From his deathbed, the composer Antonio Salieri rails at the gods that his name will live forever, "if not in fame, then in infamy."
Wracked with bitter jealousy, the 18th-century composer instantly recognizes the genius that is Wolfgang Mozart in Peter Shaffer's celebrated play "Amadeus." Since there is no way to compete with such brilliance, the scheming Salieri sets out to destroy it in this lively revival of the classic drama. Smartly directed by Lisa Mallette, this ever-popular tale of music and history runs through April 19 at City Lights Theater Company in San Jose. It's an ambitious, if imperfect, undertaking for a small troupe that always tries to punch above its weight.
Best remembered for Milos Forman's 1984 film version starring F. Murray Abraham and Tom Hulce, "Amadeus" is the story about the undying nature of great art and the all-too-vulnerable nature of great artists.
A child prodigy hailed all over Europe, Amadeus (George Psarras) was weaned on the pursuit of the sublime. As a young adult, he's a brash oaf given to boozing and womanizing, but he would rather die than compromise his music to suit the pedestrian tastes of the court. As the Salzburg wunderkind begins to gain acclaim in the splendid court of Emperor Josef (an apt set by Ron Gasparinetti), his reputation grows to the point where it challenges the insecure Salieri, who scornfully refers to his nemesis as "the creature."
Aware that his own music is modest at best, Salieri (Aidan O'Reilly) fears his own dominance on the culture scene will slip, and he lashes out to protect his own meager talent. Salieri goads Amadeus into taking terrible risks, smiting the powerful and biting the hand that feeds him.
O'Reilly endows the vile Salieri with the passion of the cursed. The actor, who is legally blind, fills Salieri's interpretations of music with a palpable sense of euphoria and dread.
Psarras imbues the wunderkind with a devil-may-care intensity, sucking down bad wine, chasing after his wife, Constanze (a bubbly Roneet Aliza Rahamim) as well as every other skirt that crosses his path, and delighting in potty humor. The music pours out of him in a fugue, as if he weren't the creator of such sublime compositions, but merely the delivery system. The actor captures both Mozart's early giddiness and his later despair.
Both central performances are committed and penetrating. While many of the play's scenes of court life lack vitality -- the various barons and counts need nuance, and the pace in this three-hour production can be sluggish -- "Amadeus" still soars, particularly in its musical moments. For the record, Psarras and O'Reilly actually play the piano in Act 1.
If this revival never quite reaches the emotional volatility that Shaffer's drama demands, it's hard to resist the charms of the play. Shaffer ("Equus") captures not only the seduction of music, but also the fickle nature of aesthetics. Most of the culture vultures of that era truly could not hear the difference between mediocrity and greatness.
The Emperor himself dismisses one of the Mozart's finest works because it has "too many notes." The public yawns at "The Marriage of Figaro." Salieri became the toast of Vienna while Mozart died all but destitute. That tragedy is what makes this such an enduring yarn.
By Peter Shaffer, presented by City Lights Theater
Through: April 19
Where: City Lights Theater Company, 529 S. Second St., San Jose
Running time: 3 hours,
Tickets: $17-$32, 408-295-4200, www.cltc.org