Thursday, March 2, 2017

God's substitute for happiness

 Mariusz Kwiecien, as Eugene Onegin, and Ana Maria Martinez as Tatiana
 (Photo by Todd Rosenberg, Lyric Opera of Chicago)

     So I blew off my responsibilities Wednesday afternoon and caught the matinee of "Eugene Onegin" at the Lyric, because seeing "Carmen" for the second time this season Tuesday night obviously didn't satisfying my opera jones for the week. 
    Well, actually, I was told that if I missed it, I would be sorry, and that was correct. Beautiful, strong voices, enigmatic sets. True, I'm more a Bizet man than a Tchaikovsky man—give me the big rolling punches of "Carmen" more than the dolorous loveliness of "Eugene Onegin." But it worked.
   Yes, "Eugene Onegin" is not heavy on plot. He's a scoundrel. One sister is in love with him, writes a letter and is rebuffed, he woos the other sister at a dance, cheezing off her suitor, his best friend. There's a duel -- which means, with all the dueling in "Hamilton," if I can find one more dueling production this season, that would constitute a trend.
    Trying to justify going, I told myself I wasn't just playing hooky, but working, building my base of knowledge regarding opera, always useful when covering Chicago's pressing urban problems. And I was pleased to recognize not one but two performers from previous work: Ana Maria Martinez, who was in "Don Giovani" (sort of carving out a singing-against-the-bad-boy niche for herself) and Iowa's pride, Katharine Goeldner, whom you might remember as stepping into the lead role the last time the Lyric did "Carmen," in 2010/2011 (or, more likely, not. But I sure remember it).
    At intermission the group behind me started debating what language the singers of "Eugene Onegin" might be using. I let them go on but, when resolution didn't seem at hand, Finally, I broke my rule against butting into other people's conversations. 
    "It's Russian," I said, half turning in my seat.
     "It doesn't sound like Russian," a man objected.
     "I studied Russian in college," I said, evenly. "They're speaking Russian words. 'Ya lubloo ti da,' 'Yes, I love you.'" 
    They were still skeptical—this person claiming knowledge on the subject they obviously lacked any experience in whatsoever didn't count. Then one located some corroboration in the the program. "It says 'Russian,'' one lady read, and they were satisfied. 
    Well, you don't go to the opera to socialize with other patrons. It never works out well. Although, heading up the aisle at the same intermission, an 85-year-old woman grabbed my arm and suddenly I was escorting her on my arm. She was apologetic, and I said No, this is exactly how my mother gets around. 
    "Though you really should use a cane," I said, delivering the same lecture I give to my mom at every opportunity. She said she has a man who lives with her and helps her, but he also had to tend to her husband, and couldn't make the four-hour investment going to the opera entailed. I was about to quote Blanche DuBois on the kindness of strangers, but we were in the lobby and she broke free and was gone.
     Not a lot of intellectual challenge going on with "Eugene Onegin." Although. Early on, when two rustically-dressed women are peeling potatoes against a vast orange background with five tall thin birch trees cutting up the stage, one snatch of song was translated as, "Routine brings comfort from distress. God's substitute for happiness."
    Well, that's something to chew on. Damning, yes. I guess to be happy you have to seduce your pal's beloved then kill him in a duel.  Frankly, I'd rather make coffee and walk the dog every single day. Without giving away the ending, I have to say I was one of the few patrons, if not the only patron in the history of music, to laugh out loud, big grin on my face, as poor Eugene was left, miserable and alone in the center of the empty stage, decrying his woe. I had that reaction because I was suddenly thinking of a particular die-hard bachelor friend and wishing he were sitting next to me so I could elbow him in the ribs and say, "Something to look forward to, eh?" And I have to say, as the lights came up, and I jumped to make the 5:25, I was pretty darn happy, even though I was catching the same train I always do.


  1. and its OK to be happy. though to be the only one laughing? well , thats OK too. i hope. cause i look around and realize I'm the only one quite often. maybe that sort of thing is tolerated at the opera. don't know . never go

    1. You should try to expand your horizons then. The opera was over, hence the laughter, more of a soft chuckle, did not require toleration.

    2. yes i should. a little culture might do me good

  2. My horizons are a bit cramped as well, but I've enjoyed every opera I've seen performed with the exception of Beethoven's opera, a production of which at a theater on Belmont bored me half to death several years ago. Carmen on the other hand is more exciting for me than the Sopranos. I envy Neil's freedom to walk down the street and play hooky at the Civic Opera House.


  3. Glad you went. It's a lovely opera and you are unlikely to ever see a better rendition. The first opera I saw -- a visiting New York City Opera road company staging with George London as Onegin. I wasn't terribly impressed then because, beyond the duel, not much seems to happen, but after a number of hearings recognize that was just the shallowness of youth. Like describing 'Uncle Vanya' as no more than three hours of chatter about how boring country life is.

    One problem -- a non problem really -- is that it's full of 'ear worms:' melodies you wake up at night and find running through your head. Doesn't happen with 'Wozzek.'

    About the Russian, subtitles now make its foreignness no longer a barrier to understanding, and it is a very euphonious tongue. My resident expert tells me learning the text is difficult for a non-Russian speaker, but it is, like Italian, a very grateful language to sing in. As English is not.

    Tom Evans

  4. My brother died a week ago Saturday. Opera was the passion of his life. When I visited him in the hospital for the last time, I played a video of the Queen of the Night aria from "The Magic Flute" for him on my phone. Eight hours later, he was gone. I take some consolation in knowing that I gave him that last little bit of pleasure.

  5. I really enjoy these opera posts and comments. I saw "Eugene" yesterday as well, and found it a perfect antidote to the outside world; three hours of lovely singing and performance. Although....the person sitting behind me was adding his own accompaniment to the score, tapping his foot endlessly on the floor, loud enough to nearly ruin the day. I almost turned around out of curiosity and frustration, prepared to give him a look of "please stop that right now"...but I abstained. And I did notice that Russian language never sounded so aesthetically pleasing to my ear before.


    1. i really enjoy theses posts too. and the strolls through the botanic gardens, and the divy bike trips.

  6. I went to see Eugene Onegin last night at the Lyric, and the performance was beautiful! My friend scoffed at the "spartan" set designs, but I thought they were rather interesting, and the right amount visual interest for this opera. Like you, I was struck by the lines that were sung early in the first scene: "Routine brings comfort from distress. God's substitute for happiness." (Googling the keywords led me to your blog!) I guess the flip side could be "Variety is the spice of life." But variety doesn't always deliver happiness either. Much to chew on, indeed!


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