Monday, April 10, 2017

A Hero of Our Time

The Bolshoi Ballet streamed the ballet A Hero of Our Time on April 9th. The Bolshoi is the only theater where this ballet is performed.

The ballet is in three parts, adapted and condensed from the five-part novel written by Mikhail Lermontov in 1839--his only novel. I like modern ballet and I was sure I'd read this novel in my youth when I was obsessed with Russian literature (until I moved on to the existentialists!).  But after seeing the ballet, I realized I'd read only one of the five parts of the novel in a book of short fiction by Russian writers. Now I know that the novel is sometimes described as five related short stories.

Lermontov self-portrait 1837

Lermontov was a writer, poet and painter, aligned with the school of Romanticism, and a social misfit, his wit defined as poisonous and his humor as sardonic. He was considered second only to Alexander Pushkin in genius. The unfortunate Lermontov (1814-1841) died at the age of 26 in a duel (not his first duel) after challenging a friend. He was famous for his poetry but also for this novel about a military man who is what today we would call a 'player' when it comes to women. In the case of Pechorin, the Byronic protagonist in the ballet, simple and pure women eventually bore him and he quickly tires of the upper class coquettes.

The ballet uses three different male dancers to perform three parts of Pechorin's life. Besides the musical score, each part has an operatic soloist singing and a single instrument being played during especially dramatic scenes.

Part 1 - Pechorin is a young officer in the military and, ruled by his passions, travels across the Caucasus mountains. He kidnaps the exotic Bela (wearing multi-colored belly dancer garb and a translucent mouth veil), a young girl who is a Caucasian princess, daughter of the tribal chief, and persuades her to have sex with him--verboten by tribal law.  Eventually he grows bored and leaves her, although he claims to still love her. Alone and broken-hearted, Bela is beaten to death for breaking tribal law.

Part 2 - He travels to a town near the water and being military, demands accommodation. Only one place is available, and he's warned he won't like it. It's a rough dock area, full of thieves, but also a woman (wearing red) who is an Undine, or water nymph, determined to seduce him. The trick with these supernatural creatures is that if the Undine mates with a human male, she becomes immortal. But there's a risk to the male: he must remain loyal to her for life, or he will die.  Pechorin--not oriented towards monogamy--manages to escape before he is trapped.

Part 3 - Pechorin is now in a sanatorium for wounded military men and meets Grushnitsky there, his old and closest friend. And he also reunites with his old girlfriend Vera, a woman (wearing black) who has always given him support and unconditional love. Soon he notices Grushnitsky, who now needs a cane to walk, attempting to woo Princess Mary (wearing white) and, being the cynical and superficial man that he is, one who cannot resist winning a competition, Pechorin steals the princess away from his friend. Grushnitsky challenges him to a duel and Pechorin switches guns with him, kills his friend and, after this, loses both Princess Mary, and Vera, the woman who he realizes too late that he truly loves.

A Hero of Our Time was presented at the ballet as the first psychological novel in Russian, and I think that's accurate. Lermontov described his main character Pechorin as not so much A man but a kind of Everyman of his era. He is torn in many directions and his fickle appetites and inability to empathize drive him to hurt the women he pursues. 

Quote from the novel translation:  (Pechorin) "Afraid of decision, I buried my finer feelings in the depths of my heart and they died there."

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