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La Scena Musicale, October 2009

Like cucumber sandwiches at high tea, this depiction of the romance between two German musicians is a uniquely English confection. It follows in the tradition of BBC radio’s dramatization of biographical presentations. In this case, the extended courtship and all-too-brief marriage is rendered with convincing fidelity through an enlightened blending of the spoken word and musical examples from the respective compositions of Robert Schumann and Clara Wieck. Nobly narrated by Derek Jacobi, the dialogue is ably conveyed by Sting (when will he, as an emerging musical polymath, be granted a knighthood so that his real name may enter common usage?) and Trudie Styler reading the lovers’ correspondence compiled over decades. An unusual form of entertainment, but it kept a capacity audience in rapt attention over a long evening at Covent Garden. The singers and musicians give heartfelt support to the story with immaculate performances. The set includes close to two hours of extra features. It is also available from Opus Arte on conventional DVD format. Highly recommended to admirers of the Schumanns and all collectors with a special interest in German music of the Romantic period.

Stephen Smoliar, September 2009

Caird: Twin Spirits [Theatrical performance] (Royal Opera House, 2007) (NTSC) OA0994D

Caird: Twin Spirits [Theatrical performance] (Royal Opera House, 2007) (Blu-ray, HD) OABD7043D

Twin Spirits is a new video that will be released by Opus Arte on DVD (OA 0994 D) and Blu-Ray (OA BD7043 D) in the United States on September 29.  It was conceived by John Caird as a dramatization of the relationship between Robert Schumann and Clara Wieck, who would eventually become his wife.  The narrative is based on letters exchanged by Robert and Clara prior to their marriage and a “marriage diary” that they maintained from the first day of their wedded life.  These texts were performed, respectively, by Sting and his wife, the actress Trudie Styler.  Discontinuities in these source texts were supplemented through a narration provided by Sir Derek Jacobi.  Caird further drew upon musical selections to highlight the flow of this narrative, primarily by Robert, in a few selected cases by Clara, and in two isolated cases by Frédéric Chopin and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.  Caird conceived that these performances would be by two ensembles, one for Robert and one for Clara.  The “Robert ensemble” consisted of pianist Iain Burnside, violinist Sergei Krylov, and baritone Simon Keenlyside;  the “Clara Ensemble” consisted of pianist Natasha Paremski, cellist Natalie Clein, and soprano Rebecca Evans.  The video was recorded at a live performance before a small audience in a studio space at the Royal Opera House in London.

At the very least this is a creative endeavor worthy of some of Robert’s more ambitious flights of fancy.  If both Sting and Styler were far too attractive to provide any fidelity to any of the portraits available to us (such as the above example), they nevertheless portrayed more compelling characterizations than were offered up by Paul Henreid and Katharine Hepburn in the 1947 file Song of Love.  The story has a complexity that the Hollywood of the Forties was loath to digest.  The narrative begins with their first encounter in 1828 and Robert’s residence in the home of Clara’s father, Friedrich Wieck, with whom he studied piano.  It dwells on Wieck’s resistance to any involvement between Robert and Clara, which led of a surreptitious courtship and delayed their marriage until 1840.  There followed the years of wedded bliss, during which Clara bore Robert eight children, seven of whom survived childbirth, coming to a tragic conclusion with Robert’s attempted suicide in 1854 and his subsequent commitment to an asylum.  The two were then separated (on the advice of the doctors treating Robert) until shortly before his death in 1856.  The selection of texts made this complexity far more digestible than Hollywood seems to have assumed;  and Sting, Styler, and Jacobi delivered those texts at a pace that held the attention, always leaving one ready for what would happen next, even if one already knew the basics of the plot.

No effort was made for the music to follow the chronology of this narrative.  Music was selected for the mood it invoked rather than the time of its composition.  There was also an interesting conceit of performances that would pass seamlessly between the “Robert piano” and the “Clara piano.”  If this was, indeed, a “live” performance without editing, then the chemistry between Burnside and Paremski was most impressive, reflecting, at the very least, their ability to realize a shared conception of how the music should sound.  On the other hand the only vocal interaction came when Evans and Keenlyside performed “Là ci darem la mano” from Mozart’s Don Giovanni to highlight Robert having presented the score of this opera to Clara as a birthday present.  The most interesting ensemble work, however, came as a finale to the narrative with a performance of the final movement of Robert’s 1847 D minor trio (Opus 63) to apotheosize the union of the two souls in heaven (forty years after Robert’s death).

This offering will probably not go down well with purists.  The performances of the songs (by both Robert and Clara) and the trio are excellent; but, as may be gathered from that “dual performance” by Burnside and Paremski, much of the music has been rearranged for the sake of dramatic interplay between the “Robert ensemble” and the “Clara ensemble.”  Nevertheless, as everyone seems so fond of saying these days, “it is what it is.”  Taken at face value, this is an attempt by Caird to cast the interleaved lives of Robert and Clara in a dramatic setting that is well executed and makes for quite satisfying viewing.

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