BAM Fisher, Brooklyn, NY; March 7 & 8, 2014

Cecly Placenti and Jerry Hochman

Daniel Mantei and musical ensemble in Ensemble for the Romantic Century's 'Tchaikovsky: None But the Lonely Heart'. Photo © Talya Chalef

Daniel Mantei and musical ensemble in Ensemble for the Romantic Century’s ‘Tchaikovsky: None But the Lonely Heart’.
Photo © Talya Chalef

It is sheer magic when all of the myriad elements of a theatrical production stand out like diamonds yet come together symbiotically and seamlessly. It feels like breathing.

Ensemble for the Romantic Century’s most recent production, “Tchaikovsky: None But the Lonely Heart,” is an intimate look into one critically important aspect of the distinguished composer’s personal and creative life. Like a good poem whose scope is narrow but depth vast, ERC examined Tchaikovsky’s bizarre and eccentric relationship with his patroness and friend, Nadezhda Filaretovna von Meck.

What delighted so much about this production was the way it was conceived. Using all of the elements of theatre and making manifest the breadth of Tchaikovsky’s contribution to the arts- song, dance, music, and acting, this is a chamber theater piece in which each element has its place, and its moment to shine.

The production, written by ERC Founder and Co-Artistic Director Eve Wolf and directed by Donald T. Sanders, traces Tchaikovsky’s relationship with von Meck from its beginning, through its end, and to his death a few years thereafter. Focusing on the composer’s frequent correspondence with her (they never once met in the 13 years of their relationship), Wolf and Sanders draw on the wealth of evidence left by him in letters and diary entries. Often dissatisfied with his work at the Moscow Conservatory where he taught, the composer longed for financial independence that would allow him more time to compose and alleviate the need for constant socializing and 19th century-style networking – both of which he intensely disliked. As if by divine intervention, Von Meck, a recent widow and virtual recluse, fell in love with the composer’s music and began pursuing him through letters and inquiries, deciding to help him financially through commissions and finally a generous annual pension. A condition of the gifts was that the two should never meet – which Tchaikovsky found perplexing, but which suited his personality as well as hers.

According to the program notes, in the entire history of Western music there is no other friendship that is as strange or as captivating as that between Tchaikovsky and von Meck. Staged perfectly, this production allowed glimpses into the neurotic, obsessive streaks both shared, into the tenderness of recognition between two kindred souls and lonely hearts, and the deep love of music that allowed such a relationship to be possible.

Visually, the small intimate stage is set up in a way in which each elemental diamond can shine and yet still be woven naturally into the bigger picture. Stage right is Tchaikovsky’s desk and study, askew with papers and compositions, where he sat to work and write to von Meck. Stage left is her sitting room, couch and small side table. Upstage center is the grand piano, vividly and achingly played by Ms. Wolf. Entering and exiting in and out of center are seated violinist Rachel Lee Priday and cellist Adrian Daurov. Symbolizing the fact of their physical isolation from each other, as well as von Meck’s preference that they never meet, Tchaikovsky, portrayed brilliantly by actor Simon Fortin, and von Meck played with sensitivity by Ariel Bock, are stationed in their respective stage positions, sometimes seated, sometimes standing or pacing, but, save for one moment toward the end of the performance, never crossing center stage. Separated by the magnitude of his music, represented by the instruments between them, they correspond back and forth with the music always as the underlying and connecting force.

Simon Fortin (Tchaikovsky) and Ariel Bock (von Meck) in Ensemble for the Romantic Century's 'Tchaikovsky: None But the Lonely Heart'.  Photo © Talya Chalef

Simon Fortin (Tchaikovsky) and Ariel Bock (von Meck) in Ensemble for the Romantic Century’s ‘Tchaikovsky: None But the Lonely Heart’.
Photo © Talya Chalef

The production featured a montage of Tchaikovsky compositions or excerpts, including the Intermezzo from “The Nutcracker” (arranged for solo piano), and, of course, “None but the Lonely Heart”. The composer’s intense and emotionally stirring scores, played in such a small space by world class musicians, sounded even more accessible and enjoyable than they otherwise would. They felt particularly breathtaking – like a private concert. Violinist Ms. Priday has a fierce and commanding stage presence blending lyricism and sharp attack beautifully. Mr. Daurov dazzles with his emotive and expressive cello playing. Together with Ms. Wolf’s exquisite piano performance, it was as if the three were having conversations with their instruments and we heard it in the notes they produced and the tempo with which they played.

But music played instrumentally was not the only expression of Tchaikovsky’s impact. At strategic points, it was sung beautifully by tenor Blake Friedman, and danced delicately and lyrically by Daniel Mantei, a dancer with American Ballet Theatre (who also created the choreography).

The physical appearances of the tenor and the dancer naturally expanded the visual depth of the production. But they also served a collateral purpose as physical references to Tchaikovsky’s homosexuality, both as a fact of his life and also as a hidden undercurrent in his music. At times, through the composer’s eyes and in Mr. Fortin’s transmission of his words, Mr. Friedman appears as an elusive object of attraction. Mr. Mantei’s presence is similar, but more complicated. He appears as an object of interest as well, rather than only as the representative of an art form impacted by the music, but his presence also has psychological undertones – he’s costumed in a white wig that makes him look effeminate, but at one point removes the wig to reveal himself as a young boy. So Tchaikovsky’s attraction to the dancer can be seen as sublimated passion. This dancer can also be seen as an ethereal representation of the composer’s elusive dreams of freedom: both from financial limitations, but more significantly from the burden of his great secret, his homosexuality.

Whatever secondary meanings these physical appearances may have, the power of this production was overwhelming, and gave meaning to Tchaikovsky’s own words in a 1877 letter to von Meck, and as proclaimed by Mr. Fortin: “… Music is indeed the most beautiful of all Heaven’s gifts to humanity wandering in the darkness. Alone it calms, enlightens, and stills our souls. It is not the straw to which the drowning man clings, but a true friend, refuge, and comforter, for whose sake life is worth living.”

The limited run of “Tchaikovsky: None But the Lonely Heart” is over, and we are not aware of any future scheduled performances. But it would be unfortunate for this production to simply disappear. Like the components of Tchaikovsky’s life that it weaves together, it is a gem. And gems, like diamonds, should be forever.