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Modeste Petrovitch Moussorgski
Opéra Bastille - from 07 June to 12 July 2018
2h10 no interval
Language : Russian
Surtitle : French / English
In few words:
In 1824, when Pushkin turned to Boris Godunov for his first historical drama, he knew only too well what a colossus he was tackling. It was armed with his reading of Shakespeare that he matched his skills to the dazzling reign of the Tzar of Russia (1598-1605). Indeed, there are elements of Macbeth in this political fable, in which the ghost of the child that Boris has had killed in order to seize the throne appears as an impostor. Adapting this epic poem, Mussorgsky composed a meditation on the solitude of power, a populist drama in which the real protagonist is the Russian people with its burden of eternal suffering. Pushkin had already wondered, “What is a soul? A melody, perhaps…” Ivo Van Hove is no stranger to grand political frescos having already staged Tragédies Romaines and Kings of War based on plays by Shakespeare.
This is his first production for the Paris Opera.
Opera in seven scenes
After Alexandre Pouchkine,Nicolas Karamzine
ConductorVladimir Jurowski7, 10, 13, 16, 26, 29 juin, 2 juil.
ConductorDamian Iorio19, 22 juin, 6, 9, 12 juil.
DirectorIvo van Hove
Set designJan Versweyveld
Lighting designJan Versweyveld
Costume designAn D’Huys
Chorus masterJosé Luis Basso
Boris GodounovIldar Abdrazakov7,10,16,19,22,26,29 June – 2,6,12 July
Boris GodounovAlexander Tsymbalyuk13 June - 9 July
La nourriceAlexandra Durseneva
Le prince ChouiskiMaxim Paster
Andrei ChtchelkalovBoris Pinkhasovich
Grigori OtrepievDmitry Golovnin
Un officier de policeMaxim Mikhailov
Un boyard, voix dans la fouleLuca Sannai
Vrai théâtre, sublime musiqueAndré Tubeuf, Le Point, 07/06/18
La mise en scène sobre d'Ivo van Hove et la direction précise de Vladimir Jurowski honorent la puissance de l'œuvre de MoussorgskiChristian Merlin, Le Figaro, 9,10/06/18
La basse russe Ildar Abdrazakov est un hallucinant Boris de chair et de sang, noble et fragile, campant révolution psychologique du tsar de sa voix de bronze, d'une plénitude absolue. Le reste de la distribution est digne de cette splendide incarnation […]Bruno Serrou, La Croix 12/06/18
La mise en scène d'Ivo van Hove, sombre et claire à la fois, brille par une direction d'acteurs au cordeau et d'impressionnantes vidéos, signées Tal Yarden.Bruno Serrou, La Croix 12/06/18
Le tableau final, pris dans un tempo allant, est d’un dépouillement saisissantMarie-Aude Roux, Le Monde 12/06/18
Boris Godounov - Modeste Petrovitch Moussorgski
Boris Godounov - Pimène (Ain Anger)
Boris Godounov (Ildar Abdrazakov)
Boris Godounov - Andrei Chtchelkalov (Boris Pinkhasovich)
Diary of Boris Godunov
Boris Godunov Journal
Boris Godunov Journal
Boris Godunov Journal
Boris Godunov Journal
© Pauline Andrieu / OnP
Diary of Boris Godunov
Episode 1 – An encounter with the dramatist
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.
Boris Godunov Journal
Episode 9 – Encounter with Ivo van Hove
Opera, a gesamkunstwerk? On the occasion of Ivo van Hove’s new production of Boris Godunov at Opera Bastille, and in order to ascertain whether the term inherited from German Romanticism is still applicable, the writer and chief editor of Philosophie Magazine, Alexandre Lacroix set out to meet all the artists and craftsmen whose skills and sensibilities contribute to the creation of an opera production – dramaturge, director, conductor, scenographer, film-maker, singers, musicians, costume and lighting designers … In partnership with Philosophie Magazine.
Ninth Encounter Beneath the grande verrière, galerie des balcons, at Opera Bastille, June 1st
Ivo van Hove asked me to join him on stage, on the bare boards of the opera house. The stairs that will be climbed by the soloists and chorus have been covered with a dust sheet. Stage hands roll up cables and put away the black storage cases on their casters. Ivo is alone in the middle of the space, his back to the dark, empty auditorium. He is wearing jeans, a petrol blue shirt and the trainers I’ve seen him with in all his recent photographs. Meditating, on an immense stage: anyone who holds power has no other choice but solitude. He must retreat into his inner self to make his decisions. In whom will he trust if not in himself? Power is a summit where there is no room for two. Such is the position of Boris. But also that of Ivo, the director, a few days before the opening night.
We leave the stage, exit on the balcony side and sit down in a gallery beyond, under the grande verrière. Outside, the late afternoon sun, slanting low, bleaches out the traffic with its rays; the metal tops of cars are dazzling. In two hours, Ivo will watch the final run before the dress rehearsal: he will see his opera in its entirety for the first time. The sixty-year-old may well have directed a hundred and fifty operas in his time, but the tension is still palpable. The conversation must speed along, like a perfectly tuned mechanism.
Did you have a rendez-vous with Boris Godunov in 2018?
Ino van Hove: It was Stéphane Lissner [the director of the Paris Opera] who asked me, three or four years ago, if I was interested in directing Boris Godunov. I replied in the affirmative, but on one condition: I wanted to stage the first version, that of 1869. Today, the most frequently performed version is that of 1872, which is longer and very different. I then contacted Vladimir Jurowski, who joined us for this adventure. It’s not an obvious choice for a conductor, because the second version is perhaps more interesting musically. But the first is much more exciting in dramatic terms.
Why is that?
It’s more political. There are no digressions, the drama is concentrated around the figure of the Tsar. Boris Godunov and the common people are the two principal characters.
Six months ago, I met your dramaturge, Jan Vandehouwe. He drew a surprising parallel between Grigoriy, the adventurer who passes himself off as the legitimate heir to the throne of Russia, and Donald Trump. Grigoriy’s popularity is founded on a lie, fake news: he has usurped the identity of the young prince Dmitri who was assassinated! In your production, does Grigoriy represent a populist leader?
No, no, Grigoriy is not a populist but a careerist. He has been manipulated by Pimen, the monk, who has fuelled his desire for this epic march to the Kremlin. I consider Pimen to be an ideologist, a sort of Steven Bannon. He is very conservative. He believes that the solution for Russia is to return to the past, a reactionary dream, one that is flourishing everywhere in the world today. Grigoriy is just his mercenary. He’s an opportunist bereft of any ideology. Another character that interests me is Prince Shuysky.
One of the boyars
Yes, one of the great men of the Empire. He is one of the elite, but he has a strongly strategic side to him. History teaches us that, after Boris’ death, his son Fyodor was on the throne for a few months, after which Grigoriy became tsar for a year and finally, Shuysky came to power. This makes sense to me. Shuysky has a long-term vision.
Jan suggested that Boris Godunov, who takes pains to govern the country well, to carry out enlightened reforms, without really gaining popular support, is like a modern technocrat and that one could see him as a sort of Emmanuel Macron. What do you think of this?
When one transposes an opera into the contemporary world, of course one seeks to build links with current events. But one mustn’t be too simplistic. What struck us, Jan and myself, after the presidential election in 2017 in France, was Emmanuel Macron’s awareness of the historic importance of this moment. The way he organised his slow, very slow entrance into the great courtyard of the Louvre, or composed his official photograph, testify to a profound sense of showmanship. It is tempting to draw a parallel with the coronation ceremony in the first tableau of Boris Godunov. But the similarity stops there.
In Brechtian terms
Since December of last year, I’ve been meeting a dozen or so people involved in this production, from the set and costume workshops etc. Now, it seemed to me that Ivo van Hove’s conception confirmed rather closely to Berthold Brecht’s recommendations in his preface to The Rise and Fall of the City of Hahagonny (1930).
In Brecht’s eyes, the goal of an opera is to portray on stage the power relations such as they exist in society so as to allow the audience to contemplate them objectively and understand them. Brecht wanted the décor to be sparse in the extreme to enable the spectator to maintain critical distance to avoid being completely caught up in the action. Ivo chose to present the audience with an almost bare stage, with only a staircase and a giant screen. Brecht was against period costumes – and the chorus here resemble commuters on a train. Brecht considered that the music should communicate the text, but not try to impose it or to enhance it – and Vladimir Jurowski explained to me his aim to treat the music as the production’s subconscious mind.
Has Brecht been an important source of inspiration for this work?
Every director at some time or another uses something that Brecht invented. However, I don’t much like his plays and I’ve never directed one of his works. I prefer to consider Boris Godunov as a prolongation of the great political tragedies of Shakespeare, which are a constant source of inspiration for me. Brecht is too didactic. He wants to denounce the class struggle and prepare the way for communism. He would probably have chosen the second version of “Boris”, which culminates in a revolution. In the first version, the ruling class remains in power and the people are frustrated. In the finale, one has the impression that the people are reduced to a state of passivity and relative indifference. It seems to me that this is what is happening these days. I don’t believe that revolution is imminent.
The veritable art of management
One has lost count of the management treatises destined for company directors. However, the English word ‘management’ has a more remote origin: it comes from the Italian maneggiare which means ‘handle’ from the Latin manus meaning ‘hand’. Isn’t directing a play or an opera a job that touches the very essence of management? How can you push each one to the maximum expression of their talent unless you practise a ‘management of minds’ of the greatest finesse?
I imagine one can push people – singers, instrumentalists, technicians, to give their best in various ways: persuasion, authority, maieutics … How would you describe your own practice?
First of all, I prepare really thoroughly. I don’t begin on the work of staging without a profound knowledge of the text. In an opera, the libretto doesn’t play a fundamental role, I’d say it represents 20% of the work. I need to know what is important on a musical level, the information behind the notes on each stave.
Yes, but that’s still intellectual, it doesn’t explain how you handle the artists.
Let’s just say that I consider each singer as an individual.
Is that all?
I’m often asked about this, but there is no other valid method. I observe, I listen and I find a way of addressing every singer. I treat each of them as an individual human being. With X, I find I need to discuss things at length, whereas with Z it’s better to limit oneself to “You have to come on stage here and exit over there”. It’s the art of psychology really.
How do conversations with a conductor like Vladimir Jurowski go?
Listen, I worked with David Bowie. And I approached him just as I would any other collaborator. He never took advantage of his rank or his power. I convinced him to change the ending of his show Lazarus. I had profound reasons. He listened to them, then he said: “That sounds good to me, we should do it.” At a certain level, people have nothing more to prove. The intimidators, the bullies are always mediocre. Vladimir has helped me and I’ve helped him, it’s a partnership. For example, yesterday I asked him about a stage effect: “I need you, I need the music to emphasise this stage effect. On which note should it happen in your view, this one or that one?” There you have it, a conversation.
Human beings are nevertheless fragile. Some of them fall ill, others suffer from nerves or go through personal crises. How do you manage to get everyone to the height of their form for the opening night?
That’s my own personal touch! But whatever I achieve, I always owe it to a team, travelling companions with whom I’ve been working for a long time: there’s Jan Versweyveld for the scenography and lighting; Tal Yarden for the videos, An d’Huys for the costumes and Jan Vandenhouwe for the dramaturgy.
Otherwise, with everybody I think one has to be sincere. People can sense whether you’re being false or genuine with them. During rehearsals, I observe and I communicate my emotions. When I am in doubt, I say so without beating about the bush.
Adorno amongst the gladiators
Whilst working on this Boris Godunov Journal, I’ve been constantly reminded of a reflection on theatre that I found in Theodor W. Adorno’s article Bourgeois Opera (1955): “It would be fair to consider opera as being a specifically bourgeois art form that, at the heart of a disenchanted world, seeks, paradoxically, to preserve the magic element of art whilst using the very means provided by that world.” The sentence is dense and abstract but it seems to me to strike at the heart of one of opera’s paradoxes: it is certainly an art form for a social elite, the bourgeoisie, and requires colossal resources and therefore also public and private subsidies and yet, at the heart of such a set-up, one which would not stand up to Marxist-style criticism, the challenge is to preserve an element of magic, that is, to bring out something in the order of truth or beauty.
I read the quotation aloud to Ivo to get his point of view.
“It would be fair to consider opera as being a specifically bourgeois art form that, at the heart of a disenchanted world, seeks, paradoxically, to preserve the magic element of art.” Does he agree?
I. van H: I don’t much like that sentence. I find it old hat. Talking like that, with that vocabulary, is really 20th century. Is football bourgeois? No. And yet it costs millions and tickets for the World Cup are exhorbitant. Are rock and reggae concerts bourgeois, on the basis that they are expensive? You see, approaching these realities in terms of social class is too reductive.
But Adorno also said something else: opera established itself as a major art form, as a ‘total art form’ even, in the 19th century, the era of Verdi, of Wagner, of Mussorgsky, at therefore the precise hour of an apotheosis of bourgeois society, and it has retained the stigmata of these origins. Even today, it is for the most part the bourgeoisie who go to the opera, and it’s not just a question of price but of the effect of social class on taste.
Not everything is rigidly fixed, every year there are productions of new operas! In the 20th century, there were the operas of Alban Berg, Igor Stravinsky and Leoš Janáček. And today, Thomas Adès is an outstanding composer, to give but one example. I think that citation from Adorno reflects above all his own prejudices.
All the same, in the present case the question is inevitable: Boris Godunov is an opera that exclusively treats the issue of the relationship between the people and the elite. Peter Sellars said that in opera, if you have something to say to the great and powerful, they are sitting in the front row! Is it possible to show and to criticise social domination in a place frequented by the elite and belonging to the State? Or is the criticism just a decoy, being neutralised in advance by the nature of the institution?
That’s not my way of thinking about things. As a director, but also as a spectator at the opera or the theatre, I detest being told what to think. I like dialectics. I was asked, in an interview, if I agreed with Boris Godunov’s way of governing. Now, when I stage a scene with Boris, I am totally Boris. When I do a scene with Shuysky, I am totally Shuysky. I identify with the characters, I don’t judge them. I consider myself as a subversive director, not as a moralist.
Let’s consider this notion of subversion in more depth. What does it mean to be subversive when you stage an opera in 2018?
Why, in your opinion, do millions of people every year in Spain make the journey to go and see Picasso’s Guernica? To contemplate that painting is a very intense experience. It represents a massacre. There is no hope in that landscape of war. Why do we go to see Medea at the theatre, when we know she’s going to kill her children? Great works of art are subversive because they explore what’s negative and it’s to their subversiveness that they owe their power to fascinate.
(Ivo turns and points to Place de la Bastille, still glittering outside through the window.)
In life, I like it when people stop at a red light. When they respect the law. I’m glad I live in an ordered society. But here, in this building, an opera house, we’re working with chaotic situations. Chaos and cruelty are within us, they are inextricably part of human nature. But it’s better to commit a murder on stage than in the street. Subversion in theatre or opera consists in representing these feelings of cruelty, these destructive instincts. To evacuate them, to deliver ourselves of them.
Does such an approach have its origins in Greek tragedy or gladiator combats?
For me, it’s exactly the same thing!
© Pauline Andrieu / OnP
Boris Godunov Journal
Episode 8 – A meeting with Ildar Abdrazakov
Eighth encounter Inside Ildar Abdrazakov’s dressing room at the Opéra Bastille, June 5, 2018
Even kings are subject to fatigue. The man performing the title role of Boris Godunov, the Russian singer Ildar Abdrazakov enters and apologises for being a little groggy because his daughter of eight months woke up several times during the night. It reassures me that a man who plays the Tsar each night is familiar with the vicissitudes of any other father. It seems that the performing arts are not as far-removed from the real world as we might think—on the contrary.
So how does he approach his role? “Russian vocals are very different to bel canto” explains Ildar who was born in 1976 in Ufa, the capital of what was then the Soviet Republic of Bashkiria. Ildar made his debut on the stage of Saint Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theatre in 1998. Even so, he has performed in only a few Russian operas. He sang the role of Dosifey in Mussorgsky’s Khovanshchina and the title role in Alexander Borodin’s Prince Igor, but that’s about it. As for the rest, his career is international and his repertoire primarily Italian and French. “I’m capable of singing in my native tongue, even if it’s more difficult than in Italian” he confides. The bel canto technique consists of introducing some resonance into your voice. With Mussorgsky, there’s nothing like that. In the musical composition of Boris Godunov, you sometimes have the impression that lightning has just struck the syllables or the words. There are waves of energy that sweep the text along. The vocals have been conceived in a highly dramatic way and for the performer, it’s impossible to ease up.” In an opera which lasts about two hours, Ildar will be singing for almost half the time—an intense, demanding, hour-long role. “It’s not that I’m going to have to force it, but I’ll need to put more harmonics in my voice. It’s a role that requires a great deal of commitment especially since it’s sometimes necessary to switch from true singing in order to yell.”
To die singing?
As opposed to the dramatic progression of countless classical novels, it is striking that many of the great operas from the repertoire end with the long, slow death of the principal character. It’s how Don Giovanni, Tristan and Isolde, Madame Butterfly, La Traviata, Rigoletto’s daughter Gilda and, of course, Boris die mercilessly… It’s odd, this obsession for killing—does it not establish a parallel between opera and the corrida or the combat of gladiators? Why, in this particular art form, do we derive so much pleasure from witnessing the spectacle of death? From an anthropological point of view, to die while singing is a curious and less-than-credible, reaction, except on stage. Is it a rite of conjuration for the horror that the mortal condition inspires in us?
And how does Ildar prepare himself to descend into madness and die every night? It’s not that simple to portray inner turmoil and weakness with a bass voice that by nature is firm and steady. “A bass voice is earth-based, it’s unshakeable. It’s not possible to make it unstable, to weaken it or to make it tremble—besides, that wasn’t Mussorgsky’s intention.” I ask Ildar if he is going to adapt his voice to the role a little to translate the inexorable degradation of Boris, but my question is obviously naive. “I have no margin for manoeuvre. Mussorgsky already wrote everything. I’m not like an actor, I don’t offer a free interpretation of my role. What matters to me is, to be as close as possible to the score, to what was composed. Nothing has been left to chance.”
When all is said and done, Ildar works a little like conductor Vladimir Jurowski who requires his orchestra to play with total respect of the playing techniques of the times. “My voice is an instrument in the service of the score. The only difference with an instrument is that it is personal, unique. My brother Askar is also an opera singer and a bass. But we don’t have the same sound.”
Ildar pauses for a moment and then continues: “Nevertheless, there is a passage in the libretto that reveals the psychology of Boris. In it, he says: ‘‘If within you, a single stain should by chance appear, as if smitten by the plague, the soul is immediately consumed, the heart is overwhelmed by poison and despair takes hold.’’ It is enough to have committed an act that diminishes you, that you cannot come to terms with morally, for the thought of it to take hold of you and corrupt everything. One little stain ends up smothering the heart entirely.” Does Ildar himself agree with this notion that guilt is like a slow-acting poison with no antidote? “Yes, I think that’s true. We don't stop thinking about our wrongdoings. Instead of forgetting they, them just keep growing and growing inside us.”
© Pauline Andrieu / OnP
Boris Godunov Journal
Episode 7 – Encounter with the film-maker Tal Yarden
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, conductor, director, scenographer, film-maker, singers, musicians, costumiers, lighting engineers, etc… In partnership with Philosophie Magazine.
Seventh Encounter On the café terrace at Opera Bastille, May 28th
The weather is stormy and, redolent, not so much of spring, as of late August when lightning cracks the heat-laden sky. A film of perspiration covers the face of video artist, Tal Yarden, Ivo van Hove’s brother in arms. Pressures of the job, atmospheric pressure or both? Given the gigantic proportions of the screen suspended over the stage, Tal Yarden has a heavy responsibility on his shoulders: the stage will be bare and, in visual terms, the success of Boris Godunov will be riding on the impact of his images.
So these videos, where did he glean his ideas? How did he film them and where? “For Boris, my videos have three sources. An initial group of images represent the scenes set outside. They thus create a context, an atmosphere. The fourth tableau takes place in “an inn on the Lithuanian border”. This frontier zone can be interpreted as a wasteland, a no man’s land. At that point, I chose to show industrial areas, abandoned factories. The next tableau is set “in the Tsar's apartments in the Kremlin”. Here, I wanted to show the opposite of a palace, using instead very beautiful, natural landscapes.” On one side, a wasteland, on the other, Eden. “Yes, it’s a visual contrast that suggests that the ruling class and the common people do not see the same world. The people are submerged in ugliness, concrete and iron, flat and dreary; the elite enjoy green, harmonious open spaces. This is why Boris does not understand his people. He does not see what is wrong: he promised his subjects a better world and, in his eyes, he has fulfilled his promise.
I asked Tal how he made his videos; he explained that they are in fact photographs that have been animated using different visual effects: they move, morph, slide onto the screen like living tableaus. “A second visual group was filmed here in Paris, during one specially designated day, with the singers Ildar Abdrazakov and Alexander Tsymbalyuk, as well as the chorus.” From time to time, the audience see the singers twice, on stage and, greatly enlarged on the screen. Isn’t there a risk of needless repetition? “No, because it’s a way giving the singers a powerful presence. You can see every line on their faces, the texture of their skin, the grime on the hands of the common people in the chorus.” For these videos, Tal used a procedure that is very dear to contemporary artist, Bill Viola, which consists in slowing down movement almost to a stop, by about 1000%. This means that each gesture is amplified and the eye can explore the nooks and crannies of time.
And the third set of images? “This is still under discussion, and the final decision is Ivo’s. We have in fact filmed a flashback scene, in which we see Boris killing a child – Dmitri, the rightful heir to the throne … When we first tried out the gigantic LED screen, we realised that it was extraordinarily powerful. It projects so much light that we are now in the process of adjusting the videos to make them darker. So as not to dazzle or hypnotise the audience. I’m working non-stop on these adjustments.” I understand that film of perspiration now: there are just seven days until the opening night. I am reminded of the English painter, William Turner who, when he exhibited his work in London, always hung his paintings then reworked them furiously all night before the opening. This final creative gesture was crucial and determined the success or failure of the enterprise, but its pertinence came from its urgency.
This comparison led me to ask Tal a more pictorial question. In video installations made for the theatre, it seems to me that today we are seeing references to two major schools of 19th century painting: naturalism on the one hand, which imposes a raw and truthful image of the world, and symbolism on the other, which treats form and colour as a discrete, dreamlike, idealistic language. Some video makers are naturalists: they recycle archive material and extracts from television news; they film behind the scenes or the streets around the theatre. Others, symbolists, prefer to develop an autonomous visual atmosphere, without situating the scenes, so as to act on the emotions of the spectators.
“When I tackle a new project, I always start from an empty room,” Tal replies. “And I try to invent a video environment adapted to the work. I see the naturalist register and the symbolist register as two tools, either of which might be used. I have no preconceived ideology on this, I adapt, all the more so given that any choice emerges as a result of discussions with the director.” Tal Yarden – although a real star in his domain – suddenly seems rather modest, like anybody else conscious of taking part in a collective work. “And then, I don’t know if this distinction between naturalism and symbolism is really that pertinent, because they overlap. When Ivo and I produced Angels in America for the Brooklyn Art of Music Theater in 2014, I filmed places that had a very precise meaning for me, without the spectator being able to identify them …” Based on a play by Tony Kushner which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1991, Angels in America deals with the condition of homosexuals in the United States in the 1980s. “A video showed an open window with a red curtain flapping in the wind. For the viewer, it was symbolic. In fact, the sequence was filmed in the New York hospital room that had been occupied by the first Aids sufferers. Another video showed a panoramic view of the ocean. It could have been anywhere except that it was in fact a series of clips filmed on the famous gay beaches of Long Island.” Tal may therefore have invented a sort of third genre: hermetic naturalism, showing only a tiny aspect of reality in order to transform it into a symbol.In the case of “Boris”, it seems nevertheless that allusions to the real world are absent and that naturalistic language has been laid aside. Notably, there are no images of Russia on the screen. And no news footage either. “This opera, it’s like a monastery. You’re shut inside it. Images from the outside world do not reach you. You try to get access to something, to the past, to truth, to gain awareness. For me, Boris is submerged in a prolonged dream, he descends into the depths of himself and, at the end, he is brutally awakened.”
© Pauline Andrieu / OnP
Boris Godunov Journal
Episode 6 – Encounter with Evdokia Malevskaya
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, conductor, director, scenographer, video designer, singers, musicians, costumiers, lighting engineers, etc… In partnership with Philosophie Magazine.
Sixth Encounter In Evdokia Malevskaya’s dressing room at Opera Bastille, 1st June 2018
I think we all tell ourselves stories about who we are, our identities and our existences over time, reflecting endlessly on the last ten years. That’s why a man of 25 still maintains a lively dialogue with his adolescence, whereas towards the age of 40 this dialogue unravels to make way for a meditation on the hazards of adulthood. But Evdokia Malevskaya, aged sixteen, who sings the role of Fiodor, the Tsar's son in Boris Godunov, is still in touch with her childhood: “My passion for singing began when I was at nursery school aged six. A show had been organised for the end of the year and I was to play the role of a little mouse. I didn’t feel at ease on stage, I was too intimidated and in the end our group leader had to take on the part in my place at the last minute. After that incident, my mother decided to enrol me in a drama class to help me get over my nerves. As soon as I crossed the threshold of the studio I was overwhelmed by its atmosphere and had only to let myself be carried along. I am still a pupil at the Saint Petersburg Conservatoire, whilst also pursuing my studies at the Elena Obraztsova Academy of Music and Singing.”
The role of Fiodor is one that Evdokia is very familiar with as she played it for the first time when she was nine years old, in a production directed by Yuri Alexandrov. Which raises several questions. During adolescence, boys’ voices break in an impressive fashion, but girls’ voices also change. How has she developed? “Two years ago, my voice changed very abruptly. Before, I sang in quite a low register and I didn’t have a very wide tessitura. My range has now broadened but my register hasn’t stabilised and my teachers are not all of the same opinion. Some of them think I’m a soprano, others a mezzo. My bottom range does have the sonority of a mezzo and my high notes that of a soprano. Having said that, the people I trust the most tell me I’m more of a mezzo.” And the role of Fiodor? “I play it somewhere between the two.” To show that he’s still a child? “But I’m still a child! My voice still lacks the power of the voices of the adult soloists.”
For Evdokia, surrounded by her family: her brother, her mother and assisted by an interpreter, coming to perform in Paris is a wonderful adventure. How did rehearsals with Ivo van Hove, the director, go? “I really appreciated the fact that we were able to exchange ideas. As I’ve been playing Fiodor for a long time, I have a special insight into the role. I therefore contributed several suggestions.”
For example? There’s a scene where my sister Xenia cries over the death of her fiancé. I try to console her and take her mind off it. But she can’t help wallowing in her misery. I asked Ivo: “Supposing I end up getting cross with her?” He replied: “No, no, no, why would you do such a thing?” Two minutes later, he came over and said I could get cross “a tiny bit.” We looked at each other and burst out laughing.”
However, the scene in which Boris goes mad and, stricken, collapses, is not given the same leeway for interpretation. “I did not understand why, at such a moment, I had to stay in the background. “If it were your own father falling to his knees, Ivo asked me, what would you do?” I told him that I certainly wouldn’t just sit there reading or daydreaming. But he did not waver in his conviction. “In this scene, you don’t react.” Psychologically, it is doubtless strange that a child would not come to the assistance of her father; but in dramatic terms, the Tsar's isolation is essential.
Finally, as a specialist on Boris Godunov, what does Evdokia think about the way the production has taken shape generally?
“I really love the first scene. When the music starts, we see people arriving. There is such a perfect fusion between the music and the movement of the crowd. I get shivers down my spine at that point, I don’t know why. I’ve recorded this passage on my smartphone and when I listen to it, a wave of happiness washes through me."
© Agathe Poupeney / OnP
Interview with Ivo van Hove and Jan Vandenhouwe
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”.
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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Ce spectacle fait l’objet d’une captation réalisée par Don Kent, coproduite par l’Opéra national de Paris et Bel Air Média, avec la participation de France 2, avec le soutien du CNC et de la Fondation Orange, mécène des retransmissions audiovisuelles de l’Opéra national de Paris. Ce spectacle sera retransmis en direct sur Culturebox le 7 juin 2018 à 20h. Il sera également retransmis le même jour en direct avec le concours de Fra Cinéma, dans les cinémas UGC, dans le cadre de leur saison Viva l’Opéra ! et dans des cinémas indépendants en France et dans le monde entier. Il sera retransmis sur France Musique le 1er juillet 2018 à 20h et ultérieurement sur France 2.
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