The University of Maryland under the direction of Leon Major has commissioned an engaging new opera by music theater librettist Kathleen Cahill and composer Robert Convery about the life of the extraordinary pianist and composer Clara Schumann. Although Clara is suffused with Romanticism in historical context and musical sound, there is nothing idealized or sentimental about this story that relates the life of Clara Schumann, better known as the wife of composer Robert Schumann.
The five-scene, 90-minute opera opens, as Clara, attended by two of her eight children, lies dying and haunted by visions of dead family members including three of her children, her husband, and her tyrannical teacher-father. Librettist Cahill, who was the point of ignition for this opera, tells the story of Clara’s tumultuous life using three actors to represent the dying Clara, the young Clara, and the performer-at-the-piano Clara, running backwards in time. The five scenes, which reveal a professionally driven woman tormented by the people who loved her, are separated by four piano interludes that feature music by Schumann and Brahms.
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) met Clara (1819-1896) and Robert (1810-1856) shortly before Robert was hospitalized for mental illness and died. Historians conjecture that Brahms and Clara Schumann loved each other, but never consummated their relationship. Collaborators Cahill and Convery depict this developing love in a duet between the two friends in which Clara sings passionately about the return of her beloved piano that had been under repair. The counter-balance to this scene is Robert complaining that he cannot work if Clara is playing her piano. Robert also digs at his wife, reminding her that she was her father’s magic music box and that her father only saw his daughter as a source of money.
Indeed money was an issue in Clara’s life, especially since she was the breadwinner for the Schumann family. Her dead son Ferdinand accuses her in the deathbed visions of caring more about her hands (and her career as a performer) than she cared about him, the son who became a morphine addict as a result of injuries sustained as a soldier.
The music of Clara is consistently lyrical within the framework of contemporary composition that nevertheless grows organically from the music of Schumann and Brahms. Convery, who has written four other operas, 22 cantatas, and more than 200 songs for voice and pianos, has set most of the text as songs in Clara. He uses little recitative and only a few spoken passages by Clara’s father. The orchestration, which has satisfying rhythmic variation and interesting percussive embellishments, comes across beautifully in this production under the baton of JoAnn Kulesza.
Stand out performers in the cast of ten players are mezzo-soprano Michelle Rice as the dying Clara and baritone Bobb Robinson as Friedrich Wieck, Clara’s father. Although both singers have recent affiliations with the Maryland Opera Studio (Rice is currently doing graduate work in this program at the University of Maryland), each has an impressive resume. In fact the experience of most of the players selected by director Leon Major stands well above the experience of the average student of opera. Despite the harder to hear deliveries by Lee Anne Myslewski (as the young Clara) and Ole Hass (as Robert Schumann), this production could compete with many professional opera companies.
Nationally known set designer Erhard Rom (he provided the outstanding set for Wolf Trap’s Volpone) provides a visually pleasing landscape for this production that includes a projected “wallpaper” of music scores, a turntable stage and suspended piano mobiles that descend from the ceiling as the musical interludes play. Nancy Schertler designed the complementary lighting.