Chopin packed a lot of glamour and a little bit of love into his tragically brief 39 years. This month's Chopin Festival, organized by the Alliance Francaise and Ministry of Culture and Arts of Poland, devoted Friday night's performance at the Kennedy Center to an examination of the tumultuous affair the composer had with novelist and occasional cross-dresser George Sand.
Two actors, Elzbieta Czyzewska and Mathieu Carriere, played the parts of Sand and Chopin, respectively, reading from the lovers' letters. Pianist Janusz Olejniczak performed brief works of Chopin in between. The stage was decorated with candelabra, chairs and two tables.
The format, unorthodox as it is, worked. Chopin's music, quintessentially romantic, always seems to be about something in the world rather than abstract musical thoughts. It's not unlikely that the music he composed during the nine years he was a part of Sand's elaborate menage of artists and hangers-on is in some way about the small torments and bittersweet pleasures of living with another human being.
Sand, of course, was a pill and more. Beautiful, strong-willed, modestly talented and ferociously driven, she quite literally wore the pants in the house (when they were living together). Chopin was the more conciliatory, more reserved, more patient lover, at first reluctant and even repulsed by Sand, later quite devoted to her and her children.
The letters chosen to illustrate this relationship required that the audience have some significant foreknowledge of the dramatis personae. Liszt and Delacroix, both members of the glittery circle, are famous enough (and their relationships to Sand and Chopin were delightfully--if not quite accurately--portrayed in the 1991 film "Impromptu"). Marie d'Agoult was Liszt's lover, an airhead and an often discordant presence in the salon; Wojciech Grzymala and Julian Fontana were friends of, and sometimes assistants to, Chopin. Nohant, the sender's address on many of Sand's letters, was her country estate and a haven away from Paris for the composer.
The musical choices, mostly nocturnes, preludes and mazurkas, are in Chopin's decidedly melancholy voice, giving the entire evening a perhaps gloomier than necessary cast. Chopin's affair stretched out over several years, until the two artists' individuality drove them apart. Indeed, there was a slowly built legacy of grudges and pains that brought the whole thing crashing down, but there were also some good and productive years. Any relationship that lasts nine years and survives the creation of the piano's greatest trove of genius can't be all bad. And its dissolution is merely a part of life.
Nonetheless, Czyzewska and Carriere managed to make the final pages of this romance truly touching and tragic. Chopin lived only two years after the last letter included on Friday's program, in which he writes, "Time is a great healer. As yet, I am not entirely my old self." Time may be a great healer, but there's no guarantee we'll have enough of it to get the job done.
Of the two actors, Carriere was the better prepared and captured well what one imagines Chopin's voice to have sounded like: gentle, distinct and refined. Czyzewska made a credible Sand--high-strung, immensely self-confident and a bit of a shrew--but she was under-rehearsed and muffed more than a few lines.
The pianist, Olejniczak, had Chopin thoroughly in his ear, and somewhat in his fingers. The mazurkas had the dance's characteristic lilt; the melodic lines in the nocturnes were delicate tendrils of singing. But there were small gaffes in some faster passages, suggesting that these relatively easy pieces may not have been brushed up with a little practice before the performance.
The only substantial complaint about the evening, however, was the decision to play only part of the Scherzo in B-flat Minor. Chopin's music is always ideally balanced and perfectly proportioned. Cutting it is criminal.