Foreigners often think of life in Italy as operatic, which shows that reinvestment in the obvious is not always a losing propostion. If only more foreigners had followed Nietzsche in asking “If it is true that evil men have no songs, how is it that the Russians have songs?” then perhaps the world would not have become the plaything of wickedness that it is today. And there you have it. All the themes I intend to touch upon in describing my visit to the Teatro Regio in Parma are audible in my opening paragraph.

At the Regio, as part of the Verdi Festival’s Celbrazioni Nazionali commemorating the centenary of the composer’s death, Valery Gergiev led the Orchestra Kirov del Teatro Mariinskij di San Pietroburgo in a performance of Un Ballo in Maschera, with Ivan Momirov as Riccardo, Sergei Murzaev as Renato, and Olga Sergeeva as Amelia. Regia: Andrej Konchalovskij. The name of the person identified in the program as responsabile dei progetti speciali, I was amused to note in the interval, was Kalashnikov.

The Kirov is generally in a bit of trouble these days. They cannot really go on calling themselves the Kirov, because names like the Goebbels Playhouse or the Pol Pot Skating Rink or the Amin Luncheonette are no longer in fashion. The fact that, as our parents used to sing, “We’s so upset and so worried oh / ‘Cos Stalin bumped ‘im off in a corridor,” does little to restore to the Kirov name some of its original Bolshevik dignity. Equally, they cannot change it back to the Imperial Mariinsky because, in the West, nobody will come—especially those vital ballet audiences of provincial mothers who have been brought up on matinee idols like The Kirov’s Own!! Rudolf Nureyev!!! In Moscow, the Bolshoi was luckier for the Bolsheviks. It looked as though they had shrewdly named themselves after the theater.

Without dispute, Gergiev is one of the leading conductors of our day. The real trouble he has to deal with is that, during 70 years of Soviet rule, Russia did not produce even one singer worth hearing. Naturally, you may not say “Smirnov” or “Chaliapine” or “Wesselovski” because that would be lying: They had been world famous by 1917, and mentioning them is like giving credit to the New York Times Book Review for having fostered Emily Dickinson. And please, I beg you, don’t say “Obraztsova” or “Vishnevskaya,” or I’ll turn around and walk away; we’re talking Italy here, we’re talking the “Verdi season, we’re talking the Teatro Regio di Parma. Here, in 1837, they actually rejected young Verdi. Here, in 1916, Amelita Galli-Curci sang Gilda.

I have the record, and I can only explain the cultural difference between a Galli-Curci and a Vishnevskaya as the distance between a painting by Ingres and a work of socialist realism, though of course one mustn’t assume that this explanation will satisfy everybody. As it happened, on the way to Parma I stopped off in Bologna to see an exhibition of Soviet art at the Palazzo Re Enzo. “Could it be,” the authors of the catalogue rhetoricized (incredulously and indignantly) “that Stalin’s regulations had swept away the artists’ expressive capacities, and so filled their consciences as to transform them into mere illustrators of state propaganda?” I don’t want to insult anyone, but a hall in the vaulted walkway beneath the Palazzo Re Enzo has a famous acoustic peculiarity, which a friend demonstrated to me after we had seen the exhibition. You talk to the wall, and it talks back. Very Bologna.

Later that night in Parma, we went out to dinner with the only Italian singer in the production, the almost indecently beautiful and almost indescribably gifted Laura Giordano, who sang Oscar. The extravagant compliment I paid her was almost entirely true, namely, that just because we Russians can write books better than the Americans and build tanks better than the Germans does not mean that we should carry pelmeni (ravioli, actually) to Parma—that is to say, to sing Verdi at the Teatro Regio. In fact, the tenor Ivan Momirov is Bulgarian, but since he had been audibly booed, I generously included him, too.

In the interests of fairness, I must add that Konchalovsky’s staging made for a most beautiful production—in the last scene, the curtain parted with a fireworks of glittering baubles that seemed to have been disgorged by the magnificent ballroom itself like some Fabergé ornament being given birth by Versace in a painting by Galanin—but then again I never did say that our boys couldn’t do theater, or play a musical instrument, or even paint as well as the next KGB man. And yet, mysteriously, they have never been able to sing grand opera, and so after our dinner with la Laura, I decided to proceed to another restaurant, where the Russians were celebrating, to learn where Gergiev had found the chutzpah (palle, actually) to carry coals to Donbass. I had met the conductor once before, in London, at a dinner given by Donatella Flick at her house in Hyde Park Gate, and thought him perfectly charming, as the mothers who did not want me to date their daughters used to say about me, their lips tightening with menace. “Yes, he is charming. Charming.”

But now I must cast off the harmless misdeeds of my remotest past for the sake of one crucial observation: Opera is important to Italy because only in opera does the Italian language become national in any meaningful cultural sense; and, as if that were not important enough, only in opera does that language become international, in the sense that French may be acknowledged as the language of politics or English the language of science. Singing Italian opera is every note a linguistic exercise, and listening to a fellow who knows no Italian singing Verdi is like seeing a professor of Russian literature at the University of California barging into a Chekhov play in a nylon tracksuit.

It is as though the architectonic structure of musical sound translates itself into the living and breathing chimera of native Italian speech the way a competent architect can render a building by means of a technical drawing, whereas a foreigner’s accent imperceptibly erodes and eventually undermines the entire musical structure. The travesty is all the more dastardly for being virtually undetectable, rather the way a man out of his head on cocaine may appear perfectly normal to his own children. Russian grammatical forms, in particular, often mimic the Italian (andate is idite), while shared etymologies ensure that occhi (eyes) does rot look all that different from ochi in a libretto. Thus I challenge any Henry Higginses out there to guess that a Russian singer stinks to high heaven on the basis of his elocution alone. Because, as here at midnight, when Amelia goes to gather her magic herbs in the graveyard, elocution is the music:

Mezzanotte!… ah! che veggio?
Una testa

Di sotterra si leva .. .e sospira!

Ha negli occhi il baleno dell’ira

E m’ffisa e terribile sta!

Once I had arrived at the restaurant where the Mariinsky braves were carousing, however, all was revealed. Amid the discordant cries of “come si chiama, rehyata, questa cosa?” and “per favore, devushka, per favore!” some 30 of my compatriots were busy commingling vodka with grappa, and I stayed with them until six in the morning. No, none of them had any knowledge of the language beyond that of a prisoner in an internment camp, and when I finally managed to ask the lead baritone’s wife, herself a respected soloist with the Bolshoi, how on earth they managed to sing in Italian, the sweet woman replied that, since time immemorial, Russian singers learned the words of the libretti by rote, often after first writing them out in Cyrillic characters.

By time immemorial, she meant the year 1917.