Chopin Without Piano? Who would dare separate the 19th-century Polish composer from the instrument most associated with him, and why write a one-woman play that does just that? Though Frédéric Chopin left Poland at 20 never to return, Poles revere him; playing with his image is, for them, musical and cultural heresy.
But that is the intent of Polish director Michal Zadara and his wife, actor and codirector Barbara Wysocka, who are the Warsaw theater company Centrala. In Chopin Without Piano, which had its North American premiere at Swarthmore College's Lang Concert Hall on Saturday night, they inserted Wysocka as a surrogate for the piano.
The 75-minute performance piece features the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia and, looming large and silent, a pianoforte that almost overwhelms the orchestra and pushes Lebanese Polish conductor Bassem Akiki to the side. Swarthmore is coproducing it with FringeArts, where it continues for four nights beginning Wednesday.
The production represents a continuation of Swarthmore's theater department collaborations with Philadelphia's performance scene. Zadara is a sought-after director in Europe and a Swarthmore alumnus who studied under theater department chair Allen Kuharski. Since it premiered in Kraków in 2013, this work has toured throughout Poland and travels to Boston's ArtsEmerson next month.
The college's involvement with things Polish goes back at least to the early '80s, when it housed Solidarity exiles released from prison during martial law, along with their families. So it's a comfortable fit when Kuharski, whose father was a piano restorer and Chopin listener, champions Polish culture.
Chopin's ambivalence about public performance made the idea of performing the concerti sans piano plausible to Zadara. Chopin wrote the E minor and F minor concerti when he was barely 20 and much preferred playing for friends in small salons where his soft touch could be heard.
At Lang on Saturday night, Wysocka, in a shimmering peau de soie ball gown, let her hands hover over the keys as though compelled to strike them, but we never heard a single plink. Instead, she vehemently read excerpts from Chopin's letters and other texts during the piano sections. Where the piano trailed off, her voice became a little wistful, but otherwise she seemed to be practicing verbal rubato, what for singers is called phrasing or personalizing the tempo.
Akiki, Zadara, and Wysocka arrived in Philadelphia from Warsaw last week with the couple's two young children, overbooked with workshops and interviews, and scheduled to vote in Polish elections in absentia on Sunday. Brief interviews with the three of them were like speed dating.
A Lebanese-born Warsaw resident, Akiki partners with Wysocka, conducting and timing the fermata, the grand pauses, in which she speaks. At 32, he guest-conducts orchestras throughout Poland and was a bit nervous about leading his first U.S. orchestra, but he said "working with the Chamber Orchestra is great. I say something once and they get it."
Chopin Without Piano is a very contemporized rendition of all-too-familiar Romantic music. "When I heard this premiered in Kraków," conducted by Jacek Kaspszyk, said Akiki, "I was very curious about it. How can be Chopin without piano?
"But for the performance in Warsaw, they asked me to conduct. I was so afraid of that, because you have to learn the text. I speak Polish now, but I'm not originally from Poland. But when the first rehearsal came and I saw all the emotions Barbara gave, which are the emotions that are in the piano part, I was very secure with that. Her words are telling what the piano would be playing. From now on, I will conduct Chopin a little bit differently because I understand more this music."
The idea for the work came to the pair when Jacek Kaspszyk told them about a pianist who "was drunk or afraid and escaped through the bathroom window rather than attempt to play the concerti," said Zadara. "The first violinist suggested rather than give back the ticket money they play anyway with the empty piano just sitting there."
"We said, 'That's amazing opportunity for theater and we should do that.' But we had to do it independently. Theater wouldn't do it because the orchestra is so expensive, and the Philharmonic wouldn't do it because it's so strange."
They hired a writer, but four months before the premiere, they found "it was not useful. When Chopin repeats the themes, he did not, and it wasn't interesting in any way." So they wrote it themselves, scouring multiple sources from Karl Marx (a Chopin contemporary) to the poet Cyprian Norwid, who wrote a poem about Chopin's piano destroyed by the czar's soldiers. They took material from Solange Clesinger, the daughter of George Sand (Chopin's lover for 10 years and in the end his nurse), who said, "His life was a 39-year ordeal."
"Barbara," Zadara said, "performs it as a musician." Wysocka had studied music and was set to become a violinist, "but acting," she said, scratching the inside of her wrist, "is in my blood."
They see their hijacking of Chopin's piano as a parallel to the hijacking of Chopin's music by right-wing, nationalist Poles, whether in Poland or diaspora. "They reject the real Chopin because he didn't follow their traditional narrative," said both Zadara and Wysocka. "He and Sand, who had children from another marriage, never intended to marry, but lived together openly. You know this famous portrait of Chopin and Sand by Delacroix?" Wysocka asks. "Well, in Poland, she is cut out of the portrait and only he remains." Poland, their text says, "has created an image of Chopin as a composer of patriotic sentiment and parochial pride."
As the work concludes, the text refers to the video of Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski announcing martial law on Dec. 13, 1981, in a taped message that Polish TV looped repeatedly - alternating with Chopin's music. Now that's Orwellian co-optation.
Chopin Without Piano
8 p.m. Wednesday through Friday, 2 p.m. Saturday at FringeArts, 140 N. Columbus Blvd.
Tickets: $15-$25. Information: 215-413-1318 or www.fringearts.com