Czarina for an Evening

THERE is a tingling sense of expectation when you visit Leningrad for the first time, an expectation heightened if you are fortunate enough to get tickets for the opera on your first night. Our taxi sped along Nevsky Prospekt, past palaces and cathedrals (St. Isaac's, Our Lady of Kazan, the Church of the Resurrection), past a fretwork of canals and bridges (the Lion's bridge, the Horse Tamers' bridge over the Fontanka Canal); one enchantment followed another. We swept round the garden outside the Russian Museum, with bronze and russet autumn leaves fluttering down on to the statue of Pushkin. Beyond lay the Maly Theatre where the czar and his court had come, where Fyodor Chaliapin had sung. What wonders awaited us there, not only a new opera, ``Maria Stuart,'' by the composer Slonimski, but an encounter that would add a quite new dimension to our opera-going.

Out seat in the exquisite little theater, all shimmering gold and cream, was next to an elderly, diminutive Lenigradian, dressed in such oddly shabby finery that it seemed to belong to another age. It would have been comical had it not been worn with great dignity. She picked us out at once as foreigners. ``The opera tonight is all about Scotland,'' she told us. When she heard that we came from that country she took us completely under her wing. ``Shottlandia! Look,'' pointing up at a loge, ``there's Slonimski himself. He knows your history.''

The lights dimmed, silence fell. The curtain rose on Edinburgh, on bekilted Russians dancing to a chorus of ``Shottlandia moya [My Scotland],'' on John Knox preaching, on Mary Stuart and David Rizzio singing a duet about enamored hearts before the assassins dragged him off to his doom. Lord Darnley slept uneasily, pursued by evil dreams, Queen Elizabeth was tormented by thoughts of regicide, and finally the great axe fell on the tragic Mary at Fotheringay.

``You see,'' our neighbor exclaimed with intense satisfaction, ``how they were all punished for their sins. It's the same in every opera.''

WAS she perhaps, along with Slonimski, a composer herself? Not a bit of it! She introduced herself as Alexandra Ivanovna, a program seller in the Maly Theatre, with right to an occasional free ticket. ``I hope we meet again,'' she said.

We did. A few nights later we returned to the Maly for Faust and there, at a program-piled table, was Alexandra Ivanovna, this time in a less festive gown but no less dignified. She welcomed us as old friends and in a way, for the duration of the evening, we became her personal property. She showed us off to acquaintances as she might exhibit prize pupils or rabbits pulled from a hat. We were from Shottlandia, spoke Russian of a sort, but she could understand us; best of all we loved opera. She held court at her table like a small czarina.

Each autumn one of the delights of Leningrad was the drive by night to the Maly, crossing the foyer to be greeted by Alexandra. ``You're back! Over from Shottlandia!'' During the intermissions she liked to whisk us off to the garderobe at the foot of the stairs leading to the stalls and the loges. No one would disturb us here. ``I've sold all my programs so now I can tell you about the opera,'' she said. ``Besides, I've something to give you.''

In the dark cloakroom we sat among velvet and fur wraps, cloaks and capes, threadbare Leningrad overcoats that reminded us of the fusty dusty frock-coat worn by Gogol's wretched clerk, Akaky Akakevich. Alexandra's robe belonged to the same order. She brought out her gift for us - fabulous Maly posters of ``Boris Godunov,'' ``The Queen of Spades,'' ``Evegeny Onegin,'' ``Don Carlos,'' and ``Rigoletto,'' kept carefully against our hoped-for return.

We sniffed in an atmosphere of mothballs and more exotic perfumes while we listened to Alexandra. Anything we knew or thought we knew about opera was swept aside. Here was someone who, losing count of how many she had seen, could repeat them all by heart and interpreted them in her own way.

``I was only a child when my parents came back from hearing Chaliapin sing in `Boris Godunov,''' she told us. ``They could talk of nothing else, of the shivers that ran down their spines when Boris, tortured with remorse, shrank in terror from visions of the child he had murdered, Dmitri. No singer in the world, no actor, could compare with our Fyodor Ivanovich Chaliapin, they said, a peasant's son. `Tell me more,' I would beg them. It was all I could think of, I was obsessed. Chaliapin died in 1938, then the war came and that put an end to opera.''

She leaned back among fur wraps, overcoats, and posters, caught up in a web of memories, sweeping us with her, sharing something of her life. ``We lived through the 900 days' siege, the Germans' incessant shelling, the fear, the icy cold, the aching void of hunger. We dreamt of bread, of only one slice more. Butter and jam were inconceivable, but bread! The other dream that never left me and helped me to survive was of opera at the Maly. If I ever got back there it meant that peace had returned to earth.''

WE moved between the dim little cloakroom and our seats in the golden theater under the glittering chandeliers, only startled from Alexandra Ivanovna's visions by the warning bell for the fourth act. She started too. How many of her fellow citizens recalled certain dire sounds - the elevator creaking upward in the apartment block - would it stop at your landing or go? Would there follow the dread dawn ring at the door, the summons to some distant Gulag?

Each autumn opera was transformed for us more and still more. First, the familiar Italian of Verdi, the German of Mozart and Beethoven, the French of Gounod and Berlioz suffered a sea change into the rich strangeness of Russian, never to sound the same again. Added to that there was a sense of watching the unfolding of a human document, the realization that opera could voice truths no one for long years had dared express.

It was an endless voyage of discovery. There was Figaro asserting the revolutionary principle of equality with the count. Don Carlos, escaping from the Grand Inquisitor, and Sarastro proclaiming an end to the tyranny of the Queen of the Night and the powers of darkness, took on fresh meaning. Our spines, too, tingled at the terror of Boris Godunov and when the footsteps of the Stone Guest, the Commendatore, echoed across the stage, pursuing the damned Don Juan. We were moved to tears at the marvelous moment in ``Fidelio'' when the prisoners emerged from their dungeon into the sunshine. Shackled, gray-clad skeletons, blinded by light, they groped forward, clinging to one another, singing ``Freedom! Freiheit!'' The Russian people were passing before us.

Between the acts Alexandra Ivanovna waited for us in the garderobe. ``Ponimayete?'' she kept repeating with touching eagerness. ``Do you understand?'' She wanted us to see each opera through her eyes, to be as convinced as she was that, in the conflict between good and evil, the good invariably, inevitably, triumphed.

``We all suffered in Leningrad,'' she would tell us, adding, ``And not only in the war. Yet look at what happened to me!'' she exclaimed with a radiant smile. ``What a recompense - work in the Maly!''

As she spoke the years fell away, she was no longer an elderly, shabby Soviet citizen but a young girl again, at her first opera; she was Chekov's Sonya promising Uncle Vanya rest and peace after much anguish.

``Some dreams do come true,'' she always concluded. ``Sometimes I even get a free ticket for the Kirov - then I wear my fine gown - you have seen it. The Kirov is beautiful too, but the Maly is my kingdom.'' However drab, bleak, and often alarming the outside world might be, in the Maly was found a magical sanctuary.

Each year we drove away from the theater, clutching our treasured posters, sometimes under a starry sky, at others in a fine Nordic drizzle. We saw crescent and full moons float on the Neva, watched mists curl and twine over the Fontanka and Moika canals, felt the chill of the first swirling snowflakes. We passed the Winter Palace, the Hermitage, the Decembrists' Square. Over there the grim Peter and Paul Fortress rose up, here the Aurora rode at anchor. We were turning over page upon page of the history book opened for us by Alexandra.

In our mind's ear we kept hearing her autumn greeting - ``Back from Shottlandia!'' as if we had dropped somehow from the sky - her eager, hopeful ``Ponimayete?'' We felt a humble gratitude for the friendship of this diminutive, dignified servant of the vast republic who welcomed us to her realm of the Maly, touched by her unwavering belief that one day the curtain would rise, as in opera, on the world of Sarastro and Fidelio, one of compassion and goodness.

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