A modern drama

Boris Godounov is often presented as the greatest Russian opera, an opera with a complicated genesis, which stages one of the most troubled and fascinating pages of Russian history. The version staged at the Paris Opera at the end of the 2017-2018 season, and currently available on the website France TV Culture box, is the 1869 version composed by Modest Mussorgsky, but refused by the censors because of the absence of a leading female role, love story and ballet. After this first refusal, Mussorgsky wrote a second version, the 1872 version, which was premiered at the Mariinsky Theatre in 1874. After the composer’s death, Rimsky-Korsakov composed a re-orchestrated version that was for a long time more popular than Mussorgsky’s versions because of its allegedly greater orchestral refinement. Fortunately, since the late 1990s conductors and directors have tended to favour the 1869 version, which is considered more intense, colourful and dramatic.

Boris Godounov is a musical drama inspired by a rather dark episode in the history of Russia. Over seven scenes, this opera tells the story of Boris Godunov’s arrival on the Russian, of his reign and his fall demise from 1598 to 1605. Mussorgsky took his inspiration in Alexander Pushkin’s historical drama about the reign of Tsar Boris Godunov, who came to power after the death of Ivan the Terrible’s youngest son, Tsarevich Dmitri, whom he is suspected of having ordered the assassination. The tsar eventually sinks into madness, gnawed by remorse, while a popular revolt is brewing throughout the country and the false Dmitri, a pretender claiming to be the Tsarevich but in fact a former novice of the Miracle Convent in the Kremlin, is marching on Moscow at the head of an army to overthrow the tsar.

Visually, the staging proposed by Ivo Van Hove at the Paris Opera is based on a unique and extremely simple set, with a large staircase in the middle of the stage, overhung by a large screen where videos are projected, representing images of Boris, the Russian landscapes, and the people as well as of three colours (white, red, gold). Ivo Van Hove explained that for him this set was tripartite: a suspended palace, a staircase and the earth, which represents the people. The first time I saw a picture of this set, I immediately thought of how the Polish playwright Jan Kott described the mechanism of history in Shakespearean tragedies :

« History is a great staircase on which there treads a great procession of kings. Every step upwards is marked by murder, perfidy and treachery. Every step brings the throne nearer. Another step and the crown will fall. One will soon be able to snatch it. […] From the highest step there is only a leap into the abyss. The monarchs change. But all of them — good and bad, brave and cowardly, vile and noble, naive and cynical — tread on the steps that are always the same. « (Jan Kott, Shakespeare, Our Contemporary)

During a talk organized by the Paris Opera with stage director Ivo Van Hove, conductor Vladimir Jurowski, set designer Jan Versweyveld, and tenor Dmitri Golovin, I had the opportunity to ask Ivo Van Hove if he had this reference in mind when he conceived the staging of Boris Godounov (a reference another blogger had already noticed about a previous staging by Van Hove). The director answered that he had read this book during his university studies, but that he had not consciously thought about it, while acknowledging that what Kott described in his book was the reason why the staircase was there. Therefore, what Van Hove makes plainly visible in this production of Boris Godounov is this « Grand Mechanism » of history, an eternal and universal mechanism. Van Hove thereby demonstrates the power of Musorgsky’s musical drama, which is too often reduced to a purely colourful Russian drama. What is at stake here is the clash for power between the two main protagonists of the opera, the tsar and the people. The aim of this stripped-down set is to de-folklorize Mussorgsky’s opera in order to make the audience reflect on their relationship to political power, especially to the manipulation of naive and desperate crowds by power-hungry politicians, which is quite relevant in our era of populism. The world in which we are immersed with this production is grey, dull, and full of violence, and yet there is a glimmer of hope represented by religious power, and above all by the figure of the Innocent, the « holy fool » of Eastern Christianity, who alone dares to tell the tsar what others are afraid to express. Ivo Van Hove sees in Boris a reformist tsar who made the fatal mistake of believing that he could commit a crime for the good of the people, and who ends up going mad as society becomes increasingly indifferent to a cowardly and corrupt political world, represented by Prince Shuysky.

Vladimir Jurowski explained in several interviews that for him Boris Godunov is not an opera but a musical drama, that was too radical and revolutionary to be accepted and understood in the 19th century, but that in our time, after having seen the operas of Janacek, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, or Berg, we can begin to understand what Mussorgsky wanted to achieve with this work. To explore this 1869 version, Jurowski used a « philological edition of Mussorgsky’s score published in 1996, by Muzika in Moscow and Schott Music in Mainz, Germany. » He explains that in this edition he found « some new and highly significant details that are absent from other editions. It’s the best insight we have into the original intentions of the composer. » (Interview with Alexis Lacroix) This vision of the Russian conductor of a radical musical drama is at one with the director’s vision, and trying to separate both visions, as some critics have done, is rather problematic.

Musically Vladimir Jurowski strips to the bone Mussorgsky’s opera, underlining the modernity of this avant-garde work. In this production we can hear how Mussorgsky’s writing foreshadows 20th century Russian music, especially Stravinsky and Shostakovich. The Russian conductor’s interpretation rejects spectacular effects, and if it can be described as romantic, it belongs to a dark and bitter romanticism. Eventually, it is also a very Russian vision that the conductor was able to pass on to the orchestra by giving the musicians very precise indications on how they should play, as Cécile Tête explained in an interview:

« 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. »

What struck me in the first of the three performances I attended was how Jurowski was also able to help the audience clearly hear the leitmotifs of the main characters. As André Lischke explains in the issue of the Avant-Scène Opéra devoted to Mussorgsky’s opera, « most of the important characters are provided with theme(s), but depending on the case, it will be the diversity or, on the contrary, the constancy of their personality, or their physical appearance that will be identified. « Aware of the importance of this « internal architecture », Vladimir Jurowski, considering that the orchestra expresses the unconscious of the characters, has taken care to make these leitmotifs perceptible to the audience, thus facilitating our understanding of a story that is very complex and obscure for a non-Russian. Thanks to his sense of lines and colours, the conductor successfully shaped the complex architecture of Mussorgsky’s work. As for the orchestral colours, Jurowski stated that he considered that there were three colours in this piece grey, brown and black. And indeed his conducting creates a particularly austere atmosphere, in which even the brightest passages, such as the coronation scene, resound in a lugubrious way.

As for the singers, they are mostly Russian-speaking and many of them are remarkable, starting with the two basses to who sing the eponymous role of the opera. Having attended three performances, on 10 and 13 June as well as 2 July 2018, I had the chance to listen to Ildar Abrazakov and Alexander Tsymbalyuk, who are both superb singers and are both quite young. Both are invested and very convincing, both have beautiful bass voices, even if Abrazakov seems a little less at ease in the lower register, the only real difference for me being Tsymbalyuk’s superior vocal power, especially in the passages where the role implies an authoritative stance. Dmitri Golovin really surprised me with his very sharp and tortured interpretation of Grigori Otrepiev, the pretender, usually performed with more candour and less darkness. Ain Anger is absolutely perfect as the monk Pimene, which he plays very nobly and humanely. Boris Pinkhasovitch is extremely convincing as Prince Shchelkalov, while Evgeny Nikitin was notably in good voice during the performance on July 2, while he seemed to have some trouble entering the role of Varlaam the first two times I heard him. Finally, the chorus of the Paris Opera gave a superb performance, with a great sense of diction and drama. They perfectly succeeded in expressing the suffering and the hope for change of ordinary citizens caught up in a political turmoil.

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