Can any great city truly live up to its reputation—let alone one as intensely evocative as Odessa’s? Opposite the opera house lies the grand Hotel Mozart, and around the corner, the dilapidated Café Salieri. 

Odessa does not merely live up to its reputation as a crossroad of cultures but exceeds it. Founded by a Neapolitan; governed by fugitive French nobles; built by Italians, who also lent the city its old lingua franca; populated by Greeks, who exported their revolution (and by Armenians, who did not); and frequented by traders the world over, it quickly shrugs off any word you reach for. Entrepôt? Melting pot? The St. Petersburg of the south? The Trieste of the east? To the Orthodox Jews of the Pale, it was another whore city (as Beirut is called in its own more pious hinterlands). To the imperial government in St. Petersburg, it was a hotbed of revolutionary ideas: a place whose worldliness was belied by its overproduction of idealists—including, eventually, Trotsky.

Pushkin was exiled to Odessa and then had to be re-exiled to northern Russia after an affair with the governor’s wife. Governor Vorontsov was deeply ensconced in the culture of his British relatives, amplifying the local impact of Odessa’s biggest trading partner (two of its best hotels remain The Londonskaya and The Bristol). Yet the city’s guiding spirit—responsible for its euphonious, feminized name ending—was Catherine the Great (1729–96). Her creation is still just as enterprising and sensuous as its patron. In wartime Kyiv, the minibars are empty and the street signs removed. In precocious Odessa, the fridges are full to bursting and the wrought-iron thickets stand as proud as the day they were erected. 

Odessa does not stop for a mere war—and neither does its opera. The productions continue, in a tradition carried on from the Second World War. Back then, a typically mercantile compromise was struck so that the opera would stay open in return for staging some works of the Romanian occupiers. Today, Odessa is free and chooses her own program. For a Saturday matinée, the day after the city was overflown by a quartet of Russian missiles, it was to host Carmen. With the theater’s restored gold leaf newly shining—and a pair of perfectly waxed mustaches in the next row—you didn’t even need to close your eyes to imagine yourself back in the old empire.

The curtain rose on a production with no expense spared—despite being powered by generators, along with much of the rest of the city. The costumes were sumptuous right to the end of the chorus line. The orchestra did fine to credit the memory of the violinists Jascha Heifetz (who debuted in the city) and David Oistrakh (who was born in Odessa and raised his son, Igor, there); the conductor Vyacheslav Volich encouraged the strings to luxuriate in the delicate prelude to Act III

Onstage, José was appropriately callow and anguished in the hands of the tenor Oleg Zlackoman; his mezzo-soprano nemesis Carmen was played by a cold and brutal Anastasia Martynyuk (when she finally succumbs to her fate, there was a noirish smattering of applause). The bass-baritone bullfighter Alexander Stryuk was the supercharged apotheosis of a toreador, insufferable yet addictive to watch. But, for this listener, the quiet show-stealer was the soprano Alina Tkachuk’s jilted Micaëla, whose heartbroken devotional aria filled the great Viennese rotunda with a pellucid purity. She would make a wonderful Countess Almaviva.

The production had more physical panache than one tends to see in the West. Midway through Carmen’s famous habanera aria, Martynyuk walks mid-aria across a bridge of her suitors’ linked hands; later, she tips José from a two-wheeled wagon. Throughout, Carmen’s red scarf is a metaphor for her deadly power. The rose she first gives José appears from behind the scarf; by the time he is wrapped in the garment, his fate is sealed; and, as the final terrible exorcism approaches, it momentarily becomes his hangman’s rope. The direction is, of course, risqué. We are left in no doubt as to when their lust is consummated. And the production design was, well, fast. Though Carmen is presented as a period production, its tavern scene is still given a sprinkling of disco lights.

As the action progressed, the fourth wall seemed to become more porous. There were as many military uniforms in the auditorium as on the stage, and, a mile away in the Odessan writer Isaac Babel’s neighborhood of Moldavanka, there were enough resting smugglers to populate Act III several times over. Onstage, a siren spirit chews up men then spits them out when she’s done: Carmen—or Catherine the Great, with her string of lovers? “Untameable love, that never knows a law?” José—or Pushkin, hiding the sound of his illicit lovemaking among the Black Sea cliffs? Micaëla’s public humiliation at the hands of her “dangerous, beautiful” gypsy rival—or Governor Vorontsov’s at those of the wild, mixed-race poet? By the final crescendo, Carmen was no longer just the cautionary tale that once shocked Paris but a mirror for the city around us.

Later that evening, a gale-force bar fight blew up in the city’s chicest club. It could have been the release of the tension brought on by the military draft. Young men can be challenged by plain-clothed officials armed with iPads, and removed immediately. The fight passed, its instigator dragged outside shirtless. Carmen would have been happy here. 

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