by Julia Polinsky
Where does passion live, in the head, the heart, or the art? In Tchaikovsky:
None But The Lonely Heart, the Ensemble for the Romantic Century takes a
beautiful look at Tchaikovsky’s music and his deepest relationships, his
passion and, yes, his loneliness.
The Ensemble for the Romantic Century creates staged
reading/concerts of chamber music, melding multiple art forms into drama. Is Tchaikovsky:
None But The Lonely Heart a play? Not necessarily, but it’s deeply
dramatic. Ensemble for the Romantic Century’s work makes for some interesting
hybrids, demanding much from actors, and even more from musicians.
In Tchaikovsky: None But The Lonely Heart, Joey
Slotnick as Tchaikovsky, and Shorey Walker as Madame Nadezhda von Meck, have
the difficult task of bringing to life the letters, and relationship, of two
people who never met in person, but knew each other very well, and very
In a world in which email and texts have taken the place of
correspondence, it’s hard to understand the power of letters. Yet the Romantics
celebrated by this ensemble -- the artists, the composers, the novelists -- wrote
copiously, revealingly, about their desires and hopes, their love and thoughts.
The Ensemble for the Romantic Century uses such correspondence as the basis for
examining the lives of the artists it features. Sometimes, projections flesh
out the mental imagery evoked by those letters, and the music that brings them
to life, but in Tchaikovsky: None But The Lonely Heart, the
actors basically have to sit through a magnificently performed chamber music
concert and make it look alive, without ever interacting directly with each
Joey Slotnick and Adrian Kramer
Not so easy. So, author and artistic director Eve Wolf and
director Donald T. Sanders include tenor Adrian Kramer, who sings beautifully
as he embodies the object of Tchaikovsky’s desires, and dancer Daniel Mantei
who seems to be the Spirit of Tchaikovsky’s Music.
The black box theater, with front row seats practically on the
performance floor, makes for terrific intimacy at the same time the “fourth
wall” must be preserved. Vanessa James’s set, crowded with two desks on
opposite sides, a grand piano, and seats for the violinist and cellist, barely
leaves space for the splendid dancer to move, never mind dance so beautifully.
Beverly Emmons creates moody and, yes, romantic lighting design.
The whole thing is an exercise in recognizing and valuing intimacy
and distance. Why is irrelevant. That separateness, loneliness, and physical
distance can coexist with intellectual and spiritual unity between two people
who never meet: this is the true kernel of the show.
Everything else is set dressing, sometimes literally. To
trivialize Tchaikovsky: None But The Lonely Heart by reducing it
to a series of incidents would be past bearing, but the gist is: Tchaikovsky’s
patron, Madame von Meck, supported him for years, and then suddenly stopped
answering his letters; he died without hearing from her again. Basically,
that’s the entire plot. Tchaikovsky never knew why she withdrew from their
intimacy, and although people speculate that it had to do with revelation of
his homosexuality and possible scandal because of it, the truth remains
unknown, as does the truth of his death: horrible mistake, or suicide?
As magnificent as are the chamber works chosen, particularly the
Piano Trio in a Minor, op. 50, they’re just barely worthy of the staggeringly
good performance by the musicians, violinist Stephanie Zyzak, pianist Ji, and
cellist Ari Evan. This trio takes these works and wring them dry of every last
minim of emotion.
Oh, and yes, also the songs, the difficult, beautiful songs! So
feelingly sung, and so appropriately chosen, and so much the perfect last word.
Over Tchaikovsky’s dead body, the tenor sings, drenched in longing: “Moj genij,
moj angel, moj drug (my protector, my angel, my friend)” FYI, song texts and
translations are provided in the program; you don’t have to bone up on your
Russian to get the gist.
Did Tchaikovsky and von Meck love each other? An interesting
question, and one Eve Wolf answers straight out, blatantly, with the score she
chose for this theatrical concert. Tchakkovsky’s music is so thick with
currents of passion, the truth this show tells is implicitly: yes, we love.
Passionately. Never in the flesh, but deeply in the head, in the heart, and in
Tchaikovsky: None But The Lonely Heart
Through June 17 at the Pershing Square Signature Center, Manhattan;
time: 2 hours, one intermission
Pershing Square Signature
480 W. 42nd St
2:30 and 8:30pm