“Remember: art above all.”
That was the credo in Clara Wieck’s childhood home, as her tyrannical father ruthlessly prepared his prodigy daughter for a career as a star concert pianist. (“No dolls for a budding virtuosa.”) Her marriage to and musical partnership with the brilliant but mentally ill composer and critic Robert Schumann, her lifelong friendship with Johannes Brahms, Clara’s own (now increasingly respected) compositions, and her perseverance in an exhausting, independent concert career through her many years of widow- and single-motherhood have made her both a romantic figure and a proto-feminist heroine.
Recent decades have seen growing recognition of Clara Schumann’s importance to musical history beyond her roles as interpreter and muse for two of the 19th century’s most important (male) composers. Clara literally takes center stage in Virtuosa, Diane Seymour’s excellent new play with music.
Katrina Ferguson, whose warm yet brittle intensity reminded me a little of Cherry Jones, gives a bravura portrayal of the pianist-composer from girlhood through the first 50 years of her long career. (Born in 1819, Schumann played her last public concert in 1891.) Ferguson’s riveting interpretation encompasses the gamut of human emotion and experience. She and director Bruce Roach have chosen a big, declamatory acting style that works perfectly for the demanding role, which calls for Ferguson, all by herself, to both dramatize and provide the exposition for an entire life story that features outsized (though historical) characters.
Ferguson is Clara most of the time, but she speaks as her father, and Robert Schumann, and Brahms, as needed. Even more impressively, she conjures them even in dramatic scenes where she is just Clara: protecting a less musically gifted sibling from an angry Herr Wieck; excitedly leading Schumann and Brahms on a hike through the countryside; reacting with careful sensitivity to an unexpected marriage proposal; and, most touchingly, paying a heartrending visit to an incapacitated Robert at the asylum where his increasing lunacy has forced her to send him. (His symptoms are now thought to have been caused by syphillis and mercury poisoning.)
Ferguson’s self-conscious, captivating, highly enjoyable performance is paired with live music by concert pianist Allison Brewster Franzetti. Dressed just like Acting Clara, Pianist Clara sits onstage at a grand piano, playing, at appropriate times in the text, works by both Schumanns as well as Brahms and Chopin. Some pieces are presented as at a concert; others function as a musical score. The acoustics in the boxy 45th Street Theatre were not ideal for piano music, especially the dense, arpeggiated tone clusters found in many of these Romantic works. But the composers’ passion and Franzetti’s interpretive skill both shone through. Especially powerful were selections from Robert Schumann’s Papillons Op. 2 and Carnaval Op. 9, and Brahms’s Scherzo Op. 4.
Seymour’s script smoothly incorporates diary entries along with dramatized scenes, as well as two simple conceits: Clara tranquilly recollecting her life, and the pianist addressing adoring audiences all over Europe. It all adds up to a gaudy, shamelessly theatrical work, hence a bit old-fashioned, but a compelling and crowd-pleasing way to tell this classic story: romantic, elevated, and true. “Art above all” – art, the great distiller of life.
Virtuosa was presented as part of the 2007 New York Musical Theatre Festival. (Performances 9/19 and 9/20 only.)