“What happened to adventurous, rebellious Clara?” laments Elena Mazzon, playing the virtuoso pianist, composer, wife (to Robert), suspected unfaithful wife (with Johannes Brahms) and, mother to eight children, Clara Schumann. Well, here she is, telling her own highly partisan story from her own utterly engaging perspective.
Compelling, extraordinary, iconic: all could describe Clara Schumann in this telling of her story, as well as Mazzon’s performance here. But likeable? Perhaps not so much. “That night, I had the best sex of my life,” she says, thrillingly alive to the unspoken reality of female desire, after taking over from her husband as conductor. She continues: “All those men dominated by a woman.”
Elsewhere, she admits her relief at a miscarriage: a brief break from the “factory” of child production. This is not just an account which asks us to recognise the place in musical history of an overlooked figure, but one which actually requires us to engage with them as an artist, with all of the uncomfortable latitude we afford to male prodigies. The lack of empathy – fury, even, as Mazzon’s eyes flash angrily – towards her husband’s depression sits ill at ease with modern understanding of mental health. This is far from hagiography, and is all the better for it.
The Pianodrome’s makeshift vibe is part of its considerable charm, but for a pianist known as “the priestess” for her clean tone and extraordinary precision, an out of tune, boxy sounding instrument tinkles the wrong ivories. Still, as a monologue interspersed with piano excerpts, Mazzon’s playing is wonderful, not just for it’s technical dexterity, but for the way it is an extension of her acting rather than a way to add colour. A performance of a “melancholy Robert” theme, for example, is as close to eye rolling as a piano can possibly be.