Thursday, February 9, 2012

Onegin, Werther and Other Seminal (Yet Obscure) Works in World Literature

Roxana Constantinescu as
Charlotte and James Valenti as
Werther at the MN Opera.
Photo by Michal Daniel.
Source: Aisle Say Magazine
Recently, I came across an opera review on Aisle Say Twin Cities, the Minneapolis/St. Paul branch of Aisle Say Magazine, which hosts theater reviews across the country.  It summarized the synopsis of the opera as such:
Werther (pronounced ver-TAIR) was such a hit in Goethe's day that Massenet's 1892 operatic adaptation could be likened to the movie version of Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings. The original publication of the book inspired devoted readers to dress up as Werther, and a rash of copycat suicides led authorities to worry about "Werther Fever." The story, so deeply resonant in the minds of 18th- and 19th-century European readers and viewers, tells of young love kept apart by duty and tradition. In a nutshell: Werther – a brooding young man who modern audiences would call "emo" – sees Charlotte at a ball and falls madly and instantly in love with her. Charlotte, however, has promised her dying mother that she would marry Albert. Unable to cope with his heartbreak – sorry for the spoiler – Werther shoots himself.
This is rather surprising that a caution of spoiler.  Don't we all know of the basic storyline of Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (The Sorrow of the Young Werther) by Goethe?  Don't we all know that Werther shot and killed himself in the seminar novel of the world literature?  Is the spoiler alert really needed?

This reminded me a ballet performance of "Onegin" by Eifman Ballet I attended a few years ago, at Cal Performances in Berkeley, California.  During a pivotal scene, the heroine Tatiana wrote love letter to the protagonist, Eugene Onegin.  The innovative choreographer Boris Eifman kept the ballerina accompanied by the reading of the letter, in Alexandr Pushkin's original Russian poetry.  The old gentleman sat next to me kindly whispered to me the English translations, unaware of the fact that I had been very familiar with the story and though I couldn't understand the reading verbally, I knew every nuances of the letter and the movement of the dancer.

Even when I was a child, in Mao's China, I knew of the stories of Eugene Onegin and the young Werther.  I remember vividly the cover of the copy of Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (in Chinese translation, in traditional characters) my father kept on his bookshelf.  Years later, I read both books in English translations and have seen various reincarnations of them - films, dances, operas, etc.  They were so familiar to me that I often forget that despite the supremely importance of these two literature works, many people in the U.S. still have no idea what they are and what they are about.

Cover of the first edition, 1925
Source: wikipedia
To me, the comparative American literature is The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald.  I truly hope that most Americans know of the book and know of the story plot and need to spoiler alert for this the most American literature.  Would this be as obscure as other seminal works of world literature?

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