Encounters

Vox Populi

Interview with Ivo van Hove and Jan Vandenhouwe — By Simon Hatab

Appropriately for a director accustomed to grand political frescos, Ivo van Hove’s first production for the Paris Opera is Boris Godunov. In taking on Mussorgsky’s opera, he explores the inner psyche of a Tsar torn between public and private life and haunted by the murder of the Tsarevich. We met Ivo van Hove together with his dramaturge, Jan Vandenhouwe, to discuss the central themes of his work: power and politics…

You are staging Boris Godunov in the original 1869 version and not in the extended version of 1872. Why did you make this choice?

Ivo van Hove: When Stéphane Lissner asked me to direct Boris Godunov, I accepted whilst specifying that I wished – in agreement with Vladimir Jurowski – to stage the original version. I think this is the version Mussorgsky wanted. It strikes me as more personal, more dramatic and more political. It doesn’t contain the Polish Act, there’s no ballet, no love story. The secondary roles are reduced to a few sparse lines. By concentrating on the rise and fall of the Tsar Boris, this version is more Shakespearean.

Jan Vandenhouwe: In political terms, one of the essential differences between the two versions is that at the end of the second one, the people rise up, whereas in the first, in accordance with the final words of Pushkin’s play, the people remain silent.

Ivo van Hove: Yes, Boris Godunov is a drama about power but it’s also a drama about the people. In this version, one can feel the tremors of a rebellion that simmers away but never breaks out. The people mutter but never really express themselves. In the first tableau of Act III, in front of Saint Basil’s cathedral, they cry out that they are hungry, they beg for bread, but it remains a cry of suffering that aims to satisfy a basic need. There is a form of dialectic in the representation of the people: they embody opposing forces. The populace is interesting because it is ambivalent, rich and complex. In the first tableau, although they are forced by the police to supplicate Boris to take the imperial throne, one senses a certain kind of hope, the promise perhaps of a better future. But finally, this hope is disappointed. If we draw a parallel between this scene and that of the cathedral, in the latter, only despair remains. The people are plunged into terrible misery. There is nothing left. They find themselves in the situation of refugees in their own country.

Does the situation of a people that complains without their dissatisfaction ever evolving into an uprising seem to you to resonate in our contemporary world?

I. van H: Today, I don’t get the impression that rebellion is taking hold. Look at what happened recently in the United States after the Parkland massacre. Young people rose up against the free circulation of firearms. Did it last? They sent a clear signal, certainly, but it was not followed by any political consequence. Trump continues to trot out his speeches and no protest seems able to stop him. I have the feeling that today, revolt is momentary, an interlude, a page that one reads and then turns. It’s not a fire that catches light and cannot be extinguished, as it was in the sixties.

J.V.: It’s interesting because, a few years ago, I was working as dramaturge on another production of Boris Godunov in the 1872 version. At the time, the dream of political change conveyed by this second version echoed current events: it was the period of Occupy Wall Street, the Arab Spring and the Spanish Indignados movement. That was in 2012. I think the 1869 version better reflects the current atmosphere, with this impression of incomprehension between the people and the elite.

I. van H.: This rupture leads the people to turn to extreme solutions. Like the Angry White Males who voted Trump in the United States, those in Germany who succumb to the seductive call of Alternative für Deutschland or in France who voted Marine Le Pen …

J.V.: These are the “peripheral” people, to adopt the terminology of French sociologists – those who feel abandoned by the Left and by the moderate Right wing, those left by the wayside who feel excluded from the political game, the people who are left outside “the cathedral”. 

Alexander Tsymbalyuk (Boris Godounov), Opéra Bastille, 2018
Alexander Tsymbalyuk (Boris Godounov), Opéra Bastille, 2018 © Agathe Poupeney / OnP

Ivo, you used the adjective Shakespearean to qualify the version of Boris Godunov you have chosen. In fact, in this work there are obvious Shakespearean intertextual references, notably to Macbeth, to the usurper threatened with usurpation in his turn. I imagine that the use of this word is far from casual on the part of a director whose career has been so marked by this Elizabethan playwright – I’m thinking particularly of Roman Tragedies and Kings of War, which you directed.

I. van H.: Yes, I think I’ve directed all Shakespeare’s tragedies with the exception of King Lear. I should probably think about doing it, in fact! I directed my first Shakespeare play when I was twenty-four – the very complex Troilus and Cressida. I need to go back to Shakespeare regularly, every three years, I think. When it comes to politics, Shakespeare’s theatre offers us a whole gallery of excessive, complex and immutable characters. While working on Boris Godunov, I certainly thought of Macbeth but also of Julius Caesar: like Brutus, Boris has committed a political murder enabling him to seize power. Like Brutus, he is constantly stricken by guilt and must live each day with this trauma. Like Julius Caesar, Boris Godunov raises the following question: how can power – however progressive it may be – be founded on a murder?

This thread that runs from Shakespeare to Pushkin and Mussorgsky also allows you to explore the idea of power, another theme that is central to your work…

I. van H.: Yes, power and, I would even say, leadership … how can I put it? – visionary leadership? Clearly, this long-term vision is missing today. We are confronted with major questions –immigration, climate change – but we have no response worthy to meet these challenges. Whence the temptation to revive the past, the allure of old slogans, as in the United States which is currently going through a period of terrible regression: “KEEP THEM OUT!” “AMERICA FIRST!” In a continent that was essentially founded on immigration, we are seeing anti-immigration slogans proliferate. In Mussorgsky’s opera, Boris has a vision. He puts forward concrete solutions. But he commits an error in believing that he can govern from his office in the Kremlin. Whence his rupture with the people.

J.V.: This misapprehension is historic fact. The Tsar Boris Godunov was the first to be elected; he wanted to reform the country; he founded the first university, changed the Russian health system … But one senses that the people misunderstood his policies. In the opera, this is the main theme of his monologue in Act II:

God sent famine to our land, the people began to complain, crushed beneath the weight of their sufferings. I ordered all the grain stores to be opened, gold was distributed to them, I found them work.
Furious, they cursed me! Fire destroyed their houses and the wind swept away their meagre hovels. I had new homes built for them, I gave them clothes; I kept them warm, cared for them, they blamed me for the fire. Such is the judgement of the people!

I. van H.: As soon as he is on the throne, his fall is predestined, as if it has been programmed: this is exactly what Grigori dreams about in Act II. He climbs the steps of a staircase from the top of which he can see Moscow. Down below, the people point at him and jeer. In the end he falls. What does this dream mean? Doesn’t it encapsulate the entire tragedy of power? This consummate rupture between Boris and the people paves the way for the populism and the political chimeras embodied in the character of the false Dimitri, the usurper…

J.V.: Yes, everyone knows that the real Dimitri is dead because his body has been displayed. However, rather than the real Boris, the people prefer to follow the false Dimitri who channels the anger of the underprivileged. Populism consists precisely in making lies more attractive than truth.

This interview is reproduced in its entirety in the programme of Boris Godunov.

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