Last night, Irina and I went to the opera. More specifically, we went to the Erik Sapaev Mari State Academic Theatre of Opera and Ballet to see Nadezhda Repyeva’s staging of Tchaikovsky’s lyric opera Eugene Onegin, based on Pushkin’s verse novel of the same name.
Yoshkar-Ola only has about a quarter of a million people, but if you are so inclined you can see a different opera, classical music, or theatre performance any night of the week, for the price of a couple of lunches at a nice cafeteria. Within the downtown core alone there is the Theatre of Opera and Ballet, the Shketan National Mari Drama Theatre, the Konstantinov Academic Russian Drama Theatre, the Republican Puppet Theatre, and the Theatre for Young Audiences. Most of these host touring productions from Moscow and St. Petersburg, and some local companies take their shows to the capitals and abroad. It’s fair to say that Russians take their art pretty seriously.
Coming from Toronto, where even a dedicated opera-goer can only see a dozen or so professional productions a year, it has been hard to adjust to the sheer number of options for evening entertainment. And given that we’ve also been plumbing the labyrinthine bureaucracy required to get a work permit, negotiating contracts with my employer, and trying to find an apartment, I didn’t have time to prepare for the upcoming show as I normally would, by reading the synopsis and perhaps taking a look at the score. This meant that for the first time in probably a decade, I was attending an opera I’d never seen based on a poem I’d never read with no translated surtitles to fall back on.
Surtitles—those little scrawls of electronic text that provide a translation of the libretto—have become so ubiquitous that it’s easy to imagine, against all reason, that they’ve always been around. But like the black trash bag and commercial asbestos mining, they are in fact a Canadian innovation.
First used during a Canadian Opera Company performance of Elektra in 1983, surtitles were quickly adopted around the world as an essential tool for making the multilingual opera canon more accessible to audiences. But the convenience came at a cost: instead of focussing one’s attention on the singers and dancers, the details of the staging, the complexity of the mise-en-scène, or the music itself, the translated text encourages you to constantly flick your eyes up to make sure you’re following what’s being said.
Which is usually something like this:
—Always flying on the wings of my desire
—Love that throbs like the entire universe
—On the wings of my desire
—Great is your gift, ye gods! I recognise it and am grateful!…But the grief which accompanies your gift is past all bearing!
The quality of libretti varies greatly between periods and between composers, but even the best surtitles are usually pretty functional. The point isn’t to communicate the riches of the prose, but to make sure the audience knows who’s fucking who, who’s about to get fucked over, and why this dwarf is so excited about the pile of gold he just found.
For people like me, who spend their lives working with words rather than music, having the script flashing above the stage in large letters only compounds the temptation to see all this plot nonsense as being the point of the show. As if anyone would actually pay to sit around for three hours watching a handful of actors explain with excruciating slowness how very, very unhappy they are if there wasn’t something else going on as well.
The best libretti (and Tchaikovsky’s Onegin is widely considered a classic) only communicate a very small amount of information. And some of the most enduring operas—Don Giovanni comes to mind—simply do not make sense purely on a narrative level. One doesn’t need to have a degree in musicology to understand that the way a text is sung can fundamentally change and even invert its meaning, or to see that the way a character like Donna Elvira sings is essential to understanding her character. But the omnipresent surtitles make a different case: they tell us that in order to really get what’s happening here, you need to read along.
Which is why it felt so liberating to take my seat and watch the curtain go up and the house lights dim without any expectation of understanding what I was about to see.
As Irina explained to me as we walked home after the show, Eugene Onegin is about two sisters, Olga and Tatiana Larina, who are courted by two young noblemen, Vladimir Lensky and the eponymous Onegin. The couples are mirrors of each other: Olga and Lensky are cheerful and dumb, while Tatiana and Onegin are subtle and brooding. Tatiana, who has fallen heavily under the influence of Romance novels, declares her passion for Onegin but is callously rebuffed.
A ball is held at the Larin estate in honour of Tatiana’s name day, where Onegin overhears the locals gossiping about how he’s probably going to end up marrying her. In a fit of pique, he flirts so outrageously with Olga that Lensky challenges him to a duel. The next morning Lensky sings a beautiful (and, at least in Russia, famous) aria about love and fate. Onegin shows up late and gives Lensky lots of excuses to call the whole thing off. Lensky is pushed into going ahead with it by his grizzled second, and promptly gets himself killed.
Onegin, heartbroken that he has murdered his friend, takes off travelling. Years later, he returns to Russia only to discover that Tatiana, now grown into a cultured and aristocratic beauty, is married a sweet old Prince. Onegin falls in love with her and tries to win her back in the most absurd ways, but to no avail—Tatiana still loves Onegin, but she refuses to be unfaithful to her husband. The End.
Obviously, I was able to glean some of this just by watching what was unfolding onstage (when someone throws down their glove in a 19th century drama, it’s pretty easy to guess what’s happening). What really surprised me was the extent to which the removal of any kind of literary cues accentuated every other dimension of the performance.
Vladimir Korolev’s set design and Tatiana Izycheva’s costumes became essential for understanding the characters and their motivations, and small gestures attained great significance, as when Tatiana (played by Elvira Guryeva) suggestively grasps the quill she is using to write to Onegin (played by Alexander Sheypak) as she sings the “Letter Aria.” Most importantly, I was forced to pay much greater attention to the music, which in turn got me noticing things about the characters I might otherwise have missed.
Lensky (played by Alexander Stolbov) was probably the best example of this. When Lensky and Onegin first appear, it is clear that we are being presented with a binary: the nice, charming, open hearted lover, and his somewhat more sarcastic, slightly sinister friend. Izycheva’s decision to dress Lensky in creamy, unbuttoned tails and Onegin in a severely cut, high-collared topcoat certainly helped make this point. And for the most part, Stolbov’s sunny tenor underscores this. So it is all the more surprising when, in the aria that opens the second act, Lensky reveals his hidden depths in the “Kuda, kuda vy udalilis” aria.
The plot encourages us to see Lensky’s open-heartedness as a foil for Onegin’s jaded self-awareness: Lensky doesn’t question that happiness is still possible in the stultifying world of the decayed rural aristocracy, while Onegin, a precursor of the great 19th century Russian tradition of the superfluous man, refuses to accept it. One of the reasons Pushkin’s Onegin has such a long history of being beloved by adolescents is that this feeling of alienation tends to ring true at a certain point in life.
But this straightforward typology, established so effectively in the first act, is drawn into question by the sensitivity and depth of Lensky’s aria in the second. Lensky’s apparent lack of intellectual sophistication is revealed to exist alongside a deep emotional sensitivity, a sensitivity that Onegin completely fails to match even at his most passionate moments. Lensky, the happy innocent, at first appears shallow next to the worldly cynicism of Onegin. But while Lensky may have died stupidly for a point of honour, he at least died in a way that was consistent with his life, fully aware of what he was doing. In the final account he is less deceived than Onegin, who, sure of his own superiority over the world he is trapped in, still becomes its victim.
In this way, the removal of the literary dimension of the opera rendered its emotional tectonics more legible. More than simply characters, Tatiana, Lensky, and Onegin became dramatic principles. And the relations between these principles, the way they were destabilized and re-conceived by the shifting energy of music and action (by action I mean that actual physical movements of bodies around the stage) opened up the possibility for experiencing certain emotional realizations about the pressures and tensions of the world being portrayed on stage.
This is not to say that I learned anything—who goes to the opera to learn things?—but I came out of it having not only been moved, but having been an active participant in the movement. And isn’t this feeling of movement, the exercise of spiritual muscles, the final purpose to which art is directed?