Wednesday, March 12, 2008


I have a few rules for living:

1. When offered candy, pick the red.

(clause: if there isn't a red one, do what you will but don't pick the green. it's disgusting).

2. If there's a bar, sit by the bar

(clause: if there's Guinness on tap, drink that, even if you don't feel like it).

3. When you get a chance to listen to Tchaikovsky, do.

There's no "clause" to the third rule. There is nothing that would make listening to Tchaikovsky a bad idea. I learned this during this year's first classical music festival in Eilat. The Marinsky opera house came from St. Petersburg to perform the opera "Eugene Onegin". It wasn't even an operaic perforamnce but a concert one: The soloists stood on stage before the orchestra and sang. When the libretto calls for Lensky to get shot in the heart and die, he just stood there, them calmly stepped off the stage a few minutes later.

My life was altered.

When walking out of the venue I texted Vizan: "There's nothing more sublime in this world than Opera". I attended three opera performances since and I understand that this is incorrect, there's nothing more sublime in this world, for me at least, than Eugene Onegin. It's simply so much better than the rest.

Pushkin is responsible for that. He wrote the coldest, most unromantic love story ever. Harsh and realistic, it's devoid of operaic cliches and thus makes for superb libretto material. Tatyana falls for Eugene. He rejects her, only to come crawling back to her on all fours years later and have her reject him. When she does, He does not commit suicide as would a true operaic protagonist, but walks offstage (and off the rhymes of the literary masterpiece) in pain.

Eugene Onegin's message can be summed up as: "C'est la vie". It is sounded twice: first, in Eugene's reply to Tatyana's love letter.

His days and dreams what man recovers?
Never shall I my soul renew...
I feel, if not indeed a lover
More than a brother's love for you.
Be patient then, as with a brother:
One cherished fancy for another
A girl will more than once forego,
As every spring the saplings show
New leaves for those the tempest scatter.
So heaven wills it, your young soul
Will love again. But self control,
My dear, is an important matter:
Though I was worthy your belief
Impulsiveness may lead to grief.

(Chapter four, Sonnet XVI, trans: Babette Deutsch)

It is sounded again in her rejection of him. There, the "c'est la vie" is directed not only at him but at herself. She is not happy in her marriage to Prince Gremin, but chooses to accept reality, and asks Eugene to do the same.

"And happiness, before it glided
Away forever, was so near!...
But now my heart is quite decided.
I was too much in haste I fear;
My mother coaxed and wept, the sequel,
You know, besides, all lots were equal
To hapless Tanya... Well, and so
I married. Now I beg you go.
I know your heart, I need not tremble
Because your honor and your pride
Must in this matter be your your guide.
I love you (why should I dissemble?)
But I became another's wife;
I shall be true to him through life.

(Chapter eight, sonnet XLVIII)

Notice that both rejections contain expressions of love. Isn't that familiar? This is exactly what life is like. Which is what opera is so seldom like.

Composing an opera which is about life, and which uses the finest literary source thinkable, allowed Tchaikovsky to break musical ground. I especially feel that in his work on Tatyana's initial letter to Eugene (Act I, Scene II). The music's role is to make us forget that the letter is silly and futile, and to be carried away with Tanya's feelings. What begins as a normal, albeit wonderful, aria, using Pushkin precise wording of the letter, turns at one point extraordinarily soft. A gentle air is sounded by the clarinet and strings, followed by tatyana's first expression of doubt.

Are you a guardian angel to me?
Or but a tempter to undo me?
Dispel my doubts! my mind's awhirl;
Perhaps this is a mad delusion
the folly of a simple girl
Fate plans a different conclusion...
So be it, now my destiny
lies in your hands, for you to fashion;

The sweet air is now played with gusto by the entire orchestra. It is tatyana's love. Tchaikovsky managed to isolate the pure sense of desire and obsession and turned it into music. Any wonder I'm stunned by his feat?

This scene is to be found here on Youtube, done wonderfully by Renee Fleming. Downtown lover, overwhelmed one day that I cleaned her bathroom after the boilar fixer turned it into Hiroshima, bought me the classic 1974 recording, with Solti conducting and Teresa Kubiak as Tatyana. That's a gift that easily beats the red candy and the Guinness and even my beloved bar.

Alright, that's enough Russian for now. Don't forget that tonight (Thursday) at 20:00 there's a poetry event, planned by Flashki and myself. It'll take place next to "Poema", the poetry store at Dizzingoff Center, and will center around Erotic poetry. Each poet was asked to bring one of her or his own and one written by a favorite poet, since passion loves company.


homefris said...

i like the green! or the yellow. the sour one is always my style. the red one -- too sweet.

don't think i didn't see you lurking around nahalat binyamin last night! what, not up for dancing?

Yuval said...

I've got great photos of the people dancing in the street there. I'll post one here after the weekend.