by Hugh Gilmore
Not liking Tchaikovsky’s music didn’t stop me from enjoying his opera “Eugene Onegin” when I saw it simulcast live-in-HD by the Metropolitan Opera last week. There’s more to opera than the music, thank goodness, including the sets, costumes and singing. They’re usually so beautiful I gape in wonder, but they’re not what I go for.
What I like most of all is opera’s ethos, the grand simplicity of motives that drives the characters. When their passions rise, they burst out into fabulous arias, sung at the outer reaches of human vocal glory. Opera presents life’s emotions at their ultimate. No other art form aspires higher.
To illustrate: The original story of “Eugene Onegin” was written in 1833 by Alexander Pushkin as a novel in iambic tetrameter verse. It became well-known to generations of Russians. Many Russian schools still require that the poem be memorized for recitation.
The character Eugene Onegin, as the opera opens, is a jaded holder of a country estate. He is handsome and wealthy, but bored with the dull merriment of St. Petersburg society. He has no finer yearnings. He is a dead soul. And therefore dangerous.
His country neighbor and friend Vladimir Lensky invites him to meet his fiancée, Olga, at her family’s estate, a modest place whose inhabitants are unsophisticated and more country-like. When Onegin visits, he meets Olga’s teenage sister Tatiana, who falls for him. She writes him a confessional love letter.
Onegin does not answer, but the next time he sees her, he condescendingly lectures her about being foolish with her heart. Besides, he tells her, he’s a man of the world and he’d soon be bored with her. A lesser man than he would try to take advantage of her emotions.
Later, his friend Lensky invites him to a surprise party at Olga and Tatiana’s home. The party is a hapless, rough imitation of the kind of high-society party that Onegin is already bored with. The whole affair annoys him. He decides, both for fun, and to be nasty, to flirt with Olga, though she is engaged to his friend. She’s a silly enough person that she takes him up on it, being flattered and somewhat enchanted by Onegin’s charm. After an evening of watching Onegin and Olga dancing and whispering about things that make Olga blush, Lensky snaps.
He disavows his friendship with Onegin and rejects Olga for humiliating him.
Onegin is unrepentant. Lensky feels he has no further choice, after being betrayed like this. He demands satisfaction: a duel at sunrise. Every bad thing that happens from there on flows from that moment.
And that’s it. That’s the kind of grand simplicity that forms the bedrock of opera. Humiliation and betrayal lead to a life-and-death duel. The syllogism contains an awe-inspiring, digitalized ethic: You’re in, or you ain’t. That’s what puts the “grand” in Grand Opera. People drink poison, jump from cliffs, stab themselves, go mad, or fall into a long spell and die from lack of will to live. It’s all so much singing and sobbing, singing and swooning, singing and sword fighting! At the top of their lungs!
I know, it seems almost comically clichéd today. “The game ain’t over till the fat lady sings,” we say. But consider what we’ve replaced those grand emotions and those set ethics with: Oprah, Dr. Phil, Maury Povich, Barbara Walters, Julie Chen, Sharon Osbourne, the entire cast of “The View,” and on and on.
These shows exist so that press agents, marketers, and public relations wranglers can arrange for their clients to come on air and offer a sanitized, publicly acceptable version of their “bad behavioral decisions.” If successful, they’ll be able to “put all that behind them” and “move on from here.”
The advice from Dr, Phil, for example, would be, “Eugene, what were you thinking when you monopolized Olga’s attention all night? Did you realize how that was going to make Lensky feel?”
In the advice columns: “What, you’re going to get in a gun duel with a guy? Over a girl? Hey, if she’d do that to you, man, she’s not worth it. Get a different girl. Think it over. And as for Eugene, that guy showed his true colors. He was never your friend, if he’d do that to you, even if he was just horsing around.”
More modern: “Come on, man, Olga was just a little tipsy. Girls get that way sometimes. She was just testing out her female empowerment. You’re not going to drop her over a little thing like that, are you?”
And so on. Modern psychology. Modern hairsplitting. Modern relativistic ethics. Situational ethics. Opera hearkens back to days more primal. Elementary love. People chained like Prometheus to their principles. Imprisoned by their ideals. Left with no choice other than to do their culturally understood duties.
In our modern days, the only art forms that come close to the absolute, primitive understandings found in opera are comic books and professional wrestling, neither of which I like. That’s why you’ll find me at the Met simulcast of Puccini’s “Tosca” on Nov. 9, where there’ll be terrible weeping and howling and gnashing of teeth, much of it originating up in the last balcony row where I usually sit.
Hugh Gilmore’s book describing life in the old bookshop he ran in Chestnut Hill, “Scenes from a Bookshop,” has just reached #90 on Amazon Kindle list of the Top 100 books in the category of “Antiquarian and Rare Books.” It’s available in paperback also.