The problem with plays based on the biographies of artists is that, with rare exceptions, the creation of art cannot be credibly dramatized. Instead, you get anecdotes.
Since 2001, Ensemble for the Romantic Century has been exploring workarounds for the problem in a series that began as a way of innovating the presentation of chamber music. Over the years, as its offerings have evolved from theatrical concerts to plays with music, its subjects have branched out as well: from composers (“The Other Chopin”) to poets (“Because I Could Not Stop: An Encounter With Emily Dickinson”) to painters (“Van Gogh’s Ear”) to political figures (“The Dreyfus Affair”) — all of them romantic, if not exactly Romantic.
Now, in “Maestro,” which opened on Monday at the Duke on 42nd Street, the company takes on a more difficult subject in Arturo Toscanini. The great Italian conductor is neither a Chopin, whose life can be illustrated, however contrivedly, by his own compositions, nor a Dickinson, whose cultural outlook can be suggested by the works of a contemporary (in her case, Amy Beach). Toscanini, an interpretive artist, is neither one nor the other and so “Maestro” lands with a thud in the gap.
Not that Toscanini, as a person, wasn’t dramatic, especially in the slice of his life that the author, Eve Wolf, focuses on. From his long career, which encompassed the premiere of Verdi’s “Otello” in 1887 (he played cello in the pit) and the Golden Age of television (he conducted Gershwin on NBC), she has selected two decades and one theme.
The decades — the 1930s and 1940s — roughly coincide with the inception, climax and denouement of his love affair with Ada Mainardi, a pianist 30 years his junior. (Both Mainardi and Toscanini were married to others.) The theme is Toscanini’s anti-Fascism, as demonstrated in his courageous resistance to Mussolini and Hitler, and his support of Jewish musicians. When Mainardi, seeking to stay on good terms with the “Teutonic delinquents” back in Europe, ghosts Toscanini, who has moved to New York, political and personal betrayal intertwine.
But even that dry description is more exciting than what Ms. Wolf and her director, Donald T. Sanders, put onstage. The text is a clip job, consisting almost entirely of excerpts from Toscanini’s letters and other documentary bric-a-brac. As all of it comes from his point of view, we have no way to evaluate its validity — and the play has no way to spark any drama. (We never hear back from Mainardi, let alone Mrs. Toscanini.) Nor, as the maestro, can John Noble (Walter Bishop on “Fringe”) scrape up much fire from the character’s two modes: pathos and dudgeon.
Perhaps the musical interludes, which total about an hour of the show’s bloated running time, were meant to compensate. A few are historical recordings of rehearsals or performances of “Aida” conducted by Toscanini, often including his grunts and tantrums.
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But most of the interludes are performed live by musicians seated off to the side of the stage or sometimes, for unclear reasons, on the minimal set itself. (Vanessa James’s design consists mostly of chairs and period Victrolas.)
In any case, the repertory is awkwardly programmed. The more successful material is “atmospheric”: chamber works by contemporary Italian composers Toscanini championed — Martucci, Finzi, Respighi, Castelnuovo-Tedesco — even if he never conducted the particular pieces selected. As played here by a string quartet and the pianist Zhenni Li, they’re lovely yet basically decorative.
The interludes based on symphonic works Toscanini did conduct are mortifying to the extent they are hijacked to serve as program music. The “Liebestod” from “Tristan und Isolde,” performed by Ms. Li in Liszt’s transcription, is made to illustrate the brief sexual reunification of Toscanini and Mainardi, complete with projected images of gushing fountains. Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” represents Toscanini’s infatuation with New York, even if it is performed here in a bizarre arrangement for trumpet and piano.
Either way, the interludes add nothing to the story; indeed, they actively subtract from it by suggesting an overly literal link, in the manner of tortured genius movies like “Lust for Life,” between art and biography. This is a surprisingly middlebrow concept for a supposedly highbrow jukebox presentation, and the visuals don’t help. The intrusive projections by David Bengali — not just those fountains but also animated architecture and dancing bolts of fabric — seem desperate to give the eye something to look at, as if this were an outtake from “Fantasia.”
More fundamentally, “Maestro” suffers from the problem of theatrical Great Man-itis: the assumption that someone famous need only show up in faint caricature to be inherently stage-worthy.
I have to assume from the warm reception greeting previous outings of Ensemble for the Romantic Century that the problem in this case is just a fluke, a bad fit of subject and method. Still, looking ahead at the company’s calendar, I feel obliged to say: Watch out, Hans Christian Andersen.