A Night at the Opera

   Now that the acclaimed Mariinsky Theater has raised both of its two-tier ticket prices — for Russians and for locals — to luxury levels, I have become a great fan of the St. Petersburg Opera, a small company occupying a chamber theater on Galernaya St. Typically, from the outside, the building is fairly non-descript and easily overlooked if not for a vertical, block letter sign citing, simply, "OPERA". The little theater itself, located in a former palace, has been elegantly restored right down to its adjoining grotto, where concerts are held and where one can enjoy a glass of Soviet Champagne of an intermission that costs as much as one's opera ticket. The singers range from competent to magnificent and the tariff is still accessible. The clientele tends to be superior, as well, to that of the big theaters, with their herds of first-time theater goers spilling from tour buses and one-act businessmen with "escorts" on their arms.

   I confess to a besotted relationship with "La Traviata" and attend performances of it whenever I'm able. So, on an eerily bleached, liquid white night recently, I set off for a night at the opera. Petersburg's bureaucrats persist in tearing up our fair city's roads and architecture at the height of the tourist season; thus, I discovered too late that all transportation to my destination had been diverted or deleted. These days, there seems to be a deficit of Lada gypsy cabs on the streets and flagging a black Mercedes produces no ride. I wound up walking the whole way, arriving half an hour late. The ticket booth was closed, naturally, but I inquired at the coat-check, where various administrators suddenly appeared. One sold me a ticket for 200 rubles to a previous performance of a different opera and had me escorted to an empty aisle seat in an added row near the door, admitting me, and other loitering late-comers together. Everyone, save the fire marshal, presumably, was happy.

   Catching my breath and quietly settling in, I was dispirited to find that the courtesans were got up as contemporary, sleazy street-walkers; the resident funny man was perhaps too diverting as a transvestite and an enormous pink and yellow plush crab figured largely as a prop. Concerning period staging, I don't come down strictly on the side of Vishnevskaya, but Traviata! Really. Elder prejudice perhaps, but is difficult to believe that an Alfredo who looks and acts like a blank slater skater is capable of a Grand Amour.

   Never mind; one can always close one's eyes or gaze at the full-figured mermaid atlases and cherubs while receiving life-affirming transfusions of glorious music via colossal voices.

   The second act's staging was less jarring and more varied, allowing for better concentration on the kind of thrilling pianissimo achievable only in an intimate space. I was content to be in that hall, in this paradoxical city.

   When the cast took their curtain calls, I took a couple of unobtrusive photos without flash for my daughter, who had studied theater in St. Petersburg. When the lights came up and the audience departed, I positioned myself to photograph the mirror supported by its mermaids. Before I could do so, however, a bevy of middle-aged dames pushed in front of me to take grim flash snaps of each other. I waited patiently. Meanwhile, the uniform vested and skirted ushers fiddled with chairs and admonished them indulgently not to drag it out. Finally I focused and shot. An incensed usher had bullied herself belligerently into my picture, finger wagging. She accused me of photographing the performance, which I denied. She asked if I had obtained prior permission. I, in turn, asked if the parade of spectators who had sat for their bleak portraits had obtained permission. Then a man in black came to her aid, threatening to confiscate my camera and destroy the chip. At issue, of course, were my foreignness and the size of my lens. I did not get my photo, but I did leave with an overwhelming feeling of déjà vu not uncommon these days in Russia. In 1973, a similar sort of man in gray ripped an entire film out of my camera after I took a picture of Palace Bridge.

   I took a different route home and managed to get a seat on a marshrutka, mini-van taxi. A woman already seated on the aisle refused to move over and I had to climb over her in my glad rags, replete with "invalid" cane. As she rose to leave, she whacked me on the head, with a purse of lead, bending my glasses, while slinging it over her shoulder. No apology, thanks.

   My operatic euphoria had all but evaporated. I decided I had better forego my planned walk along the Fontanka embankment and repair to my cozy apartment, where the ceiling was again leaking because my upstairs neighbors, insisting that it has nothing to do with them or their pipes or their transferred bathroom overhead, had returned from their dacha and were taking showers. Pouring a glass of outrageously over-priced Chilean Chardonnay, having balked at intermission "champagne", I listened to it rain, outside and in. Not for the first time, I ruminated on how differently my life might have turned out had I studied Boccaccio instead of Dostoevsky.

   June, 2008