Monday, June 14, 2010

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Mikhailovsky

My friend Grethe found herself with a couple of spare tickets to unload the other night for a performance of Eugene Onegin at the Mikhailovsky Theater in St. Petersburg. So she took her place on the hawker's platform to try to cut her losses, A few minutes later, she joined the party inside; she was all wreathed in smiles. She said she'd spotted a young couple to all appearances too poor for this sort of high life. She decided—what the heck, and let the kids buy the tickets for just $5 each. Grethe is a kind-hearted sort and it was clear that she was pleased to have had the chance to brighten a couple of lives.

Midway through the first act (as she recounted later), Grethe had second thoughts: she decided she didn't need the $5 bills and she resolved to seek the couple out and to give back their money. At the interval, she went looking for them and—surprise! In the seats were two perfect strangers. Evidently the objects of Grethe's bounty had decided that the utility-maximizing deployment of the benefaction was to sell the tickets up market and to pocket the swag.

Welcome to the sometimes unfamiliar world of Russian opera. The performance was, as I say, Tchaikovski's Eugene Onegin—the work of a Russian composer, based on the poem by the Russian poet, performed in Russian before a mostly Russian audience. I want to say “and you can hardly get any more Russian than that. In fact, I gather that there is room for debate among Russians themselves as exactly how well the composer captures the “true Russian-ness” of his poetic precursor. As it happens, I did read the poem once, but in a translation so enjoyable I suspect it was probably unfaithful to the original, so a question of this sort is best understood as above my pay grade.

But whatever the verdict on ethnic purity, the matter of ethnic purity, still it was an opportunity not to be missed and in the end, well requited. Actually, T has never quite floated my boat but the music is nothing if not listenable and the story flows along with an effortless ease. Mrs B. points out shrewdly that he is at his best at the dance scenes, suggesting that his real metier is not opera but ballet, And as to ethnic flavor: I can swear I could hear some unfamiliar, i.e., non-Western, sounds, not just in the peasant choruses (where you hear them even in non-Russian performances) but in some of the arias themselves.

And I'd say the theatre is a bit of a story itself. In the Soviet days they used to use it as a venue for cheap and second-rate productions of war horses like Swan Lake for consumption by gullible tourists. Nothing about EO deserved the characterization of “second rate,” and in any event, the audience was mostly something other than tourists.

As we left, we got a last look the unknown and unknowing beneficiaries of Grethe's bounty. “I better check the $5 bills,” Grethe said. “They might be counterfeit.”

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