Is opera a total art? To mark the new Ivo van Hove’s production of Boris Godunov at the Opéra Bastille and to find out if that definition, which arose out of German romanticism, is still relevant today, Alexandre Lacroix —writer and managing editor of Philosophie Magazine— set out to take stock of all the artistic professions and savoir-faire that comes together to create an opera production —dramatist, conductor, director, scenographer, film-maker, singers, musicians, costumiers, lighting engineers, etc… In partnership with Philosophie Magazine.
Seventh Encounter On the café terrace at Opera Bastille, May 28th
The weather is stormy and, redolent, not so much of spring, as of late August when lightning cracks the heat-laden sky. A film of perspiration covers the face of video artist, Tal Yarden, Ivo van Hove’s brother in arms. Pressures of the job, atmospheric pressure or both? Given the gigantic proportions of the screen suspended over the stage, Tal Yarden has a heavy responsibility on his shoulders: the stage will be bare and, in visual terms, the success of Boris Godunov will be riding on the impact of his images.
So these videos, where did he glean his ideas? How did he film them and where? “For Boris, my videos have three sources. An initial group of images represent the scenes set outside. They thus create a context, an atmosphere. The fourth tableau takes place in “an inn on the Lithuanian border”. This frontier zone can be interpreted as a wasteland, a no man’s land. At that point, I chose to show industrial areas, abandoned factories. The next tableau is set “in the Tsar's apartments in the Kremlin”. Here, I wanted to show the opposite of a palace, using instead very beautiful, natural landscapes.” On one side, a wasteland, on the other, Eden. “Yes, it’s a visual contrast that suggests that the ruling class and the common people do not see the same world. The people are submerged in ugliness, concrete and iron, flat and dreary; the elite enjoy green, harmonious open spaces. This is why Boris does not understand his people. He does not see what is wrong: he promised his subjects a better world and, in his eyes, he has fulfilled his promise.
I asked Tal how he made his videos; he explained that they are in fact photographs that have been animated using different visual effects: they move, morph, slide onto the screen like living tableaus. “A second visual group was filmed here in Paris, during one specially designated day, with the singers Ildar Abdrazakov and Alexander Tsymbalyuk, as well as the chorus.” From time to time, the audience see the singers twice, on stage and, greatly enlarged on the screen. Isn’t there a risk of needless repetition? “No, because it’s a way giving the singers a powerful presence. You can see every line on their faces, the texture of their skin, the grime on the hands of the common people in the chorus.” For these videos, Tal used a procedure that is very dear to contemporary artist, Bill Viola, which consists in slowing down movement almost to a stop, by about 1000%. This means that each gesture is amplified and the eye can explore the nooks and crannies of time.
And the third set of images? “This is still under discussion, and the final decision is Ivo’s. We have in fact filmed a flashback scene, in which we see Boris killing a child – Dmitri, the rightful heir to the throne … When we first tried out the gigantic LED screen, we realised that it was extraordinarily powerful. It projects so much light that we are now in the process of adjusting the videos to make them darker. So as not to dazzle or hypnotise the audience. I’m working non-stop on these adjustments.” I understand that film of perspiration now: there are just seven days until the opening night. I am reminded of the English painter, William Turner who, when he exhibited his work in London, always hung his paintings then reworked them furiously all night before the opening. This final creative gesture was crucial and determined the success or failure of the enterprise, but its pertinence came from its urgency.
This comparison led me to ask Tal a more pictorial question. In video installations made for the theatre, it seems to me that today we are seeing references to two major schools of 19th century painting: naturalism on the one hand, which imposes a raw and truthful image of the world, and symbolism on the other, which treats form and colour as a discrete, dreamlike, idealistic language. Some video makers are naturalists: they recycle archive material and extracts from television news; they film behind the scenes or the streets around the theatre. Others, symbolists, prefer to develop an autonomous visual atmosphere, without situating the scenes, so as to act on the emotions of the spectators.
“When I tackle a new project, I always start from an empty room,” Tal replies. “And I try to invent a video environment adapted to the work. I see the naturalist register and the symbolist register as two tools, either of which might be used. I have no preconceived ideology on this, I adapt, all the more so given that any choice emerges as a result of discussions with the director.” Tal Yarden – although a real star in his domain – suddenly seems rather modest, like anybody else conscious of taking part in a collective work. “And then, I don’t know if this distinction between naturalism and symbolism is really that pertinent, because they overlap. When Ivo and I produced Angels in America for the Brooklyn Art of Music Theater in 2014, I filmed places that had a very precise meaning for me, without the spectator being able to identify them …” Based on a play by Tony Kushner which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1991, Angels in America deals with the condition of homosexuals in the United States in the 1980s. “A video showed an open window with a red curtain flapping in the wind. For the viewer, it was symbolic. In fact, the sequence was filmed in the New York hospital room that had been occupied by the first Aids sufferers. Another video showed a panoramic view of the ocean. It could have been anywhere except that it was in fact a series of clips filmed on the famous gay beaches of Long Island.” Tal may therefore have invented a sort of third genre: hermetic naturalism, showing only a tiny aspect of reality in order to transform it into a symbol.In the case of “Boris”, it seems nevertheless that allusions to the real world are absent and that naturalistic language has been laid aside. Notably, there are no images of Russia on the screen. And no news footage either. “This opera, it’s like a monastery. You’re shut inside it. Images from the outside world do not reach you. You try to get access to something, to the past, to truth, to gain awareness. For me, Boris is submerged in a prolonged dream, he descends into the depths of himself and, at the end, he is brutally awakened.”