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6.3.10

À mon chevet: War and Peace

book cover
À mon chevet is a series of posts featuring a quote from whatever book is on my nightstand at the moment.
That evening the Rostovs went to the Opera, for which Marya Dmitrievna had taken a box. Natasha did not want to go, but could not refuse Marya Dmitrievna's kind offer which was intended expressly for her. When she came ready dressed into the ballroom to await her father, and looking in the large mirror there saw that she was pretty, very pretty, she felt even more sad, but it was a sweet, tender sadness. [...]

Natasha at that moment felt so softened and tender that it was not enough for her to love and know she was beloved, she wanted now, at once, to embrace the man she loved, to speak and hear from him words of love such as filled her heart. While she sat in the carriage beside her father, pensively watching the lights of the street lamps flickering on the frozen window, she felt still sadder and more in love, and forgot where she was going and with whom. Having fallen into the line of carriages, the Rostovs' carriage drove up to the theater, its wheels squeaking over the snow. Natasha and Sonya, holding up their dresses, jumped out quickly. The count got out helped by the footmen, and, passing among men and women who were entering and the program sellers, they all three went along the corridor to the first row of boxes. Through the closed doors the music was already audible. "Natasha, your hair!..." whispered Sonya.

An attendant deferentially and quickly slipped before the ladies and opened the door of their box. The music sounded louder and through the door rows of brightly lit boxes in which ladies sat with bare arms and shoulders, and noisy stalls brilliant with uniforms, glittered before their eyes. A lady entering the next box shot a glance of feminine envy at Natasha. The curtain had not yet risen and the overture was being played. Natasha, smoothing her gown, went in with Sonya and sat down, scanning the brilliant tiers of boxes opposite. A sensation she had not experienced for a long time -- that of hundreds of eyes looking at her bare arms and neck -- suddenly affected her both agreeably and disagreeably and called up a whole crowd of memories, desires and emotions associated with that feeling. [...]

Just then the last chords of the overture were heard and the conductor tapped with his stick. Some latecomers took their seats in the stalls, and the curtain rose. As soon as it rose everyone in the boxes and stalls became silent, and all the men, old and young, in uniform and evening dress, and all the women with gems on their bare flesh, turned their whole attention with eager curiosity to the stage. Natasha too began to look at it.

The floor of the stage consisted of smooth boards, at the sides was some painted cardboard representing trees, and at the back was a cloth stretched over boards. In the center of the stage sat some girls in red bodices and white skirts. One very fat girl in a white silk dress sat apart on a low bench, to the back of which a piece of green cardboard was glued. They all sang something. When they had finished their song the girl in white went up to the prompter's box and a man with tight silk trousers over his stout legs, and holding a plume and a dagger, went up to her and began singing, waving his arms about. First the man in the tight trousers sang alone, then she sang, then they both paused while the orchestra played and the man fingered the hand of the girl in white, obviously awaiting the beat to start singing with her. They sang together and everyone in the theater began clapping and shouting, while the man and woman on the stage -- who represented lovers -- began smiling, spreading out their arms, and bowing.

After her life in the country, and in her present serious mood, all this seemed grotesque and amazing to Natasha. She could not follow the opera nor even listen to the music; she saw only the painted cardboard and the queerly dressed men and women who moved, spoke, and sang so strangely in that brilliant light. She knew what it was all meant to represent, but it was so pretentiously false and unnatural that she first felt ashamed for the actors and then amused at them. She looked at the faces of the audience, seeking in them the same sense of ridicule and perplexity she herself experienced, but they all seemed attentive to what was happening on the stage, and expressed delight which to Natasha seemed feigned. "I suppose it has to be like this!" she thought.

She kept looking round in turn at the rows of pomaded heads in the stalls and then at the seminude women in the boxes, especially at Helene in the next box, who—apparently quite unclothed—sat with a quiet tranquil smile, not taking her eyes off the stage. And feeling the bright light that flooded the whole place and the warm air heated by the crowd, Natasha little by little began to pass into a state of intoxication she had not experienced for a long while. She did not realize who and where she was, nor what was going on before her. As she looked and thought, the strangest fancies unexpectedly and disconnectedly passed through her mind: the idea occurred to her of jumping onto the edge of the box and singing the air the actress was singing, then she wished to touch with her fan an old gentleman sitting not far from her, then to lean over to Helene and tickle her.

-- Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace, Book VIII, chapters 8 and 9 (excerpts)
This evening is the first of two performances of Prokofiev's epic operatic setting of War and Peace, concluding the visit of the Mariinsky Theater to the Kennedy Center Opera House this month. This scene of Natasha's visit to the opera in Moscow has always made me laugh, but it is a good reminder of the hurdles an opera neophyte sometimes has to leap to achieve the necessary suspension of disbelief. What is also charming about this passage is that most of it consists of the gossip and ogling of Natasha and her neighbors in the loges, most of which I have clipped out of this quotation. You can read the whole book online at Project Gutenberg.

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