The romance of Robert and Clara Schumann -- the furtive courtship, the blissful early years, the tragic ending -- have always suggested the stuff of dramatic theater. Tonight, in a sense, it became just that, when the New Victory Theater hosted a performance of Twin Spirits, a semi-staged reading of passages from the Schumanns' love letters and diaries, with musical interludes. Conceived by writer-director John Caird, who has staged drama and opera but is probably best known for his productions of Les Misérables and Nicholas Nickleby with Trevor Nunn, the show was presented this evening as a one-night-only benefit for the valiant charity Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS.
My primary interest in attending Twin Spirits was musical, since it provided an opportunity to hear singers Thomas Meglioranza and Lisa Saffer (the latter replacing the originally announced Barbara Bonney), violinist Joshua Bell, cellist Alisa Weilerstein, and pianists Jeremy Denk and Natasha Paremski all at once. The fine actor Jonathan Pryce narrated the show. But more titillating to several coworkers to whom I mentioned the show were tonight's Robert and Clara: respectively, rock star Sting and his wife, actor-producer Trudie Styler.
The simple, elegant single set, by veteran stage and television designer Howard Clausen, placed Sting and Styler at the front of the platform, in elegantly upholstered vintage chairs. The singers were seated similarly, Meglioranza to Sting's right, Saffer to Styler's left. Two grand pianos were angled behind the singers, with the keyboardists facing in -- Denk behind Meglioranza and Paremski behind Styler. Continuing the male-female opposition, Bell sat in the curve of Denk's piano, while Weilerstein was placed on a platform against Paremski's instrument. Pryce was seated upstage, at a point bordered by the pianos' ends. Tall floral arrangements and a chandelier completed the set. Howell Binkley's sensitive lighting design directed attention to featured performers in turn, and subtly extended the overall mood.
The show -- a taut 90 minutes with no intermission -- alternated between words and music in a seamless flow; while the Schumanns' compositions played a supportive role, they were generally treated respectfully, rather than merely as ornamentation. Moreover, the musical selections, presented mostly if not entirely in chronological progression, unfailingly echoed the mood of the letters or diary entries they followed. The "Preambule" from Carnaval, neatly arranged by Martin Ward for two pianos, violin and cello, served as an opening fanfare, following which Denk and Paremski alternated in selections from Kinderszenen. When the infatuated Robert and Clara, held apart by her domineering father, agreed via post to conjoin on some spiritual plane by performing Chopin's Variations on "Là ci darem la mano" at a prearranged time, Denk and Paremski followed with a playful rendition of that work.
A song apiece by Robert and Clara illuminated their swelling romance: Meglioranza and Denk offered a meltingly lovely rendition of Robert's "Stille Tränen," which Saffer and Paremski countered with Clara's radiant "Er ist gekommen in Sturm und Regen." The singers were brought together in Robert's duet "Er und Sie," midway through which they met at center stage; a gentle touch, a meaningful glance, and they parted, as had Robert and Clara. Her burgeoning fame as a soloist and composer were depicted with an arrangement of the Andante from her Piano Concerto (played by Paremski and Weilerstein), his melancholy struggle by the second of his Op. 94 Romances (Bell and Denk).
Robert and Clara's union, finally effected in 1840, was celebrated with a performance by Meglioranza and Saffer of the Mozart duet on which Chopin's elaboration was based. Robert's subsequent happy fecundity found expression in four selections from Dichterliebe ("Die Rose, die Lilie, die Taube, die Sonne," "Wenn ich in deine Augen seh'," "Ich will meine Seele tauchen" and "Ich grolle nicht"), lovingly and excitingly sung by Meglioranza, with Denk a superlatively alert accompanist.
This, we know, was not to last. Haunted by the early deaths of Mozart and Schubert, Mendelssohn and Chopin, Robert Schumann soon began to slide into his own slow deterioration. Clara's heartbreaking "Sie liebten sich beide" spoke to the couple's growing alienation, during a time in which not only was she bearing and rearing the couple's eight children, but was also the chief (nearly sole) breadwinner through her performances. Estrangement continued even as Robert's handsome young protégé, Johannes Brahms, became an extended family member; here, Saffer and Paremski appropriated another number from Dichterliebe, "Ich hab' im traum geweinet."
A failed suicide attempt and two-and-a-half years of institutionalization left Robert scarcely able to communicate; the futility of his attempts was conveyed by his "Stille Liebe," given an utterly haunting performance by Meglioranza and Denk. Despite the watchful care of Clara and Brahms, Robert Schumann died alone in asylum, set here to the "Traumerei" from Kinderszenen affectingly played by Bell, Weilerstein, Denk and Paremski, during which Sting rose and left the stage. The narrative noted that Clara rebuffed a later romantic overture from the devoted Brahms. (This may depart somewhat from reality: Jan Swafford, if I recall accurately his enormously informed and engaging Brahms biography, suggested a more challenging scenario, in which an emotionally stunted Brahms was actually provided with an opening, only to prove unable to act upon his youthful impulses.) Here, the notion of a love lasting beyond the grave was preserved; Sting came forward to lay a hand on his wife's shoulder as Meglioranza and Saffer sang Robert's "Frage," and the evening ended heroically as Bell, Weilerstein and Denk played the dashing finale of his Piano Trio in D minor.
That this combination of musicians would provide a worthy experience had never been in doubt, but if I'd experienced any misgivings in the casting of Sting and Styler as Robert and Clara, they were swiftly put to rest. Not a thespian noted for subtlety, Sting delivered Robert Schumann's lines with abundant wit and genuine affection, while refraining from overplaying the composer's mental decline; Styler enacted Clara's fastidiousness and tenderness in equal measure, with real sympathy. In the end, the casting of a celebrity couple well known for public displays of affection proved entirely suitable.
Still, I would argue that Twin Spirits hardly requires such star power to convey the drama of its subject. The romance of Robert and Clara Schumann, as depicted here, is a tale that packs as much relevance and potency as many a more famous fictional tale -- a fact proven by the laughter and sighs of tonight's audience, which I did not take to be a classical-music crowd in the main.
In fact, I'm not convinced that this production is best suited to a mainstream theater crowd at all. What struck me most is that Twin Spirits might very well prove a solid-gold offering for a regional chamber-music society looking to expand its appeal beyond a core subscriber base. The fact that this particular production was animated by top-notch musicians was not lost on me, but --and I promise that I mean this as high praise -- given its bare-bones set and a scenario that deals in sensations far more universal than the milieu of two long-dead German artists, I see no reason why Twin Spirits couldn't be massively successful if performed by local musicians, with Robert and Clara read by morning-television personalities or the like.
Moreover -- praise again, please note -- this is a show that would surely intoxicate many a high schooler predisposed by the likes of Romeo and Juliet. I'd love to see someone try it.
[Update: Thomas Meglioranza, who really ought to be resting up since he's got a devilish recital coming up next Wednesday, has posted about last night's show on his blog. And Jeremy Denk's musings have just appeared here.]
Queensrÿche - Operation: Mindcrime II (Rhino)
Robert Schumann - Piano Trio in D minor - Jacques Thibaud, Pablo Casals and Alfred Cortot (Naxos)
Peter Maxwell Davies - An Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise - Royal Philharmonic Orchestra / Peter Maxwell Davies (Collins Classics)
James MacMillan - Veni, Veni, Emmanuel - Colin Currie, Ulster Orchestra / Takuo Yuasa (Naxos)
Felix Mendelssohn - Symphony No. 3 in A minor, "Scottish" - London Symphony Orchestra / Peter Maag (Decca)