Who was Clara Schumann? The wife of the great composer Robert Schumann, is the glib answer. How many people know more about her than that?
Perhaps not many, but the audience Saturday evening at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis got a crash course in Clara studies in "The Prodigious Life of Clara S.," a collaboration between the Moving Company theater ensemble and the Minnesota Orchestra.
Part dramatic narration, part live musical performance, the play examined the entirety of Clara's life, which spanned the 19th century and began 200 years ago in Leipzig, Germany.
Her relationships with two men dominated the narrative — her husband Robert whom she married when she was 20, and the composer Johannes Brahms, whose friendship with Clara lasted a lifetime.
As Clara, actress Jennifer Baldwin Peden depicted a character of formidable inner strength and resolution, prone to comic observations on the creative triangulation that held the threesome together.
Clara had a daunting burden to shoulder in her marriage. In its 16 years she had eight children and two miscarriages, and Robert's absorption in composing meant she bore most of the responsibility for their rearing.
At the same time she followed a career as a concert pianist, crisscrossing Europe giving highly acclaimed concerts and earning money to keep the family financially solvent.
In scenes with Robert, sympathetically played by actor Steven Epp, the script showed Clara delicately poised between frustration with the load she had to carry and her genuine devotion to Robert and his music.
Robert was eventually committed to an asylum and died there in 1856, possibly from syphilis.
From that point, Clara's relationship with Brahms — he was already an artistic protégé of the Schumanns — became ever more intimate.
In a telling scene, Baldwin Peden's Clara and Nathan Keepers' Brahms debated questions that have long preoccupied gossipmongers and biographers.
Were the pair in love with each other? Was their relationship sexual? Was the Schumanns' last child actually Brahms'?
There are no clear answers to these questions.
But the mutual interdependence of Brahms and Clara was vividly, at times movingly suggested.
Between the strands of narrative, the music of Brahms and both Schumanns was interwoven, played by Minnesota Orchestra musicians in various combinations, with contributions from Baldwin Peden's soprano.
The snatches of chamber music were particularly well played and took on new emotional resonance for being heard amid the dramatized lives of their creators.
Occasionally the soulful poses and air conducting the cast employed to fill the visual vacuum left on stage during the musical performances seemed contrived and unconvincing.
And the extent to which Clara's own compositions were stifled by her family life and concert-giving also received short shrift in an otherwise excellently researched script.
The music Clara did complete before Robert's death is tantalizingly listenable and full of promise.
But overall "The Prodigious Life of Clara S." gave compelling insights into an indomitable woman whose life changed 19th-century music and continues to provide a template for glass-ceiling-shattering female creators of our own era.
Terry Blain is a freelance classical music critic for the Star Tribune. Reach him at email@example.com.