- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 2, 2004

Famed 19th-century pianist Clara Schumann’s tragic marriage to composer Robert Schumann, her battles with her tyrannical father, her seemingly platonic romance with Johannes Brahms, and the haunted lives of her damaged children all form the core of a new chamber opera, “Clara,” that is receiving its world-premiere performances this week at the University of Maryland’s Kay Theatre in College Park.

With a score by Robert Convery and a libretto by Kathleen Cahill, the opera unfolds in a single act of five vignettes in reverse chronological order as viewed by an older Clara on her deathbed. In our own musical age when atonal dissonance has been favored over comprehensible tonality, Mr. Convery’s lush, somewhat impressionistic score filled with character-centered motifs is a welcome change of pace, more evidence that contemporary composers are shedding the yoke of serialism and attempting to connect with their audience.

Unlike the musical score of the film “The Piano,” whose modernistic solo piano essays were jarringly at odds with its 19th-century subject matter, Mr. Convery’s music bridges the gap between Clara Schumann’s period and our own. Mr. Convery’s music is all the more remarkable given the bare-bones book his librettist created for him. Miss Cahill’s choppy, expository libretto lacks, for the most part, the kind of plummy poetry on which a composer can hang an impressive aria.

In addition, Miss Cahill’s portrayal of Robert Schumann as a blithering idiot is senseless. Clara Schumann was an extraordinary artist by any standard. Her posthumous reputation doesn’t need to be enhanced in a revisionist, post-feminist fashion by diminishing that of her husband, who was a formidable composer-critic in his own right before his gradual descent into madness. Too little of this Robert appears in “Clara,” and one wonders why the pianist married him.

“Clara’s” opening night was an enjoyable evening that was marred at times by the youth and relative inexperience of the cast. Diction was a problem for nearly everyone, and most singers seemed unable to project their voices much beyond the center of the auditorium. Consequently, even though the opera is in English, it was often difficult to hear the words. The work’s reverse-chronological order made it even more challenging to comprehend what was happening.



Nonetheless, there was some lovely singing. The voices of mezzo-sopranos Michelle T. Rice and Lee Anne Myslewski as the older and younger Clara were expressive and clear, although Miss Myslewski occasionally was inaudible in louder passages. Soprano Stacy Mastrian (Julie) was lovely in the work’s one true aria. Crusty bass-baritone Bobb Robinson was convincing in his role of Clara’s father, old Weick, one of music history’s great bad guys. Baritone Paul Hindemith was touching and expressive as the devoted Johannes Brahms.

Nino Sanikidze, as a non-singing Clara, performed the Robert Schumann piano interludes quite nicely even while she and her piano were in perpetual motion on a revolving turntable. Conductor JoAnn Kulesza did a fine job keeping the singers and instrumentalists tightly integrated although dropping the level of the percussion a bit might have helped the singers somewhat. Erhard Rom’s simple sets were effective in focusing the action but the little drop-down pianos that appeared during the intervals soon became a silly distraction.

**

WHO: Maryland Opera Studio

WHAT: “Clara,” an opera by Robert Convery with libretto by Kathleen Cahill

WHERE: Kay Theatre, Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center

at the University of Maryland

at College Park

WHEN: Thursday and Saturday

at 7:30 p.m.

TICKETS: $5 (student) to $25

INFORMATION:

Call 301/405-ARTS or visit www.claricesmithcenter.umd.edu

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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