Eighth encounter Inside Ildar Abdrazakov’s dressing room at the Opéra Bastille, June 5, 2018
Even kings are subject to fatigue. The man performing the title role of Boris Godunov, the Russian singer Ildar Abdrazakov enters and apologises for being a little groggy because his daughter of eight months woke up several times during the night. It reassures me that a man who plays the Tsar each night is familiar with the vicissitudes of any other father. It seems that the performing arts are not as far-removed from the real world as we might think—on the contrary.
So how does he approach his role? “Russian vocals are very different to bel canto” explains Ildar who was born in 1976 in Ufa, the capital of what was then the Soviet Republic of Bashkiria. Ildar made his debut on the stage of Saint Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theatre in 1998. Even so, he has performed in only a few Russian operas. He sang the role of Dosifey in Mussorgsky’s Khovanshchina and the title role in Alexander Borodin’s Prince Igor, but that’s about it. As for the rest, his career is international and his repertoire primarily Italian and French. “I’m capable of singing in my native tongue, even if it’s more difficult than in Italian” he confides. The bel canto technique consists of introducing some resonance into your voice. With Mussorgsky, there’s nothing like that. In the musical composition of Boris Godunov, you sometimes have the impression that lightning has just struck the syllables or the words. There are waves of energy that sweep the text along. The vocals have been conceived in a highly dramatic way and for the performer, it’s impossible to ease up.” In an opera which lasts about two hours, Ildar will be singing for almost half the time—an intense, demanding, hour-long role. “It’s not that I’m going to have to force it, but I’ll need to put more harmonics in my voice. It’s a role that requires a great deal of commitment especially since it’s sometimes necessary to switch from true singing in order to yell.”
To die singing?
As opposed to the dramatic progression of countless classical novels, it is striking that many of the great operas from the repertoire end with the long, slow death of the principal character. It’s how Don Giovanni, Tristan and Isolde, Madame Butterfly, La Traviata, Rigoletto’s daughter Gilda and, of course, Boris die mercilessly… It’s odd, this obsession for killing—does it not establish a parallel between opera and the corrida or the combat of gladiators? Why, in this particular art form, do we derive so much pleasure from witnessing the spectacle of death? From an anthropological point of view, to die while singing is a curious and less-than-credible, reaction, except on stage. Is it a rite of conjuration for the horror that the mortal condition inspires in us?
And how does Ildar prepare himself to descend into madness and die every night? It’s not that simple to portray inner turmoil and weakness with a bass voice that by nature is firm and steady. “A bass voice is earth-based, it’s unshakeable. It’s not possible to make it unstable, to weaken it or to make it tremble—besides, that wasn’t Mussorgsky’s intention.” I ask Ildar if he is going to adapt his voice to the role a little to translate the inexorable degradation of Boris, but my question is obviously naive. “I have no margin for manoeuvre. Mussorgsky already wrote everything. I’m not like an actor, I don’t offer a free interpretation of my role. What matters to me is, to be as close as possible to the score, to what was composed. Nothing has been left to chance.”
When all is said and done, Ildar works a little like conductor Vladimir Jurowski who requires his orchestra to play with total respect of the playing techniques of the times. “My voice is an instrument in the service of the score. The only difference with an instrument is that it is personal, unique. My brother Askar is also an opera singer and a bass. But we don’t have the same sound.”
Ildar pauses for a moment and then continues: “Nevertheless, there is a passage in the libretto that reveals the psychology of Boris. In it, he says: ‘‘If within you, a single stain should by chance appear, as if smitten by the plague, the soul is immediately consumed, the heart is overwhelmed by poison and despair takes hold.’’ It is enough to have committed an act that diminishes you, that you cannot come to terms with morally, for the thought of it to take hold of you and corrupt everything. One little stain ends up smothering the heart entirely.” Does Ildar himself agree with this notion that guilt is like a slow-acting poison with no antidote? “Yes, I think that’s true. We don't stop thinking about our wrongdoings. Instead of forgetting they, them just keep growing and growing inside us.”