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A tale of two cities: Why “Eugene Onegin” resonates in Charleston | The Economist

May 30, 2017

Why “Eugene Onegin” resonates in Charleston

Russia and the American south both mythologise a half-digested history

IT WAS a sweltering evening in Charleston, South Carolina, but snow was falling inside the Gaillard Centre. The performance of “Eugene Onegin” on May 26th transported its audience to an estate in tsarist Russia and then, in the final act of Tchaikovsky’s opera, to St Petersburg. Consider the venue and the setting closely, though, and the mental journey becomes shorter than the weather made it seem.

“Onegin”, directed by Chen Shi-Zheng, was the opening showpiece of the Spoleto Festival USA: an annual arts extravaganza, featuring top-notch music and theatre, which this year runs until June 11th. Like St Petersburg, Charleston, the festival’s base, was once home to a storied aristocracy, members of which flocked to the city from their estates for grand balls. In both, the opulent lifestyles were supported by the backbreaking labour of others, serfs in Russia (until 1861), slaves in the American South. Mythologies have evolved around both of these compromised leisure classes, involving pageantry and elegance, gallantry and, as in “Onegin”, occasional violence. In both places, and especially in the antebellum South, the eras the myths commemorate and whitewash were brief, blinks in history that have come to loom disproportionately in cultural memory.

The landowners may have retreated to the cities, but in “Onegin” they mourn the seeming innocence of the countryside. This tension—between the conflicting pulls of the town’s sophistication and the simplicity of fields and forests—endures in Russia and in today’s American South. Lots of contemporary country music peddles rural nostalgia to big-city listeners; drive around Atlanta or other southern conurbations and you see many pick-up trucks with tell-tale spotless beds, their owners tied to urban jobs but signalling their country roots with their wheels. Many Russians, meanwhile, long to spend time in the countryside where, a century ago, most of their ancestors lived. Witness the traffic jams on the arterial roads out of Moscow on Friday afternoons, as the weekend rush to the dacha begins.

If town and country are one of the shared dichotomies that Spoleto’s “Onegin” evoked, so is light and darkness. The opera is a tragedy of love gone awry, transmuted by the score and Pushkin’s story into art. But it is proof, too, of a bloodier kind of alchemy, in which Russia’s grim history, all those repressions and upheavals, came to gestate the genius of Tchaikovsky and Pushkin, Dostoevsky and Shostakovich. That same discomforting entanglement—beauty bound up with suffering—characterises the South. William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor, Nina Simone and B.B. King: many of the glories of American culture would be inconceivable without the torments and disgrace of slavery and segregation, of which, as the country’s biggest slave entrepôt and the cradle of the Confederacy, Charleston was the epicentre. Well within living memory, the flirtation in this production between Onegin and Olga—sung by a white baritone and black soprano—might have incited a riot. The Gaillard Centre is down the road from the church in which, in 2015, a white supremacist murdered nine African-Americans during Bible study.

In the South, as in post-communist Russia, a half-digested lump of history sits suffocatingly near society’s heart. And, in both, this painful past takes physical form. Southern cities are littered with statues of Confederate leaders and slaveholders. Russian towns have mostly removed their monuments to Lenin, but the man himself still lies, embalmed, in Red Square.  Even more intractably, Charleston and St Petersburg are themselves artefacts of genius and horror: two of the loveliest cities in the world, both are built on bones and haunted by the ghosts of war and injustice (including, in St Petersburg, those of the Nazi siege and Stalin’s purges). “There is no document of civilisation”, thought Walter Benjamin, “that is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” In few places is his observation as pertinent as in the cities combined in this “Onegin”.

As is to be expected of a festival production, the set was minimalist, but the impact was enhanced by the innovative use of lighting and video. Two effects stood out. In the duel scene, the shadows of Onegin and Lensky became eerily unmoored from the performers, seeming to stalk and circle each other independently. Before that, during the overture, a screen showed a film of a wintry forest, snow descending among the trees. They weren’t silver birches, the classic Russian tree that dangled above the stage in the first two acts, but pines, the quintessential Southern one: a fitting visual melding of two overlapping cultures.

Source: A tale of two cities: Why “Eugene Onegin” resonates in Charleston | The Economist

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