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.