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Diary of Boris Godounov

Episode 5 – An encounter with conductor Vladimir Jurowski — By Alexandre Lacroix

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, director, scenographer, video designer, singers, musicians, costumiers, lighting engineers, etc… In partnership with Philosophie Magazine.


Fifth encounter A dressing room at the Opéra Bastille, May 28, 2018

If such as thing as natural authority exists then Vladimir Jurowski is endowed with plenty of it. And why is that? Let me try to describe it as basically as I can: for me it is linked to the fact that one immediately senses that a powerful physical nature and a powerful cerebral nature cohabit within him and they both fuel a constant dialogue to prevent the one from stifling the other. At the very least, one can say that Vladimir, with the stature of a giant, has a strong presence. But he is also graced with an erudition and sensitivity that becomes evident as soon as he speaks, and he drifts easily between languages, switching from French, to English, to Russian as if no linguistic obstacle could break his line of thought. I believe that authority usually comes from the instinctive respect that force imposes, but also sometimes from a more intricate form of respect inspired by competence. Vladimir Jurowski possesses both, which no doubt explains how he was able to conduct his first opera at the Opéra Bastille at the age of 27—a record. It may also be explained by the fact that we are meeting in a dressing room that seems far too small for him: it is almost as if a fairy-tale giant has barged into a doll’s house.

“Conducting an opera is complex and implies several phases of preparation. First of all, I try to get an immediate feel for the music by listening to other interpretations, by seeing other productions or even having the score played to me on a piano. Then, I research the sources. In the case of Boris Godunov, the literary dimension is essential since the libretto is based on a work by Pushkin. Pushkin was no fan of romantic theatre. He didn’t appreciate Byron as a playwright, although he admired him as a poet. He was one of the first to recognise Shakespeare as the greatest theatrical writer of all time. Furthermore, he seized on the historic figure of Boris Godunov in order to be able to criticise the bloody tradition which dictated that the Tsars of Russia only ascended to the throne over the murdered corpses of their predecessors. Alexander I was involved in the assassination of his father, Paul I, and the tsarina Elizabeth II killed her husband Paul III. Pushkin himself was a royalist and supported Nicolas I. He had his own political agenda. But since he was first and foremost a writer, he couldn’t help slipping into his play a few harsh allusions to the exercise of power in Russia which caught the probing eye of the censors. Forty years later, Mussorgsky found himself composing in a radically different political context. After the Napoleonic wars, the countries of Europe were in search of their identity and their roots. They were building their national mythology. Under Bismarck, Wagner sought to write music that was uniquely German by composing Das Rheingold, first performed in 1869. That same year, the first version of the opera Boris Godunov appears as the affirmation of a typically Russian musical style. And to tackle this unique work, we now have an incomparable tool to work with…”

Vladimir rises out of his chair and goes to a cabinet by the door of his dressing room and pulls out two large black books—the only two objects that seem scaled to his proportions (see photo). “This is a philological edition of Mussorgsky’s score published in 1996, by Muzika in Moscow and Schott Music in Mainz, Germany. In it, we find some new and highly significant details that are absent from other editions. It’s the best insight we have into the original intentions of the composer.”


The letter and the spirit

Vladimir knows his business because he already conducted Boris Godunov in 2015 in Saint Petersburg. He even gave the first performance played on period instruments with a chorus of young boys as Mussorgsky had originally wanted. “Since the 1869 version was rejected by the theatre in Moscow, Mussorgsky never got to hear it. Moreover, it took until 1928, after the 1917 revolution and in the midst of the Soviet era for it to be finally performed in public. For the first time, returning to the instruments of the era and using the philological edition of the score, I was able to create the music that Mussorgsky would have heard.” Here at the Opéra Bastille, the orchestra isn’t going to play on period instruments. However, in rehearsals, Vladimir has set out to ensure they produce a sound that is highly unusual for them.

This led me to question Vladimir about a paradox in the world of opera today. On the one hand, there is the impression that conductors are obsessed with the idea of recapturing an authentic sound, by working like archaeologists and getting the orchestra to play on period instruments. On the other hand, the directors in general and Ivo van Hove in particular like to free themselves from a libretto’s historical allusions, to embark upon bold adaptations in which they abandon the old costumes and sets to reforge the meaning of the works according to contemporary obsessions. Isn’t it odd to see conductors and directors pulling in two different directions, as if the former were obsessed by the letter of the operas whilst the latter seem more concerned with their spirit? “It only seems that way because the paradox evaporates when you consider the essence of theatre and music. In many ways, the theatre has to offer a sort of mirror to the public; the audience comes in search of an artistic objectivation of their passions. The great works are universal allegories: Macbeth was a king of Scotland who really lived in the 11th century, but the important thing is that Shakespeare used him as a protagonist to write a treatise on guilt. Boris Godunov is a universal allegory of power. An opera like Rasputin by the Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara is too close to history that it can’t really be performed too often because the narrative it recounts lacks universality. The music is far more abstract. The great trend towards historically informed interpretation that you refer to started with baroque music and then grew. Thanks to this trend we realised that interpretations that were not historically informed lacked some crucial aspects. To give but one example, in the 20th century there was a tendency to play Beethoven with a lot of vibrato, which makes it cloyingly lyrical. In Beethoven’s era, vibrato was rarer and his compositions, when played in a more informed way, show themselves to be harder and more disturbing. In the field of orchestration, the historical trend makes it possible to counter the audience’s listening habits and hear music that disturbs, that comes from somewhere else and that has a disconcerting resonance. It’s why historically informed music produces exactly the same effect as a highly contemporary production: it pushes spectators outside their comfort zone to a place where emotion is kindled and thoughts can blossom.”    

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