On a snowy winter afternoon there's nothing like the passion of the Metropolitan Opera to remind you of life's daily beauties.
A great work of art has the power to blow you over and to do it unexpectedly. You sit in the theater hoping for a little diversion and a line of dialogue bwwhangs you like a skillet upside the head.
What hit me last Saturday afternoon was the line “Instead of happiness, heaven sends us habit,” which is sung by a lady named Madame Larina to her servant Filippyevna as they are peeling apples on a farm in Russia way back in the early 19th century. I am an American in headlong pursuit of happiness and here was a lady expressing an older and earthier philosophy that my aunts would not have disagreed with: Better than happiness is acceptance, a gift of God. You wake up every morning and pull on your jeans and make coffee and look at the newspaper and pour bran flakes and milk in the bowl, and as time goes by you realize that this is preferable to what you once imagined would make you happy.
Madame Larina was quite pleased with the line “Instead of happiness, heaven sends us habit.” And she sang it several times. I put my hand on my wife’s knee. She was sitting next to me in the dark. It was snowing in Minnesota, a gray blustery Russian sort of day, and when we walked into the theater, a multiplex in the suburbs, we were in the mood to see “Eugene Onegin” live on high-definition TV from the Met, starring soprano Renée Fleming and baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky.
It simply was the most moving thing I’ve seen at the movies in a very long time. Mr. Hvorostovsky is tall, cool, handsome and everything that Elvis was hoping to be, and Miss Fleming’s bare left shoulder is more erotic than Madonna naked and when she puts her hand to her bodice, she makes my nostrils twitch. She plays Tatiana, who goes crazy for Onegin and writes him a letter and agonizes over it and plucks at her bodice and finally sends it to him.
He coolly rejects her. He doesn’t believe in marriage. He is in search of happiness, not the life of habit and dailiness. The chorus gets to sing and dance, and he shoots and kills the tenor, which I suppose we’ve all wanted to do now and then, and years later he meets her again — she is married, and now he is wild for her, and after a passionate duet, him on his knees, tugging at her, pleading, sobbing, pulling her down on the floor, she decides to be faithful to her husband and walks away, leaving Onegin tortured with regret.
“Eugene Onegin” was another installment in the Metropolitan Opera’s push to put its shows live in movie theaters via closed-circuit HDTV, a landmark triumph comparable to Caruso’s trip to Camden, N.J., in 1904 to stick his head in a recording horn and sing “Celeste Aida” so that glorious voice could be heard in every town in America.
The telecast I saw was live, not recorded live but live live, which made for some interesting moments. In Act I the stage is covered with dry leaves, a stunning visual, though for several minutes, the tenor Ramon Vargas had a leaf sitting atop his curly black hair. You wondered if it’s a small bald spot, and then you wondered if it was Yom Kippur. At one point somebody dropped a ring onstage and it rolled toward one of the microphones, sounding like a hubcap. The conductor, Valery Gergiev, looked like a Wisconsin dairy farmer who just woke up and had a beer for breakfast. But he was magnificent.
I’m not an opera critic so I can’t compare this “Onegin” to the 1948 Bolshoi production or comment on Miss Fleming’s use of sprezzatura in the Letter Aria, but I can say how joyful it is to see great artists take big chances on the big screen and rip loose from the moorings of cool and sing with red-blooded passion. When the old bass Sergei Aleksashkin sings about his love for his young wife, it brings tears to your eyes. It makes everyone in the theater feel enlarged.
Bravo to the Met. Bravissimo. For three hours on a Saturday afternoon, everything that had been on our minds faded to black and we lived as in a dream with a handsome man in search of happiness and a beautiful woman who found satisfaction, and then we walked out into the snow and started our cars.
(Garrison Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion” can be heard Saturday nights on public radio stations across the country.)
(c) 2007 by Garrison Keillor. All rights reserved. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.
More Related Stories
- What's 2013's "Gone Girl"? Here are this summer's best reads
- Twitter talks back: Obama's missed salute
- Fox executive behind "Does Someone Have to Go?" leaving the network
- Developers evict historic women's shelter to build luxury hotel
- Guantánamo prisoner on hunger strike cries for help on Twitter
- Kaitlyn Hunt refuses plea offer, will go to court over high school relationship
- The secrets of cicada survival
- Hillary Clinton memoir shows up on Amazon
- Nobody "needs" to rape
- A brief history of Jennifer Weiner's literary fights
- First look: Joaquin Phoenix, Marion Cotillard shine in "The Immigrant”
- DHS admits "impossible" to control 3D-printed guns
- 3 possible solutions to international tax avoidance
- “I just want the U.S. to send my father home”
- Journalists file suit against Manning trial secrecy
- Russia: Syrian regime ready to talk peace
- Catholic Church in market for more exorcists
- Report: Nearly a quarter of all Americans struggle to afford food
- Army weapons engineer tied to white nationalist organizations
- Ted Cruz against the world
- Wikipedia's anti-Pagan crusade
Featured Slide Shows
The week in 10 picsclose X
- 1 of 11
Lisa Montgomery embraces her nephew Thursday after a tornado tore apart her home in Cleburne, Texas. The twister killed six people and destroyed entire swaths of the North Texas town.
Credit: AP/LM Otero
Jack McMahon, the defense attorney for abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell, speaks outside the Criminal Justice Center in Philadelphia Tuesday. His client was convicted of killing three babies in his clinic, and will serve multiple life sentences.
Credit: AP/Matt Rourke
A photo taken Monday captures Vice President Joe Biden's response to a Milwaukee second-grader's innovative proposal to end America's epidemic of gun violence. This guy!
Credit: AP/Jenny Aicher
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., flanked by a grouper-eyed Michele Bachmann, addresses the IRS' admission that it targeted Tea Party groups in advance of the 2012 election. In an op-ed for CNN Thursday, the Kentucky senator slammed the president for his faux outrage.
Credit: AP/Molly Riley
Ousted IRS chief Steven Miller is sworn in on Capitol Hill Friday. Miller testified before the House Ways and Means Committee on the extra scrutiny the agency gave conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status.
Credit: AP/J. Scott Applewhite
Attorney General Eric Holder pauses as he testifies on Capitol Hill before the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday. Holder is under fire, among other things, for the Justice Department's gathering of phone records at the Associated Press.
Credit: AP/Carolyn Kaster
O.J. Simpson sits during an evidentiary hearing at Clark County District Court in Las Vegas, Nev., Thursday. Simpson, who is currently serving a nine-to-33-year sentence in state prison for armed robbery and kidnapping, is using a writ of habeas corpus to seek a new trial.
Credit: AP/Las Vegas Review-Journal/Jeff Scheid
Major Tom to ground control: On Sunday astronaut Chris Hadfield recorded the first music video from space, a cover of David Bowie's "Space Oddity."
Credit: AP/NASA/Chris Hadfield
When it rains it pours. President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference Thursday with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, inexplicably inspiring an #umbrellagate Twitter meme.
Credit: AP/Jacquelyn Martin
A smoke plume rises high above a road block at the intersection of County A and Ross Road east of Solon Springs, Wis., Tuesday. No injuries were reported, but the the wildfire caused evacuations across northwestern Wisconsin.
Credit: AP/The Duluth News-Tribune/Clint Austin
Recent Slide Shows
- 1 of 11