Is opera a total art? To mark the new 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 come together to create an opera production—dramatist, director, scenographer, conductor, singers, musicians, costumiers, lighting engineers, etc… This “Diary of Boris Godunov” will be complemented with new entries until the premiere of Ivo Van Hove’s production of Modest Mussorgsky’s masterpiece.
In partnership with Philosophie Magazine.
First encounter Ghent, December 11, 2017
When I arrive at the Gent-Sint-Pieters railway station, Russia is rudely descending upon Flanders. I hadn’t take the precaution of checking the weather before leaving and now, a major blizzard is under way. The entire countryside between Brussels and Ghent is covered in a thick layer of snow. We inhabitants of Western Europe are less-than-hardy stock. The cars are moving at a snail’s pace. There’s not a taxi in the station. They’ve announced that all tram service has been suspended for lack of electricity. I only have a thin sweater, a light coat and a pair of dress shoes with me. But no matter, I decide to set out on foot in the direction of the Opera. The journey is practically a straight line and takes just half an hour. I think of the title to the second part of Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground: “Apropos of the wet snow.” The white flakes continue to fall, and yet a greyish slush has already formed on the pavements. What a great title. Melted snow: a metaphor for spent beauty, the liquefaction of ideals, the final demise? No doubt… However, Dostoyevsky’s characters, like those of Pushkin, were probably wearing boots.
The Ghent Opera, designed by the city’s architect, Louis Roelandt, was completed in 1837. Its style is neoclassical. Not only does it have a canopy, it also offers pedestrians a rounded peristyle supported by a colonnade. Jan Vandenhouwe, the new artistic director of the Flemish Opera, comes to meet me—he will be the dramaturge for the upcoming production of Boris Godunov at the Opéra Bastille. He leads me to his office—an austere room with a parquet floor, bare walls and no window except for a tiny skylight.
Incidentally, what exactly does the job of a dramaturge entail? “The position, explains Jan, with his little round glasses and his neatly trimmed red beard, gained in importance after the Second World War in Germany. The dramaturge is an assistant to the director. He or she is responsible for reading and analysing the story on which the opera is based, the libretto, the score, the era in which the opera was created and the principal productions that have been made of it. Above all, the dramaturge must identify what the work can still communicate to audiences today.”
Boris Godunov is almost a textbook case, since it accumulates layer upon layer of development and potential areas for misunderstanding. A real-life historical figure, Boris Godunov (1551-1605) was the first person of non-aristocratic origin to ascend the throne in Russia. Initially chamberlain to Ivan the Terrible, he became the regent during the short reign of the latter’s feeble son Feodor I (1584-1598). Upon Feodor’s death in 1598, for want of anyone better, Boris Godunov was appointed to govern the empire. His reign would trigger what came to be known as “the Time of Troubles” an era of political instability. His story, immortalised at the beginning of the 19th century by the historian Nikolay Karamzin—the Russian equivalent of our Jules Michelet—sparked the imagination of the young Alexander Pushkin who chose it as the subject for a verse drama. The work was completed in 1826 and is considered to be the first major achievement of Russian romanticism. It was also written at a time when Russian scholars were discovering the theatre of Shakespeare, which dynamited the rules of the three unities of time, place and action. Pushkin created a series of tableaux, with countless participants spanning all the years of Godunov’s reign. “Classicism, says Jan, was a European artistic form. However, at the beginning of the 19th century, the taste for the romantic combined with a new nationalism in Russia. Whereas Karamzin mythologised the role of the old established families and the house of Romanov, the tsars began to spurn the highly Westernized Saint Petersburg to stay ever more often in the old capital, Moscow. It was a period in which the orthodox and Slavophile identity was brandished, particularly against French influence.”
Modest Mussorgsky’s opera further reinforces the density of the narrative. It is, if not nebulous, at least ambiguous. Musically, the composer differentiates himself from both the Italian and German models, finding inspiration in Russian folk songs and orthodox choruses. He has no hesitation utilizing bells. He opts for chords intended to reflect the accentuation of the Russian language. However, the novelty and the radicality of his project would ultimately oblige him to rework it. As a result, two versions of the libretto and the music exist: The first from 1869— rejected by the Imperial Theatres—and the second from 1872.
The very first question a director needs to ask vis-à-vis the work is which of the two versions should be used? “It’s odd, notes Jan, because five years ago I was the dramaturge for Johan Simons in Madrid when he staged the 1872 version. From a political point of view, the two versions do not carry the same message: in the 1872 version, the Russian people play a more active role. It is propelled along by a sort of fervour, and that aptly reflected the atmosphere in 2012. There was Occupy Wall Street, the Arab Spring, the Indignados Movement in Spain... The 1872 version expresses that euphoria, that dream for political change created by the people en masse. Conversely, the 1869 version is much more sombre. It focuses more on the solitude of power, the deadly ambitions of Boris Godunov, and the wall of incomprehension that separates him from the Russian people. And the people, who are having to endure cold and hunger, are disillusioned. I think the 1869 version better reflects the current atmosphere, with the profound feeling that there is an irremediable divide between the people and the elites.”
The first extensive tableau, explores these divisions. The Russian people are forced by the police to acclaim Boris. They comply. At the same time, Boris pretends to refuse the throne, to no longer wish to ascend it, thus underlining his own omnipotence. “How can one not see the parallel with the ceremony organised at the Louvre by Emmanuel Macron? In reality, during the second round of voting, many of the French voted against the National Front rather than positively for Macron. So it became necessary to veil that disagreeable backdrop with a grandiose production in the very courtyard of the Sun King. Nothing has changed since Boris Godunov: They offer the people demonstrations of power.”
Pushkin’s play and Mussorgsky’s libretto bring a second major character into play, the rival of Boris, a young monk on the run, who poses as Dmitri—the dead son of Ivan the terrible—who finds support abroad and then marches on Moscow with the people behind him. “Why not see Dmitri as a populist, a kind of Trump? Everyone knows that the real Dmitri is dead, his corpse is even put on display. And everyone knows that Boris Godunov had him killed. But the genius of the populist is to make the fake more attractive than the real; to know how to use fake news masterfully. The people prefer to follow a fake Dmitri rather than the real Boris, because, through him, they expunge their anger!”
At the start of the second act, the future fake Dmitri, who is still just a restive young monk, meets with Pimen an old friar in a monastery and he recounts a strange dream:
“My sleep was unsettled by a diabolical dream. An enemy was hunting me down. I dreamt: a steep staircase led me to a tower; from its heights, I looked down on Moscow, and saw it as an anthill. The square below was teeming with people pointing at me and laughing… And I was ashamed and afraid, and then I was falling, falling… and then I woke up.”
Jan draws my attention to the following passage: “Ivo keeps coming back to that dream. He questions me about it. What does it mean, this dream? Are we not touching the essence of this tragedy of power right there? Wouldn’t a Donald Trump have the same diabolical visions? He has a lot of ambition. He certainly has climbed to the top of the stairs of fortune and power. But once he has achieved his goals, he is an absurdity, the whole world sees it and mocks him. And he has to fall. He is going to fall.”
As Jan is speaking, music begins to seep into the bare-walled office—bare save for bright-coloured posters: In the Opera’s main auditorium, they are performing a run-through of a ballet set to the music of Philip Glass.
As the crystalline notes of the melody float in the air, the snow continues to fall outside.