Tchaikovsky and Mme. Von Meck, a widowed music lover and a very wealthy arts patron, corresponded for 13 years, from 1876 to 1890, without ever meeting at her request. She not only commissioned music from him, but she supported him with a quarterly stipend that made it possible for him to give up teaching music at the Moscow Conservatory which he hated and which took up a great deal of his time and energy. They shared their love of music as well as their hatred for marriage, as he was homosexual (which he never revealed to her) and she had been unhappily married off at age 16. Tchaikovsky did write music in a house on her Russian estate and they both traveled to Florence to stay one mile apart, to be near each other in spirit.
The rather unemotional (but elegant) reading of their letters by Joey Slotnick as Tchaikovsky and Shorey Walker as Mme. Von Meck in period costume by Vanessa James (and looking exactly like photographs of the two) is a shorthand for their relationship as we get only snippets of what was a 1,200 letter correspondence, leaving tremendous gaps in chronology. While Tchaikovsky refers to his “secret” (i.e. his homosexuality) in his letters to her, he never actually tells her this defining trait in his life. These are interspersed with his letters to his brother Modest where he is more explicit.
Confusingly, Madame von Meck occasionally addresses the audience speaking of the composer in the third person, but it is not clear if these remarks are directly from her letters to him. While Tchaikovsky reveals to his patron his sudden hasty marriage to the uneducated and uncultured Antonina Miliukova, we are never told how it turned out except that he left her and fled to Switzerland. Mme. von Meck also recounts to the audience the circumstances around Tchaikovsky’s death two months before her own, belying the fact that she would have been too ill herself to be much aware of it.
In another digression from the now famous correspondence, the composer writes to his brother Modest bemoaning Mme. von Meck’s breaking off her letter writing in 1890 on the claim of bankruptcy. Unfortunately, the play does not go into the fascinating circumstances surrounding this occurrence, the theories being that her son’s management had ruined her, that she was too ill to write and that she was being blackmailed by family members in order to keep his homosexuality a secret.
The letters alternate with the musical portions played by Ji on piano, Ari Evan on cello and Stephanie Zyzak on violin in various combinations which are beautiful but it is never clear in what way the selections relate to Madame von Meck except for the Piano Trio in A minor, op. 50, which Tchaikovsky reveals at the beginning of the second act that he is writing for her. It is not stated whether the two excerpts from The Nutcracker, for violin and piano, and for solo piano were created for her.
The evening also includes four art songs sung with great passion by tenor Adrian Kramer but as the words are in Russian and there are no supertitles, it is impossible for an American audience to make the connections with the composer’s life. Ironically, the songs are very well chosen as “Last Night” is sung immediately after the composer writes his brother of an interlude with a male lover, and the extensive seven page program notes reveal that the Russian translation of Goethe’s “None but the Lonely Heart” which is also on the program changes the gender of the protagonist from female to male. Unfortunately, that will be lost on English speaking audiences. However, the handsome Kramer appears just as Tchaikovsky describes falling in love so that the singer’s first entrance does have a dramatic function. This is not true of the dancer Daniel Mantei whose two brief ballet performances seem to have no relationship to the dramatic structure other than to decorate the music.
Still Tchaikovsky: None but the Lonely Heart can be enjoyed as an illustrated concert evening with additional literary resources. The all-Tchaikovsky musical program offers mostly unfamiliar chamber works that do not often get played. The viewer may also feel that it is like a meeting with the composer and his patron in person though we do not learn a great deal about them.
Tchaikovsky: None But the Lonely Heart (through June 17, 2018)
Ensemble for the Romantic Century
The Ford Foundation Studio Theatre, The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 W. 42nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-279-4200 or visit http://www.ticketcentral.com
Running time: two hours including one intermission