Three years ago, the audience at the San Diego Repertory Theater was the first in the country to play Hershey Felder with music about the famous Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.
On Sunday, Rep viewers watched the play live from Florence, Italy, where Felder has set up a streaming production company while awaiting the pandemic. Just as the game’s delivery format has changed, so has the game itself.
The Canadian playwright / pianist / actor / producer transformed “Hershey Fields: Tchaikovsky” into a film-like study of the life of the emotionally tortured composer and not into the traditional direct address to the audience in which he plays both composer and narrator.
In 2017, the set of the play was timely, and Felder pondered whether Russian fans should write a Tchaikovsky piece and bring it to Russia. That is impossible, Felder told the audience, because the Russian government does not recognize that Tchaikovsky is homosexual, which is the key to understanding his life and his dark music.
Hershey Felder in a scene filmed in Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s former apartment in Florence, Italy, in “Hershey Felder: Tchaikovsky”.
In the new version, Felder doesn’t talk about the composer, he becomes him. The play begins in Florence in 1878, where Tchaikovsky fled briefly to escape a hastily arranged marriage and divert gay rumors. In pre-filmed sections, an almost unrecognizable field with a thick gray beard and silvered hair walks thoughtfully through the pandemic-drained streets of Florence and writes a letter from the apartment in which Tchaikovsky lived.
Then the action shifts for 15 years to a court of honor in Russia, where Tchaikovsky is interrogated by a public prosecutor about a love letter he wrote to the son of a politician. The conversation takes place just a few days before Tchaikovsky’s alleged suicide, and their conversation turns into an open confessional in which Tchaikovsky explains his life story with words and music.
The middle section of the piece is pretty much the same as before, with a description of Tchaikovsky’s lonely childhood, his discovery of his sexuality as a young boy, love, suicide attempts, musical development, and the performance of some of his greatest works. Here Tchaikovsky does not play the piano for an audience, but for the sometimes angry, sometimes sympathetic prosecutor of Igor Polesitsky, a Russian violist who lives in Florence. All the piano scenes were played live, although they were so seamlessly fused with pre-filmed segments that it was difficult to tell the difference.
Felder played several roles alongside Tchaikovsky, including his conservatory director Nikolai Rubinstein and composer Mily Balakirev, head of the block of five Russian composers who had devoted themselves to writing nationalist music. Tchaikovsky never fit into the group of five “Mighty Handful” because he believed that music is not nationalistic, but simply human.
Felder powerfully performed excerpts from numerous Tchaikovsky compositions, some of which were dedicated to the composer he loved – including the love theme “Romeo and Juliet”, Piano Concerto No. 1, Symphony No. 4, “Overture of 1812”, “Douce Reverie, “Symphony No. 5” and “The Nutcracker” ballet score.
The ballet scores complete the production. First, Felder plays a piano interpretation of the “Nutcracker” that can be seen in a Felder film as Tchaikovsky walking through the breathtaking, light-flooded streets of central Florence, including the Piazza Della Repubblica and the rows of shops near the cathedral. He admires the goods in the shops with a sense of wonder. Then the piece ends symbolically with Tchaikovsky’s haunting music from “Swan Lake”, a ballet about two lovers who cannot be together for the man to kill himself.
In a break with tradition, Felder never looks at the camera and there are several costumed actors with whom he interacts in the pre-filmed indoor and outdoor scenes. This creates a more engaging, cinematic, and natural viewing experience. Tchaikovsky’s long-time patroness Nadezhda von Meck is portrayed by Helen Farrell. After 14 years in which he loved Tchaikovsky for his music and never met him, von Meck interrupted him without explanation and never spoke to him again. Many believe it was because she heard the rumors about his sexuality.
Felder’s Tchaikovsky is a terribly broken man – isolated, crippled with shame and powerless to control his “inclinations”. In one cathartic and heartbreaking scene after the confrontation with the prosecutor, he cries in silence for a few minutes before finding an obvious determination. It is still controversial whether Tchaikovsky poisoned himself to avoid exposure or died of natural causes just a few days after the premiere of his 6th symphony “Pathétique” at the age of 53.
The production was directed by the Italian filmmaker Stefano Decarli and directed by Trevor Hay. Erik Carstensen’s sound is excellent.
Throughout the year, Felder has raised the bar with every production of “Live from Florence”. This is the best so far, both for his acting as well as for the beauty of his piano playing, the Florentine setting and the magnificent landscapes and costumes.
“Hershey Felder: Tchaikovsky”
Play: Until Sunday December 27th
Tickets: $ 55