By Lana Krakovskiy
Yesterday I was thrilled to attend a performance of Clara: Confessions, as part of the NY Summerfest Festival at the Hudson Guild Theatre in Chelsea. Written and performed by Ukrainian-born actor and classical pianist Viktoriya Papayani, this one-woman show tells the story of Clara Wieck Schumann, the brilliant piano virtuosa and wife of the tormented genius composer Robert Schumann. Catch the final performance on Saturday, July 21 at 6 pm
During the time when it was rare for women to perform music publicly and especially to compose, Clara broke the mould as a highly esteemed performer who toured Europe and was called “The second Liszt”. But she faced much adversity, witnessing her parents’ divorce at a young age, then being brought up by her controlling father, who wanted to make her a star only as a reflection of his own prestige, and a stepmother who did not love her. Her relationship with the troubled composer Robert was filled with moments of joy and anguish until his death in an asylum, following a mental and physical breakdown. The story of Clara’s life touches upon the societal expectations which certainly ring familiar even today – Robert himself wanted her to stop touring and performing in public and become a regular hausfrau, taking care of the home and hearth. But Clara was destined for something greater.
Viktoriya Papayani is an acting powerhouse. A classically trained pianist and actor, she brought the world of Clara Schumann alive in front of our eyes, acting all the diverse parts with conviction and heart. From Herr Wieck, Clara’s overbearing father, Viktoriya transformed into Clara’s mother, a woman of angelic patience; Clara herself, at different ages; Robert, melancholy and furious by turn; Felix Mendelssohn, the even-keeled family friend and a talented composer whose light was extinguished too soon; Johannes Brahms, who likened himself to young Werther from Goethe; impetuous Franz Liszt, grudgingly acknowledging Clara’s success; the condescending doctor who treated Robert in the asylum, and many other characters. This convincing and physical transformation was fascinating and riveting to see.
To have full command of both the actor’s art and pianistic excellence is rare. Viktoriya played and performed the music of Clara and Robert Schumann, Franz Schubert and Johannes Brahms with lyricism and power. The music helped transport us into Clara’s world and feel her emotions so much more deeply.
Viktoriya’s husband Kalle Toivio, an award-winning organist and pianist, contributed a pipe organ recording of incidental music by Lyudmila German, for the moments illustrating Robert’s descent into madness.
In the intimate theatre at the Hudson Guild, which seats only 97, we could see all her expressiveness, anguish, love, joy and fury, up close. Viktoriya commanded the stage and held us in her spell until the very last moment.