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  • Writer's pictureThe Paladins

Fragments from a War Diary, Part #126

Behold, the whirlwind of the Lord goeth forth, it shall fall upon the head of the wicked

(Jeremiah 30:23)

Last night I went to Lviv Opera House. The performance was of Verdi’s career-making opera Nabucco. The plot is faintly absurd, involving an interrelation of romance and political intrigue loosely following the Old Testament history of the oppression of the Israelites by Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar II. It is a heavy opera by any standards, but the Lviv Opera House presented a sterling performance amidst the war on Ukraine’s doorstep.

As always with performances in the Great Hall of Lviv Opera House, after the orchestra, diminished no doubt by reason of obligations of military service had tuned their instruments, we began with a recitation of the Ukrainian National Anthem. As is standard, the entire audience stood for the occasion and we placed our hands across our breasts. As is now typical, I occupied a single seat in the front row of the Stalls in my military jacket and I stood to attention as the orchestra beat out its patriotic hymn. At the end of the moving rendition of the Anthem, a single voice spoke out: “Slava Ukraini!”. And the hall erupted in a determined and concerted reply, as one: “Ukraini Slava!”. Thus the scene was set for the opera to unfold before us, and we duly resumed our seats.

The opera itself was meticulous in its coordination and musical presentation, notwithstanding the diminished orchestra. The performance of Verdi’s famous Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves, was undertaken impeccably. The opera was sung in its entirety in Italian, with surtitles in Ukrainian, but thankfully I knew the approximate plot. Some of the cast appeared garbed in garments borrowed from the staff of the Sacher-Masoch cafe in Old Town Lviv, and still others held props that might be eccentric selections from the Ukrainian Armed Forces military surplus store; but I am being jocular and unfair. It was an extraordinary performance in the constrained circumstances of war, and it rightly received an immediate standing ovation upon its conclusion.

It could have been slightly shorter. At one point I found myself looking at my watch, contemplating the fact that the lead female operatic singer had another ten minutes within which to poison herself. In fact it took twenty, as she sang the most extraordinary and extended libretto before expiring on stage. Nevertheless this is not an easy opera to perform. It is replete with grave themes, including Jewish slavery and persecution, and the Lviv Opera House managed these details with delicacy and care given that Lviv has in its history been the site of pogroms, Jewish persecution and even Nazi and Soviet genocide directed towards Jewish people. The images and scenery accompanying the opera were on occasion harrowing, including the faces of countless screaming people in the style of Edvard Munch. I found the entire opera touching and poignant, and I was proud to join the audience in our standing ovation and our wholehearted congratulations of the brilliant cast.

Absorbing this opera, that seemed to me most emblematic of current times, caused me to draw a comparison between the Jews being persecuted in the historical Babylon of the Old Testament and the plight of contemporary Ukrainians. Ukraine has taken to flying Israeli flags from government and other public buildings in the face of the current conflict between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. I do not know enough about that dispute to take any position or to take sides. I offer no opinion upon the wisdom of Ukraine’s overt support for Israel. All I wish to observe is that like the Jews under Nebuchadnezzar II, the Ukrainians feel themselves oppressed under the force of a greater power and doing everything they can to resist political domination. There are moral ambiguities in both of these positions, to be certain. But there are parallels as well. I will say no more about the subject.

After the end of the opera, I wondered off into the Old Town to enjoy the increasingly buzzing Lviv nightlife. Particularly on the weekends, the curfew is being relaxed, notwithstanding the air raid sirens that have alarmingly recently returned to haunt this quaint, relaxing and fun-loving city. Nevertheless there is a sense of determination that life must return to normal, with both high and low culture thriving. I found myself at a rather expensive after-hours bar, having chatted with young girls and boys in cheeky Halloween outfits determined to make the most of their weekend. I strolled home late, as usual dodging the Police who make now only half-hearted attempts to enforce the curfew. Lviv is struggling to do its very best to conform to normality, although I had a tough and hard-hearted conversation with a bitter lady whose brother is fighting on the front and she cannot sleep at night and she has no mental peace. All I can do is listen and offer sympathy; and I offer a vision of a future Ukraine, free of war and insidious Russian influence, which I truly believe is on the horizon for this nation of proud and valiant people. The lady with whom I spoke was not persuaded; she cast her eyes down, sullen, and left promptly to brood upon her negative thoughts. I felt sympathy for her.

And I think she is wrong to feel so negatively. While Ukraine now suffers terrible privations, there are sunny horizons ahead as she ever more closely embraces the European orbit of liberal democratic political values. In the words of Verdi’s Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves:

Fly, my thoughts, on wings of gold; go settle upon the slopes and the hills, where, soft and mild, the sweet airs of my native land smell fragrant! Greet the banks of the Jordan and Zion's toppled towers. Oh, my homeland, so lovely and so lost! Oh memory, so dear and so dead! Golden harp of the prophets of old, why do you now hang silent upon the willow? Rekindle the memories in our hearts, and speak of times gone by! Mindful of the fate of Solomon's temple, Cry out with raw lamentation, or else may the Lord strengthen you to bear these sufferings!

Or in the original Italian:

Va, pensiero, sull'ali dorate;

va, ti posa sui clivi, sui colli, ove olezzano tepide e molli l'aure dolci del suolo natal! Del Giordano le rive saluta, di Sionne le torri atterrate. O, mia patria, sì bella e perduta! O, membranza, sì cara e fatal! Arpa d'or dei fatidici vati, perché muta dal salice pendi? Le memorie nel petto raccendi, ci favella del tempo che fu! O simile di Sòlima ai fati traggi un suono di crudo lamento, o t'ispiri il Signore un concento che ne infonda al patire virtù!


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