Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) is one of the best known Russian composers of the romantic period. He’s often cited as the country’s first “full time” practitioner of the classical art thanks to thirteen years patronage from Nadezhda von Meck (1831-1894), millionaire widow of a railway tycoon. This extraordinary relationship was maintained solely through (sometimes daily) correspondence and apparently reached intimacy rivaled only by the composer’s relationship with his brother Modest.
Free to go his own way, Tchaikovsky combined Western composition practices learned at The Saint Petersburg Conservatory with indigenous sounds and rhythms developing iconoclastic style. Ensemble for The Romantic Century once again offers mixed genre “time travel” centering on this long distance liaison and, secondarily, the man himself, his passion, insecurity, restlessness, depression and the toll of clandestine homosexuality. (Research shows the Russian upper classes and cultural elite accepted homosexuality as long as it was discreet.)
First let me say that whatever caveats I have about the production itself, musicians Stephanie Zyzak (violin), Ari Evan (cello) and Ji (pianist) are more than worth the price of a ticket. The first rate, symbiotic trio (they seem to breathe in unison) who appear to have been playing together for years (not true), interpret Tchaikovsky with power, nuance, vigor, and comprehension contradicting their collective youth.
To watch (as well as listen to) music course through these artists is to palpably feel every nerve and sinew come alive. Heads revolve or jerk, eyebrows rise, nostrils flare, grimaces surface and fade as do smiles. Moments of complicity – fleeting looks between Zyzak and Evan are empathetic, pain and joy infectious. Not a second of this is obtrusive/distracting. Every minute enhances. Transporting.
Stephanie Zyzak, Shorey Walker, Ari Evan
Music includes, in part, Nocturne for cello and piano; Trepak, from The Nutcracker, arranged for violin and piano; Piano Trio in A Minor; Net, tol’ko, kto znal (None but the Lonely Heart) op6, no 6; Otchego? (Why?), op 6 no. 5…
The piece begins in 1876 with von Meck’s (Shorey Walker) written thanks to Tchaikovsky for quickly executing a commission. At the time, the known composer (Joey Slotnick) was a professor at the Moscow Conservatory who lived within modest means. We hear him assure this newfound kindred spirit that connection was based on more than financial support and von Meck respond that at “45 years-old, practically dead,” hers was one of spiritual rebirth.
Joey Slotnick; Shorey Walker
In addition to excerpts from letters and musical interludes, tenor Adrian Kramer and ballet dancer Daniel Mantei intermittently perform, personifying young men in Tchaikovsky’s life. The composer became infatuated with those in his class, especially the nephew to whom he dedicated his sixth Symphony, but procured among men of much lower social status. The latter is indicated with neither costume. A missed opportunity.
I looked at the heavens, the bright firmament;/high, high it rose above the abyss. Lively stars danced in the fire/and I had a childlike wish: I thought we would be better in that lofty realm. (Vcherashnaya mich’/ “Last Night”, op. 60, no. 1 -text by Alexy Khomayakov) Kramer sings. His voice is melodic and resonant, though it abrades a bit with volume. Emotion is restrained until the last, goodbye song.
In an earlier production by this company super titles projected translation. These are sorely missed. We’re at a loss as to what’s being expressed until reading the program afterwards.
Dancer Daniel Mantei has a tiny bit of space in which to perform among period furniture. This might be sufficient if he displayed an ounce of emotion. Should the player embody uncaring beauty (justifying passivity), then Tchaikovsky must at least lean forward indicating admiration and desire. He does not.
Disconnected facial expression is the tip of the iceberg in this widely misdirected piece. (Director Donald T. Sanders.) Shorey Walker’s von Meck looks predominantly arrogant/angry/sour even when ostensibly rapt at music or touring beautiful Florence – making clumsy, distracting rounds of the stage, picking her way through obstacles during monologue and music. Walker reacts to the dancer – signifying what? hovers behind and touches!? the composer, and is spot-lit during an aria over Tchaikovsky’s body when she should be absent or in shadow. The actor is either terribly miscast, very poorly directed, or both.
Adrian Kramer and Joey Slotnick
Joey Slotnick fares somewhat better as Tchaikovsky , though he’s instructed to look down or away from almost everything except the music. For a passionate character, the actor displays little except during a why-did-you-abandon-me speech.
The two matter-of-fact performances sit oddly in a production filled with theatrical sturm und drang. Evidently, it was the director’s decision to present them as regular people. I find this out of place. The presentation flags just a bit each time someone speaks – having nothing to do with text. A bit of melodrama, sharper enunciation and characterization would help.
In 1890, von Meck abruptly cut off contact from Tchaikovsky. Whether this was because, as her brother in law wrote, she was both physically and mentally ill, or, as is sometimes implied, she was protecting the composer from blackmail that threatened to reveal his “inclinations,” has never been clear. He reproached her on his deathbed.
Isn’t it here,/my angel, my protector, my friend,/that you are talking softlty to me/and flying quietly around like a shadow? (Moj genij, moj angel, moj drug (“My Angel, My Protector, My Friend”) text by Afanasy Afanas’yevich Fet)
Eve Wolf’s script illuminates the relationship between Tchaikovsky and von Meck with the protagonists’ own words (from letters and diaries). A few more lines about the composer’s sexual proclivity (he wrote to his brother in depth about this) would have made choices more clear, explained a marriage that lasted 2 ½ months, and warranted manifestation of men in his life. Otherwise the piece is well written.
Scenic and Costume Designer Vanessa James, who also executed the company’s terrific Van Gogh’s Ear, evokes era and sensibility with painterly authenticity.
Photos by Shirin Tinati
Opening: Joey Slotnick and Shorey Walker
Ensemble for the Romantic Century presents
Tchaikovsky- None But the Lonely Heart
Written by Eve Wolf, Founder and Artistic Director
Directed by Donald T. Sanders
The Pershing Square Signature Center
480 West 42nd Street
Through June 17, 2018