Perspectives

Russian Directors and Boris Godunov

Representing the People — By Béatrice Picon-Vallin

Victim of imperial and administrative censure, and staged only belatedly at the Mariinsky Theatre in Saint Petersburg, Boris Godunov was a subject of controversy because of the modernity of its writing, tending towards a certain realism; the technical flaws attributed to its orchestration; its length ..., and was rapidly removed from the bill. However, at the heart of this question lies also Alexander Pushkin’s enigmatic play, an immense fresco in twenty-four scenes, long considered impossible to perform in Russia, partly because of the presence of the common people on stage: an obstacle surmounted by the many directors who have contributed to the renown of this popular musical drama.

Performed in 1908 at the Paris Opera in a production directed by Alexander Sanin at Diaghilev’s invitation, the first version of Boris Godunov, orchestrated by Rimsky-Korsakov, won great acclaim. The highly lively, spectacular treatment of the chorus as an individualised crowd of people aroused admiration, and the bass, Fyodor Shalyapin, stunned audiences in the title role. Sanin, who emigrated in 1922, was to stage “Boris” once again at La Scala Milan in 1946 with equal success.

In 1911, Vsevolod Meyerhold was entrusted with a revival of this production, at the Mariinsky this time, with the same leading man, Shalyapin, and the same sets, by the painter Alexander Golovin. This avant-garde and profoundly musical director intervened mainly in the crowd scenes where, instead of seeking individualisation as in the method used by the Meininger company which was imported to Russia, he discarded Sanin’s analytical interpretation and composed groups, “bas reliefs”. Contesting Sanin with such an artistically radical approach did not endear Meyerhold to Shalyapin, a friend of Sanin’s, despite Meyerhold’s admiration for Shalyapin’s “theatrical truth”. Shayiapin rejected Meyerhold’s authority concerning his favourite opera. It was if there were two productions that failed to gel: that of the “genial Shalyapin”, which stood out and gained universal approval, and that of Meyerhold who remained dissatisfied with it, although he had just triumphed with his 1909 production of Tristan und Isolde whose dramaturgical, artistic and musical approach made him a pioneer in the history of theatrical directors in opera. The anonymity of the crowd seems to be in contradiction with Mussorgsky’s writing, although, for his part, Meyerhold reproached Mussorgsky for the work’s dramaturgical weaknesses: that is, not considering the on-stage position of the chorus, particularly in the “Kromï” scene. The question of the chorus, the place of the people in performance, was to become crucial.

Fedor Ivanovitch Chaliapine dans le rôle-titre de Boris Godounov
Fedor Ivanovitch Chaliapine dans le rôle-titre de Boris Godounov © Roger-Viollet / OnP

Meyerhold became increasingly interested in Pushkin, particularly in Boris Godunov, a play he rehearsed several times but never finally staged. He was convinced that Pushkin had created a work for a new kind of theatre. In 1934 he directed The Queen of Hearts at the MALEGOT in Leningrad, introducing cuts to Tchaikovsky’s score to bring it closer to the poet’s text, a procedure criticised at the time but fiercely defended by Shostakovich. As early as the summer of 1934, he started preparing a dual project for the centenary of Pushkin’s death in 1937: a production of the opera at the MALEGOT and of the play, which he planned to present in Moscow for the reopening of its theatre, the GOSTIM, after completely revising it (it would never be finished). The project excited him but very soon the play was to take up all his time. In keeping with his convictions and his practice – the music must structure the drama, as its “co-construction” – he commissioned pieces from Prokofiev for almost every scene, specifying, in minute detail, his vision and the rhythms he needed in a series of letters. The production never saw the light of day for the project was abandoned in January 1937, in anticipation of the ban looming on the horizon, the period being scarcely propitious to the stage representation of a criminal Tsar. So Prokofiev wrote twenty-four numbers for this Boris Godunov, designated as his opus 70bis. Meyerhold was arrested in 1939 and assassinated in 1940. As for the score, it was to be published ... in 1983.

Faithful to his approach, it was to music that Meyerhold entrusted the role of the people - the stakes in the fight between a criminal Asian usurper and a European imposter. He imagined them as a chorus that, playing the roles of both the chorus of ancient tragedy and that of opera, must not weigh down the action. He therefore eliminated it in visual terms in order to intensify its role through a purely musical treatment. He wanted to transform the play into a “tragic suite in twenty-four parts”. Thus the first three episodes are unified by the rumblings of the crowd, sustained by an ensemble of cellos and double-basses. They constitute three monumental sound frescos. The stage was divided in two: at the front, the principal characters stood out against a curtain which, delineating an invisible background, had three functions. A neutral backdrop, it highlighted the actors, ensuring that nothing distracted the audience whilst also intriguing them, since it concealed the people. Finally, combined with a system of screens like those used in radio stations to give the effect of distance without losing the dynamics, he muted these wordless choruses. The music provided, therefore, both a dramaturgical solution for the crowd, an invisible yet omnipresent protagonist in the drama, and a spatial solution permitting large ensembles in terms of sound and visual close-ups. For Meyerhold considered the foreground, uncluttered by props and close to the audience, as a magnifying glass: brightly lit, it allowed for highly subtle acting. The actors were to accentuate the musical aspect of the verse. The poet, Vladimir Piast and Sergei Bernstein, a linguist, were hired to write rhythmic parts. The music also provided fresh insight into the character of the Tsar who, from his first entrance, is presented, not as a king clad in cloth of gold, but as a man in love with power, a warrior, a hunter. This new work aimed to express simultaneously the multiple voices of this chronicle of “Times of trouble”, written in blood, which Meyerhold likened to Chinese theatre, and whose Elizabethan fury he aimed to render. It was intended to provide the breadth of a layered historical perspective: Russia in the 16th century, in the 19th century, the Decembrists’ Revolt, echoes of which can be heard in Pushkin’s vision, and the Russia of the Stalinist period. Meyerhold transformed the play into an operatic and visual palimpsest, its successive layers remaining perceptible for the audience.

Boris Godounov dans la mise en scène de Iouri Lioubimov, Scala de Milan, 1979
Boris Godounov dans la mise en scène de Iouri Lioubimov, Scala de Milan, 1979 © akg-images / Mondadori Portfolio / Giorgio Lotti

What happened in the eighties with the director Yuri Liubimov, who as a young man had seen rehearsals of Meyerhold’s Boris Godunov, prolonged certain aspects of the previous artistic adventure. After working on Mussorgsky's opera, Liubimov set out to stage Pushkin’s celebrated play through music, and even to compete with the opera. In 1979, he staged it with Lamm’s orchestration revised by Lloyd-Jones at La Scala Milan, with scenographer David Borovsky, conductor Claudio Abbado and singer Nicolai Ghiaurov. Liubimov declared: “With Borovsky, we freed ourselves from the crowd in the opera and resolved everything through the character of Pimen.” The set was like a large book open around an icon – the pages of which were hollowed out with little metal cubes covered with Slavonic texts and representing monastic cells; their occupants, the monks, formed the chorus, one of the cells being that of Pimen, the chronicler and venerable guardian of historic truth. Alongside this 1981 revival at La Scala, at his Taganka Theatre in Moscow, Liubimov turned his attention to the play. This time, the people, which he relegated to a secondary fragmentary role in the opera, are placed together on a bare stage[1]: the entire company was present, both as themselves and as the people of the fable, and it was from this crowd that, in each tableau, the protagonists emerged. The people never left the stage, they were the main element of the scenography; they were the chorus, singing even more than they acted. Liubimov called on Dmitri Pokrovsky, a specialist in ancient folk music. The numerous songs chosen became the text of the people portrayed by the company, clad in timeless costumes, and among whom were integrated members of the Pokrovsky Experimental Ensemble. Alfred Schnittke said admiringly: “This is an opera without a composer, or rather, in which the composer is the people, all the music is composed by the people” and he saw it as “a major event in Russian music theatre”. In 1982, this masterpiece was banned by the censors, and was not performed again until Perestroika, in 1988.

Many other Russians have staged the opera in Rimsky-Korsakov’s version: the first being Sergei Radlov, a pupil of Meyerhold, in 1928 at the Kirov in Leningrad. He worked on the brand new orchestration by Lamm, in which the musicologist B. Asafiev, another colleague of Meyerhold’s, had participated. Drawing on his experience directing productions for the masses, he carried out painstaking research and, with the help of the most eminent specialists, prepared the company thoroughly, but the opening was endlessly postponed. One can also cite the version by Peter Brook in 1948 at Covent Garden, a production whose Russian origins should not be forgotten, and much later, that of the film maker Andrei Tarkovsky, also at Covent Garden, in 1983 (with Claudio Abbado) which was revived at the Mariinsky in 1990 and in 2006 in Mussorgsky's first version with Valery Gergiev; or that of another film maker, Alexander Sokurov (Lamm’s orchestration) at the Bolshoi with Alexander Vedernikov conducting, and a monumental cast[2]. They were all confronted with the question of the position of the chorus, and therefore of the people, on stage, and all more or less resolved it.

In 2013, at the Moscow Philharmonic, a strange event took place one evening. The conductor Vladimir Jurowski[3] conducted Boris Godunov by Prokofiev-Meyerhold[4] - such was the title -, an idea suggested by Anatoli Vassiliev. The press ran the headline: “A Show About a Show that was Killed”, with the director Mikhail Levitine in the role of Meyerhold, the composer Andrei Semenov as Prokofiev and Jurowski as the commentator. A concert in memory of the smothering of a creative process? Or material for a new opera?

[1] Cf. I. Glikman Mejerhol’d i muzykal’nyj teatr, Leningrad, Soy kompoz 1967, pp. 106-107.    
[2] Curiously, it was the new stage of the Taganka Theatre, constructed beside its mythical small stage.    
[3] Of course, this list is far from exhaustive. I add for the record Dmitri Tcherniakov’s production of Boris Godunov at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden, Berlin, 2005-2006, with Daniel Barenboim.    
[4]He conducted Boris Godunov at the Mikhailovsky Theatre in Saint Petersburg in 2015 ; it is he who is conducting Ivo van Hove’s production of the work this season at Opera Bastille.    
[5]There is considerable archive material (cf. stenographic records of rehearsals and Meyerhold’s letters to Prokofiev in V. Meyerhold Writings on Theatre, vol. 4, translation, preface and notes B. Picon-Vallin, L’Âge d’homme 1992). 

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