July 1905. St. Petersburg. Dancing at a ball, the 16-year-old Anna Akhmatova looks into the future and sees an uninvited guest. He is the Oxford philosopher and British diplomat Isaiah Berlin. For him the year is 1945,the year he returns to Russia for the first time since childhood.
November 1945. Leningrad, the State Writers Union Bookshop. Isaiah Berlin returns to a city ruined by siege, a city he last saw as a 12-year-old boy before his family emigrated to England. The writers Orlov and Zoschenko reminisce about the great beauty of pre-Revolutionary days, the poet Anna Akhmatova. They tell Berlin of one event in particular, New Year’s Eve 1913 at the bohemian Stray Dog Café, when Akhmatova fought with her first husband, Gumilyov, and the writer Knyazev shot himself for love.
Commisar Zhdanov, Stalin’s man in Leningrad, enters the bookshop and suspiciously notes the presence of the foreigner, Berlin.
Orlov hurries Berlin out to meet Akhmatova, now a 56-year-old woman sharing a communal flat in a decaying annex of Fountain Palace. Berlin tells Anna that he has returned in search of the city that has haunted him since childhood. Anna warms to him and responds with her own memories of an affair she had in Paris with the painter Modigliani. Berlin admits to a secret passion for the writer Virginia Woolf, and tells Anna of Virginia’s recent suicide. Horrified by this news, Anna confronts Virginia’s ghost directly. Other ghosts from Anna’s past—including Gumilyov and her friend the poet Osip Mandelstam, both victims of Stalin’s gulags—ask Anna the question all victims ask the living: why did you survive?
Suddenly, Anna feels a chill. Across the canal, Commissar Zhdanov has returned to the Writers Union Bookshop. He takes Orlov into custody to question him about his foreign visitor.
“Read me one of your poems. ”Berlin begs Anna. Reluctantly, she begins to recite “Requiem,” composed after one of the many occasions during the 1930s when she stood in line outside Kresty Prison with dozens of women waiting to see their men. This scene comes into view. As they did 10 years before, the women memorize the scraps of paper on which Anna has written her lines and then burn them to avoid discovery by the authorities. Joined by the voices of the men in the prison, they sing, “I will remember, forever, everywhere. I will never forget, never forget.”
Anna’s room, 3a.m. Alone, Berlin is surprised by the entrance of another man who is roughly his own age. Anna enters, and the stranger mocks her girlishness. Anna calmly introduces Berlin to the man—her son, Lev. “I had no idea you had a son!” Berlin exclaims. “For whom did you think I stood in line in front of the prison?” Anna asks. “It was for her lover,” Lev says, and takes Berlin back to 1933, when he and Anna first moved into the flat they still share with Anna’s former lover, Punin, and his first family. Berlin tries to intercede, but Lev tells him to give up on the chivalry—Anna’s romantic life is dead. Anna collapses as Lev exits.
In a dream, Anna has a vision of the future. Walking along the street carrying a trout wrapped in newspaper, she runs into an agitated Zoschenko. At home, as she unwraps the fish, she reads the newspaper and understands his agitation. At the Hall of Writers, a mass meeting of the State Writers Union is in progress. Commisar Zhdanov charges Zoschenko and Akhmatova with publishing anti-Soviet writing. Orlov is brought out under guard to denounce his two friends. Mandelstam and Lev add their voices to the attack. Stalin himself joins in. Even Winston Churchill appears in the dream, announcing the descent of an “Iron Curtain” across Europe.
Suddenly, like a lost Galahad, Berlin—the guest from the future—races in to rescue Anna. As Berlin arrives, however, another voice calls out his name.
Anna awakes in her apartment. It is morning and the voice she heard in her dream is real. Berlin looks out the window and sees his old friend Randolph Churchill, the son of the prime minister. Terrified at the prospect of being seen in the company of a Churchill, Anna realizes her dream will come true. Berlin understands he must go, but not before making one last attempt to persuade Anna to leave Russia and come to England.
The Inevitability of Improbability
by David Chambers
It is improbable, some would say perverse, that a group of American middle-aged men—a composer, a librettist, a musician, and a stage director—would make a chamber opera about a Russian icon and feminist symbol. After all, virtually every Russian and nearly every woman who has ever heard of Anna Akhmatova feels somehow that they know this person, and that they somehow possess her or are possessed by her. While this poet is claimed as muse by many—his white goddess, her patron saint—the large and rapturous congregation that worships at the shrine of Saint Akhmatova rarely includes middle-aged English-speaking men.
Yet, improbable as it may seem, it was an Englishman who inspired us to create our opera about Akhmatova. Granted, he was a naturalized Englishman who was born in Latvia and emigrated to London with his family in 1921,when he was 12.He then lived in the Soviet Union for a time immediately following World War II, as a British Information Service officer assigned to the embassy in Moscow. It was this man who, in 1945, through a chance meeting in war-ravaged Leningrad, released the long-concealed soul of our poet from the iron sheath she had forged around herself in a willful act of survival. Isaiah Berlin, then just entering his middle age—gawky, heavily bespectacled, rabid of speech, febrile of intellect, yet hardly the formidable public intellectual he was to become—awkwardly, inadvertently, in one night charmed and thawed the psyche and spirit of a woman who had long before shrouded her beauty, both inner and outer, inside a kind of stoic death mask.
Initially as awe-struck as Berlin and so many other suitors before us, we lapsed into superficial hagiography, happily reinforced by our numerous and willing research allies, mostly Russian, many female: professors, poets, museum curators. They unveiled in our presence a picture of a woman who was larger than life, possessed of dazzling youthful beauty, and blessed with a chilling prescience, able to interrupt and accurately conclude the telling of someone else’s dream. Great men—Gumilyov, Modigliani, Punin, Mandelstam, and scores more—had fallen at her feet. She saw into their souls and then further, into their futures. She proudly and playfully slept her way through pre-Revolutionary Petersburg and danced pagan dances on cabaret tables, but she wore an Orthodox cross and prayed on every one of those halcyon days. How could this polymorphous phenomenon exist in human skin, much less survive Stalin’s Russia, much less be a credible dramatic persona for a 21st-century opera? Who would believe it?
It was only when we shifted our focus to our surrogate, Isaiah Berlin, that both the human picture and the dramatic picture of that fateful night in November 1945 began to present itself. We were forced to debunk some of the hagiography and accept many contradictory truths about Akhmatova, some of which are unpleasant. Yes, we were obliged, like Berlin, to admit that all the deification of Akhmatova was deserved—that indeed she was a completely improbable human being who lived a life that was impossible, yet nonetheless true. However, as our Berlin-like inquiries unfolded, we, like him, were forced to accept further truths about Akhmatova: she could be impossibly vain, stealthful, and manipulative, inattentive to loved ones past and present, infatuated with her actual and self-inflicted martyrdom, self-dramatizing, and voraciously selfish in her needs.
Yet, as Berlin, a far more thorough investigator, found out that night, the real danger of Akhmatova was that she had the ability to touch all of life, and therefore, alter it irrevocably as she did his. To be seen by Akhmatova was to be changed by her. Did her night with Berlin signal the beginning of the Cold War? Could perestroika, coming 25 years after her death, have been just another one of her transformations? Such are the improbabilities of an epic life and its aftermath.