Gospodi pomiluj. That’s Church Slavonic for “God have mercy”, same as the Greek Kyrie eleison. I remember learning a setting of those words in High School choir. The entire text of the piece was just those two words, repeated over and over at increasing dynamic levels. The suffering of the world thrown high to the ears of God. There were moments in the opera last night (Boris Godunov) where this poignant plea rang out and reached my heart high in the upper balcony, but unlike a Puccini moment, it didn’t take full hold. Why not? Well, I could bicker about the staging, pointing out that the chorus milling about in the background distracted from the Holy Fool’s aria downstage left in front of the floodlight. I could point out that the composer wasn’t really a professional and didn’t provide enough scene change music to set off these important highlights. Others came in later (Rimsky-Korsakov, for instance) and tried to make Boris a bit more theater-ready, but the Lyric staged the original version. But perhaps the more intriguing discussion is about the way Russian suffering compares to Italian – or Buddhist – suffering.
This iconic Russian opera includes a large chorus of peasants, children, boyars (advisers), soldiers and priests. Russia’s suffering is peopled. By contrast, Puccini’s operas often concentrate on the suffering of one or two lovers. You feel the depths of their grief in soaring melodies, cry with them, and feel cleansed. (Think Butterfly, Tosca, Boheme.) Russia’s suffering would never be so finite. It’s pervasive. The czar embodies this and its relentlessness drives him mad. Well, that and hallucinations of a child he supposedly murdered. But he cares about his people; he tries to feed them, and they still blame him for every want. How do you find peace?
Buddhism addresses peace from the inside out. It isn’t a peace that you could pass on to a population as their leader. The best you could do is find it for yourself and try to be a role model. It would be quite a challenge to maintain it as the head of a huge, suffering nation. Would that be the Emperor of Japan’s story? Or China’s and India’s story? Actually, the Met is currently showing Phillip Glass’s opera about Ghandi (Satyagraha). It was simulcast in theaters this past Saturday. Missed it, but hoping to see the encore screening December 7th.
Here’s another thought about nationalism and identity: there’s Mother Russia and the German Fatherland; what parental figure do we have connecting us to American land? Uncle Sam? Does that mean we are orphans?
I have to say that exploring and addressing my personal grief and suffering through Art is like taking a bitter pill with a large spoonful of glittering sugar. Costumes, twinkly lights, gorgeously rich bass voices and sympathetic violins really take the edge off. I appreciate the genius and consider myself enormously fortunate. Thanks for the grace and mercy. Oh, and I hope Erik Nelson Werner wasn’t badly hurt when he fell off the set in a hasty exit.