“MAESTRO” starring John Noble, Review by Andrea Santo Felcone


“Maestro,” currently running at The Duke on 42nd Street, brings to life the story of legendary Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini (1867 – 1957). John Noble stars in this production from the Ensemble for the Romantic Century. You will recognize Noble’s name from voice, television, film and stage, including his work on “Fringe,” “Elementary,” and in The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, to name just a few. Physically, Noble is fairly transformed here, almost unrecognizable, in this musical biography of the brilliant, yet complicated, Italian conductor.

Maestro

John Noble as Arturo Toscanini. Photo Credit: Shirin Tinati.

First, what should be noted is the concept: The critically-acclaimed Ensemble for the Romantic Century brings the past to life through original multimedia productions that fuse chamber music, drama, and history. This style of performance was an interesting platform for telling Toscanini’s story. Behind Mr. Noble and the musicians, large screens are used to project historical footage or abstract background images that are meant to highlight what is happening on stage. The stage itself is fairly bare, except for seating for the musicians and period Victrolas–which play historical recorded music, excerpts from rehearsals and live performances of Toscanini conducting “Aida.”

Early on, there are moments when the musicians silently creep past Mr. Noble, and it is unclear why they are moving about the stage. Are these musicians standing in as representations of actual musicians Toscanini knew in real life? Are they his students? Is the female pianist (a brilliant Zhenni Li) supposed to represent his lover—Ada Mainardi? Or are they, in fact, more abstract representations of the music that was always swirling about in his head? None of this is clear, and yet some of the need to “piece things together” evaporates as the chamber musicians play—they are all masterful and the music is definitely the highlight of this production.

Maestro

Photo Credit: Shirin Tinati.

“Maestro” presents a sliver of Toscanini’s life—his later years. It is clear there were obvious things to admire about the man: no one was more revered for the work he did; he was brilliant (*a principal cellist at just 19 years old, he was brought in as a last-minute replacement to conduct “Aida” and this is how his conducting career began). (*The New York Times, “A Life of Toscanini, Maestro with Passion and Principles”.) He had a photographic memory and could “conduct hundreds of orchestral and operatic scores by memory.” (Playbill: Musicology notes). But most inspiring was his brave and courageous stand against Mussolini, Hitler, Fascism and Nazism. His support of the Jewish people and Jewish musicians was profound. His firm international reputation may have been the only thing saving him as he continuously placed his life and career in jeopardy. He refused to play Festivals in Germany and Austria. He worked with the Palestine Philharmonic in support of Jewish musicians who had escaped Nazi persecution. And yet, after all of this, it is surprising to report that viewing “Maestro” will leave you with mixed feelings of the man, wanting to like him, but finding you can’t, completely.

In part, we find in “Maestro” a man who rants and rails, often. It seems Toscanini’s much younger lover—30 years younger–Italian pianist Ada Mainardi, isn’t writing him often enough, won’t visit him, perhaps doesn’t share the same level of interest (read: lust) that he shares for her. Or perhaps she is facing threats from the Nazis? Her husband is involved with the Nazi party and her passive nature for that situation infuriates Toscanini. We know this through letters Toscanini has written to Ada. Letters begging Ada for more of herself, usually more of her physical self. It is clear the man associates the passion he feels in music and in conducting with the passion he exhibits in his romantic life, and that he fears the day when his virility, and Ada, will abandon him. This focus, with no other perspective–we don’t hear from Ada in her own words, nor do we hear from Toscanini’s wife, nor perhaps, most importantly, from any of the Jewish musicians who benefited from Toscanini’s support, unfortunately, paints a one-sided portrait of the man.

The rest of Toscanini’s rants are reserved for his musicians. Both at the beginning of Act I and Act II we find Mr. Noble conducting the actual audience, and hurling insults: “When I am dead, I will be more alive than all of you!” He even snaps his baton and hands it to an audience member. The artistic choice of addressing the audience in this manner brings home Toscanini’s temperament, but felt unpleasant, which admittedly, may have been the point.

The best part of “Maestro” (and perhaps of Toscanini’s real life) is the music. Each selected piece is brilliantly performed by Mari Lee and Henry Wang (Violin), Matthew Cohen (Viola), Ari Evan (Cello), Zhenni Li (Piano), and Maximilian Morel (Trumpet). One expects that if Toscanini had been alive today, these musicians would have measured up to his exacting standards. Perhaps choosing to convey a man’s life mainly through his frustrated love letters diminishes the scope of a man, especially a man such as Arturo Toscanini. However, the music of “Maestro,” is another story altogether. The music is exquisite and makes this theatrical experience worth the investment of time. The music is sublime.

Cast: Starring John Noble as Arturo Toscanini; Written by Eve Wolf. Radio and Others (Recorded): Paul Sorvino. Musicians: Mari Lee, Violin. Henry Wang, Violin. Matthew Cohen, Viola. Ari Evan, Cello. Zhenni Li, Piano. Maximilian Morel, Trumpet.

Scenic & Costume Design; Vanessa James. Directed by Donald T. Sanders.

Tickets start at $39.00. For tickets: https://tickets.dukeon42.org/single/EventListing.aspx

“Maestro” ends on February 9. Running time: 2 hours. 1 intermission.

Location: The Duke on 42nd Street at 229 West 42nd Street.

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