Fourth encounter On an upper-floor terrace of the Opéra Bastille, May 30, 2018
A little frazzled after the six hours of rehearsals which she has just endured, Cécile Tête, a young musician born in 1990, takes a seat on the outdoor terrace of the Opera’s cafeteria. Let’s be frank, I was beginning to find this production of Boris Godunov a little too virile—a reason for which, incidentally, the 1869 version of Mussorgsky’s opera was also rejected in its day by the theatre in Moscow. There is no love story and it has no major female roles. It’s a man’s, man’s world. It’s a tale about a motley crew of bearded assassins—pretenders, nobles, monks and the ambitious—fighting over the sceptre of power. If all the characters in the drama drift inexorably towards madness, it is perhaps because all that testosterone ends up going to their heads. Deprived of diversity, all the males tear each other to pieces in the centre of the arena.
In the army that is the Paris Opera Orchestra, Cécile is a violinist, (in French premier chef d’attaque –a military title if ever there was one!). She tells me that under Vladimir Jurowski’s direction, she was encouraged to modify her playing. “He explained to us that there was a French way and a Russian way of writing music. Mussorgsky tried to reproduce certain accentuations of the Russian language in his musical motifs. But if you don’t have the keys to decipher it, it’s impossible to discern it from the score.” An example? “The quavers at the end of the ties mustn’t be played. Vladimir Jurowski lets us know when via his gestures. One, Two – sshh! The result makes the end notes softer and apparently that’s how it is at the end of a spoken sentence in Russian. It ends with more of a decrescendo.” Cécile shows me the quavers on her score marked in pencil and I nod as if she were underlining a passage of Zhuang-Zhou in Chinese in the text. Are there other demands associated with the work? “Vibrato! Vladimir asks us not to put too much vibrato in the notes. Because at the time this opera was composed, vibrato was far less in vogue than it is today. He also asks us to refrain from making too rich a sound. The instruments of the day were far less powerful than ours. Their strings were still made of cat gut.”
This reminds me of that quip by Ambrose Bierce: “Violin: an instrument to tickle human ears by friction of a horse’s tail on the entrails of a cat.” Incidentally, in saying so, the American satirist was only perpetuating an urban legend: violins were never equipped with strings made from catgut. They were made out of sheep’s’ intestines! But then, who was it that said the violin was equivalent to torture? After all, how could so mellow an instrument so often be perceived as harsh in the collective imagination?
“This conductor is incredible” says Cécile, “because he really knows his stuff. He gives us instructions that aren’t written anywhere and we realise how valid they are once we follow them. He suggests accelerandos, little decelerations, and pauses at the end of some motifs. He even allows himself to cut certain notes! As for the violins, he is attentive to our bow strokes. That’s to say, he is able to see if each of us begin a motif with a forward or backward stroke.” At this point, I ask Cécile for a definition: to start with a forward stroke means that you place the tip of the bow on the strings; to start with a backward stroke means that you place the heel of the bow on the strings. Mussorgsky’s score includes directions about this, but many conductors use their own interpretation because it’s very difficult for the ear to tell the difference.
“And to ensure that the sound we make remains soft, Vladimir often reserves some of the passages for the first violins by asking the others to jump a few bars. We jokingly say among ourselves that once again we’ve missed a good deal! The important thing is not to smother the chorus or the other instruments. We need to stay in recitative mode, never adopting a powerful voice, except for a short rather whimsical respite at the end of the fourth tableau which is more akin to a folk song or a cabaret melody, and which allows us to let go for a moment—and that feels good!”And what is the ultimate result? “We are clearly taking our distance from beautiful Verdi-style musical phrasing. Vladimir Jurowski asks us to imagine that the music is a soft sonorous carpet. He constantly repeats to us: ‘‘Imagine that you’re in the middle of saying a prayer.’’ It’s a thankless prayer with harsh words, but we whisper it.”