger and much more dramatic than Amadeus.
Salieri in the film is certainly lying about never having "laid a finger" on Katerina Cavalieri, the dazzling German coloratura soprano. She was, in fact, his mistress and they made no effort to conceal their relationship. Katerina, actually shared a box with Salieri at a performance of "The Magic Flute" - certainly a good way to advertise your position as official mistress. Mozart himself gave them a ride to the theater. Why, then, in the film does Salieri attend the performance alone?
It’s also highly unlikely that Katerina and Mozart were having an affair before his marriage. Mozart did write a dazzling coloratura aria, "Marten aller Arten" in Abduction from the Seraglio (and admitted that he had "sacrificed the music a little to Mme. Cavalieri's flexible throat" in another aria), but she probably didn't have to sleep with him to get what she wanted. An 18th century operatic composer was the servant of the singer. More to the point, Mozart himself claimed not to have slept around before he married Constanza! To be fair, there is some evidence that Mozart had a later affair with Nancy Storace, the pretty English soprano who created the part of Susanna in Marriage of Figaro (Nancy made a point of burning his letters before her death).
The Emperor Joseph II, whose tag lines in the film is "So there it is!" and "uh...HUH," was certainly not the agreeable Monty Pythonesque twit he appears to be in the film. He was a humanist with some advanced ideas about human rights and good, if conservative, musical taste. His oft-quoted line "Too many notes" is not an unjust criticism of Abduction from the Seraglio, an opera whose most dramatic scene (during which the heroine is threatened with torture and rape) is suddenly interrupted by a lengthy orchestral introduction to the soprano's coloratura showpiece.
The Emperor was certainly not bored by The Marriage of Figaro, which was actually quite a smash hit, and he himself described Don Giovanni as "divine...possibly even more heavenly than Figaro." What drove Figaro off the boards was not the Emperor's indifference or the cabals of Mozart's enemies, though there were such cabals, but the immense popularity of Martini's comic opera Una Cosa Rara, which, incidentally helped popularize the waltz in 1787.
The scene in Amadeus about the controversial "ballet" which almost got "Marriage of Figaro" banned from the stage is based on a historical incident, but the film uses the wrong music: Mozart provided actual dance music (the Fandango adapted from Gluck's ballet Don Juan) for the wedding dance; it was NOT danced to the Third Act March. The film’s conductor Sir Neville Mariner should have known better!
And why is the breath-taking damnation scene from Don Giovanni so dully staged and why is the actor playing Don Juan so unattractive when the original actor was a 27-year old hunk?
Leopold Mozart's shock and Wolfgang's embarrassment at seeing Constanza stand on a table to show her legs during the Forfeits game (another scene based on an actual incident) is more understandable when one realizes that in reality she would not have been wearing drawers, as she is in the film.
In reality, Leopold's seemingly inexplicable disapproval of his son's marriage to sweet Constanza Weber was probably disapproval of her scheming family, whom he regarded as users. Here again, truth is stranger than fiction. Wolfgang had been actually been engaged to Constanza's beautiful older sister Aloysia, an aspiring young operatic soprano who jilted him shortly after receiving her first theatrical contract. Leopold was afraid that Constanza's mother and guardian were trying to re-trap his son into marriage or were contemplating a breach of promise suit - a not unjust suspicion. The guardian actually pressured Wolfgang into signing an agreement to pay Constanza 300 ducats a year if he didn't marry her (which Constanza, to her credit, tore up).
The film certainly did a good job of portraying the raucous music theater of Emanuel Schikaneder, librettist, producer, and star of Mozart's "Magic Flute." But Schikaneder was also a genuine Renaissance man - a great German Hamlet, a fine operatic baritone, a writer, producer, director and entrepreneur - not merely the fast-talking con artist of the film (although he was probably that, too!).
The film unfortunately perpetuates the myth that Mozart's operas were semi-autobiographical - that the Commendatore in Don Giovanni is modeled on Leopold Mozart while the Queen of the Night is based on Frau Weber, Mozart's shrewish mother-in-law. Actually, the Commendatore is pretty solidly based on the original Commendatore in Moliere's play Don Juan and I doubt if Frau Weber had much in common with the dazzling Queen of the Night, although - truth again being stranger than fiction - the part of the Queen was actually created by her eldest daughter Josefa!
To a modern audience fascinated by conspiracy theories, Salieri’s elaborate conspiracy to destroy Mozart in the film seems plausible. But the film’s account of Mozart’s death differs radically from the only eye witness account we have of it - by Mozart’s wife’s youngest sister (see the last section of Volume III of Mozart’s letter, edited by Emily Anderson). We have fairly good evidence that the commissioner of Mozart’s Requiem was not Salieri but a Count Wiegener. And, dramatic though the film's Requiem scenes are, it seems unlikely that Salieri was taking dictation from Mozart on his deathbed. The scribe was apparently Mozart’s protégé Sussmayr.
In reality, Mozart and Salieri seem to have patched up their differences by at least the last year of Mozart’s life - well enough for Salieri and Katerina to make such a show of attending "The Magic Flute" and cheering every song. Salieri may, of course, have just been playing politics but he does seem to have developed a thorough appreciation of Mozart’s genius - at least as an operatic composer. In this respect, the film is certainly accurate. Both Salieri and his mistress assured Mozart that they "had never seen a more beautiful or delightful show."
Where the film rings true is in its portrayal of Mozart's uncanny improvisational ability, his computer memory and instant recall, his effortless skill at composition - "without setting down his billiard cue" - his talent for languages and his genius for musical and verbal mimicry. That the divine Mozart could also curse like a sailor, improvise obscene verses and even talk backwards was also true (Read his letters and comic song lyrics!), though I doubt Salieri and his faction would have been as offended by Mozart's language as he is in the film. The late 18th century was not noted for its delicacy of language. However - all quibbles aside - this moving and hugely entertaining film is still an excellent introduction to Mozart, his music and his world.
Highly recommended for further reading: The three volume collection of the Letters of Mozart and His Family, edited by Emily Anderson (Volume 3 contains an eye witness account of the composer’s death).
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