Like just about everyone else in the world, I have been watching, admiring and worrying about the Winter Olympics in Sochi. But audiences at the Metropolitan Opera also have been immersed in another drama of Russian nationalism, pride and unnerving questions about humanity's capacity for mayhem and beauty.
For the first time in almost a century, the Met is doing Alexander Borodin's 1890 epic of 12th century Russian warfare, "Prince Igor." Also, for the first time at the Met, the text is not being sung in Italian but in the original Russian.
And I've been struck, also for the first time, by how many of our ideas about Russia have come from artists -- from ballet and theater, from music and painting, from Russians and foreigners writing about them.
How strange this is. Over the decades, our shifting perspectives have been affected so much by the conflicting viewpoints and realities about the country that, undeniably, has given us so much to cherish through culture.
But the conflicts are just as stark. Sublime fairy-tale ballet romanticism versus sensational headlines from Soviet defectors. The West's embrace of Russian emigres George Balanchine and Igor Stravinsky juxtaposed with tear-gas bombs hurled at the folkloric Moiseyev Dance Company at the Met, protests by Jewish Defense League members in 1986 against the treatment of Jews in Russia.
And now we have updates -- both profound and ridiculous. Activist performance artists Pussy Riot have drawn international attention to human rights issues. Hollywood has returned to Russian cold-war villains. I'm especially sickened by reports of the killing of stray animals before the games, but even more by President Vladimir Putin's legal crackdown on gays. To bring this back to culture, famed defector Mikhail Baryshnikov, currently in a Chekhov adaptation called "Man in a Case" at California's Berkeley Rep, was recently photographed wearing a symbolic -- gay rainbow -- colored scarf.
Valery Gergiev, close friend of Putin and an omnipresent conductor from the Met to St.Petersburg, recently bragged to Fareed Zakaria on CNN about the importance of the arts. The opening ceremonies of the Olympics -- traditionally a wasteland for the so-called high arts -- showcased music and ballet. "Russia without a culture is not a country," said Gergiev. "It's just a huge piece of land. A country makes it, together with culture, an entity."
And the culture is what has made us so familiar with Russian history. England, of course, gets a lot of marketing help from Shakespeare and the BBC. But much of what we know about Russia comes through its writers and through the fascinated eyes of Western playwrights.
British master Tom Stoppard was so obsessed with 19th century Russia that he gave us "The Coast of Utopia," an unforgettable trilogy about the forgotten intellectuals who set the stage for what they believed would be the massive social progress of the Russian Revolution.
In 2007, the Lincoln Center Theater put together a staggeringly beautiful, Tony-winning extravaganza of the daylong play with a cast of 44. Layer by layer, Stoppard brought us to the twilight of the struggle between a dream of peaceful change and the next generation of radical "new men" who trusted only in the truth of "the ax."
The struggle was updated in 1993 with Tony Kushner's seven-hour, two-part AIDS masterwork, "Angels in America," in which the Pulitzer-winning playwright somehow brought the death of Soviet communism into his monumental yet intimate and witty conflagration. At the start of the second half of "Angels," titled "Perestroika," we are in the former Soviet Union with the oldest living Bolshevik, named Prelapsarianov, as in Eden before Eve's lapse.
The old man warns against change, against rejecting the ideals of communism without having a replacement theory -- without first knowing where to go. In fact, Kushner had so much more to say about changing Russia that, in 1994, he wrote another deliriously tough and delightful 90-minute follow-up, "Slavs! (Thinking About the Longstanding Problems of Virtue and Happiness)."
In it, he embraces generations of Slavs, of people who live daily with the results of the most recent economic theory. At the end, old men look down from heaven and complain about a world where "chaos, market fluctuations, rich and poor, colonialism and war are all that we shall ever see." And yet, they say, "If we love the world ... human beings can change it. ... But what is to be done?"
These ideas -- specifically Russian yet undeniably universal -- are revisited at the Met's "Prince Igor." Dmitri Tcherniakov's radically rethought version is less a reflection of the score's Russian exoticism and the plot's imperialism than a timeless meditation on territorial violence. (To be repeated six times, including March 1, when it is also screened in movie theaters.)
The 41/2-hour epic begins now with projected words on a curtain: "To unleash a war is the surest way to escape from oneself." Prince Igor and his men rush out to stop the invaders from Polovtsia. Tcherniakov, the Russian-bred star director, gives us video close-ups of soldiers' faces in all their anxiety, then shows them as corpses in the mud. Igor, wounded, hallucinates himself into a thigh-high poppy field, a maze in which his dead son reappears and through which the traditionally pseudo-oriental Polovtsian dances are turned into desperate sensual flailing by captured slaves. Oh, and without explanation, a few modern bureaucrats in business suits suddenly appear in a sadistic medieval uprising.
I'm not saying this makes sense within its context or feels true to the message in the music. But it does catapult me into thoughts and shivers about the Olympics. And these made me, once again, marvel at the prescience of the deeply human plays by Anton Chekhov in the late 19th century -- stories about bourgeois life before a revolution that he could not have known was coming.
I especially think of Astrov, the disillusioned doctor in "Uncle Vanya," who, in 1899, asked, "What are people going to say, a hundred years from now? You think they'll admire us for the way we live?"
Admire, no. But we certainly know who they are, and how much we are alike.