ODESSA, Ukraine – In a nation at war and a city afflicted with a semblance of normalcy, the Odessa Opera has opened its doors for the first time since the Russian invasion, asserting civilization against the barbarism unleashed by Moscow.
Friday’s performance at the magnificent Opera House, opened in 1810 on a plateau above the now-closed Black Sea port, began with a passionate performance of the Ukrainian national anthem. Images of wheat swaying in the wind formed a backdrop, reminiscent of the grain of the fertile hinterland that had long made Odessa rich, but now sits in silos as war rages and global food shortages grow.
“In case of sirens, go to the theater shelter,” said Ilona Trach, a theater official who presented the program. “You are the soul of this opera and we think it is very important to show silence after 115 days of silence that we are able to perform.”
Odessa has generally been quiet for the past few weeks, but only 70 miles to the east – in the port city of Nikolaev, where President Vladimir Zelensky visited on Saturday – Russian shelling is a daily attack. It is no secret that Russian President Vladimir Putin wants Odessa as a critical port for Ukraine’s economy, as a city that is part of the Russian and then Soviet empires, and as a cultural symbol.
If the cobbled, tree-lined boulevards of the city suggest tranquility, it is a fragile silence that can be broken at any time. But then Odessa – its history as a procession of triumph and trauma as borders shift, the Holocaust envelops it and cycles of boom and bust follow one another – has always lived for the moment.
The theater – a Rococo palace in gold braid, red Lyon velvet, chandeliers and mirrors – was about a third full due to security restrictions. Vyacheslav Chernukho-Volich, the opera’s chief conductor, directed a performance that included a duet from Romeo and Juliet and arias from Tosca, Turandot and Odessa-born composer Konstantin Dankevich.
The music seemed a defiant marvel of culture and beauty, the supreme rebuke of Russian savagery in Bucha and Mariupol, places that have become synonymous with the causeless destruction unleashed by Mr. Putin in a war reflecting his obsession that Ukraine is a fictional nation.
“We received permission to perform from the military 10 days ago and today is pure happiness,” he said. Chernukho-Volich. “At the beginning of the war, explosions and sirens terrified me, as if I had sunk into some unreality, a World War II film, but people get used to everything. It’s hard, but we want to believe in the victory of civilization. “
Mr. Chernukho-Volich worked in Moscow for several years, but in 2014 Putin annexed Crimea and fueled a separatist war in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas, he said he had an insight: the imperial idea is inseparable from Russia and any politician like Mr. Putin, ready to unleash his elixir, will immediately prosper at home and threaten the world. He left.
You better understand the Russia-Ukraine war
Now he plays in an opera designed for the first time by St. St. Petersburg architect and restored after a fire by Viennese architects, with its facade decorated with a bust of Alexander Pushkin; and he lives in a city founded by a Russian empress and essentially founded by a French duke, home over the years to merchants of all faiths and denominations extracted from the Mediterranean and the steppes of Central Asia.
All this Mr. Putin wants to be subjected to increasingly brutal oppression of his rule in the name of the Russian Empire. He wants to drown out the polyglot murmur of Odessa, a city defined by its openness, whose music is its mixing.
“Odessa is its own nationality,” said Grigory Baratz, a member of the Jewish community in Odessa, largely scattered by the Russian invasion. Attending the concert, he said he was thinking about his 96-year-old mother in Brooklyn, who once worked in the theater.
The applause at the end of the show was prolonged, cut by shouts of “Bravo!” Behind the scenes Marina Naimitenko, soprano, played Juliet, full of pride and emotion. “Art is what will help us survive and keep ours essence so we can win this war, “she said.
When, I asked, will it be? “Unfortunately,” she said, “it will take some time. It makes us depressed how crazy Putin looks. “But, she continued, Juliet gave her special inspiration.” This is Shakespeare, this is youth and this is pure love. “
In a sense, the opening of the Opera House in a city hit just two months ago by a rocket attack that killed eight people has taken over two aspects of Ukraine as war breaks out and fronts move slowly, if at all: a country where there is something superficially resembling normal life has been restored in large areas, even when fighting is intense in the east and parts of the south.
“It is important to show that Odessa is alive, that Ukraine is alive, that we want to live and create, while the path of the Russian occupiers is murder and death,” said in an interview Gennady Trukhanov, the mayor of Odessa. “If Mr Putin dared to hit the opera, the hatred he would face around the world is unimaginable.”
Mr. Trukhanov, long thought to have pro-Russian sympathies, set out to become a staunch defender of Ukraine and his city since the start of the war. Rejecting allegations of an association with organized crime, he said he was sad to see “Russia destroying its claims to be a cultural nation”.
Can Mr. Putin hit the center of Odessa? “Everyone who is capable of Bucha, of Mariupol, of what is happening down the road in Nikolaev, is capable of everything,” he said. “That’s what we learned.”
For now, however, the show continues in unstoppable Odessa, even as cultural tensions rise. Mr. Trukhanov is under pressure to rename Pushkin Street near the town hall. The brilliant Russian playwright and novelist lived in Odessa in 1823.
“No,” the mayor said. “I would not support that. Odessa is the intercultural capital of Ukraine. I am worried about the growing hatred for everything Russian.
But this hatred is perhaps the inevitable result of Mr. Putin’s Unprovoked War: Tell a nation that it does not exist, and it will unite as never before in a defiant determination to defend its existence.