During the academic year 2006-07, several programmes and departments at Princeton University (Music, Slavic, Theatre and Dance, Architecture) collaborated to realise on stage the “première of a musical-dramatic concept”. It was an unusual creative project. The drama was Alexander Pushkin’s Boris Godunov, best known outside Russia as the base text for Musorgsky’s 1872 opera: the tale of the rise and fall of a short-lived dynasty (1598-1605) that ruled Muscovy after the death of Ivan the Terrible and before the first Romanov Tsar. The “concept” that we revived and extended, with the help of twenty-first-century technology, was Vsevolod Meyerhold’s partial staging and Prokofiev’s almost-complete music for that play, a joint commission undertaken in 1936 for the Stalinist “Jubilee” that marked, in 1937, the 100th anniversary of Pushkin’s death. In May of 1937 rehearsals came to a dispiriting end and the production was abandoned. It survived solely in the form of Meyerhold’s director’s notes, memoirs of participants, and Prokofiev’s music as recycled in other projects. Very few sets had been designed; indeed, Meyerhold treated the scaffolding of Prokofiev’s music as a “set”. The project remained in that fragmented, illusory state until 2007.
The Princeton completion of this “torso” was made possible by three fortuitously timed events. First was the 2005 recovery of documents relating to the music and dramatic structure of the Meyerhold production, scattered in various archival holdings in Moscow. This was an indispensable first step, because the 1984 published edition of the Prokofiev Boris Godunov music is in the wrong order and omits the a cappella choral singing that was a crucial element of Meyerhold’s directorial plan. The piano score could now be brought together with the orchestration, and on the basis of Meyerhold’s detailed instructions it could be determined precisely how the music fit into Pushkin’s play. Then a new acting English translation of Boris Godunov, by Antony Wood, was published in 2006. (The Princeton performance was in English, with sung texts performed in Russian; the director eventually combined two translations and freely adjusted the lines of both to the spoken realities of the American stage.) And finally, a Creative and Performing Arts Initiative had recently been announced by the University in the wake of a huge gift marked for that purpose – and the Boris venture seemed an excellent flagship. No one dreamed that an amateur undergraduate production in a small liberal-arts institution without an actual drama school (and indeed no undergraduate concentration in drama) would catch the attention of the national, and then the world, press.
The University context offered many advantages to a complex stage production that none but the wealthiest American theatres can provide today. The University Orchestra and Glee Club scheduled Prokofiev’s orchestral and choral music into their concert repertory, rehearsing it for months; the Orchestra performed a portion of the music in its December concert before taking it on tour to Central Europe in January. The School of Architecture assumed responsibility for designing the sets in September, sponsoring a graduate course, ARCH 561, with the fetching title: “Alexander Pushkin’s Boris Godunov: The Design of the Sets for the World Premiere at Princeton” (sixteen students signed up). The final design, arrived at in January, was thoroughly modernist and constructivist: five tracks carved lengthwise into the stage floor, fitted with 150 movable pieces of surgical tubing (affectionately called “bungees”) fastened in 25-foot-long strips from floor to ceiling, capable of being bunched together to form forests, released noisily to signal panic or a sudden change of condition, stretched to imitate bows shooting arrows in battle, looped or cross-hatched to form doors and windows, grabbed and jumped on as in children’s games, twisted into a noose, or stretched and released to express anxiety, fear, or impatience. Such “externalisation” of emotion was an important part of Meyerhold’s biomechanical theatre that we hoped to reflect. Thanks to the wizardry of Princeton’s lighting engineer, the bungees could be lit up in incandescent icon-colours of blue, red, gold, as if filled with cosmic energy, sunlight – or blood. From time to time, projected on the back scrim behind the bungee field, were images of real locales (a Moscow monastery, a Kremlin cathedral) and suggestive patterns: flowers, fabric, and lace.
This generic set was supplemented with minimal props (a table, a throne, chairs, goblets, and weapons), looking vaguely and sinisterly industrial: a hybrid nightclub and torture chamber. Costumes were a special challenge, since Renaissance Poland had to be rigorously differentiated from Medieval Muscovy. Our costume designer created a standard “company outfit” derived from the blocked colours and boxy shape of a Malevich canvas, over which “special effects” were draped: the Tsar’s brocaded robe, a mourning gown for the Tsarevna, a cassock for the monks, Prussian-style khaki for the Tsar’s commanders. Dmitrii the Pretender, hailing from Poland, strutted about in a marvellously anachronistic red and blue military uniform with gold epaulettes; the orchestra, stacked in tiers at stage rear for the Polish scenes, wore pink and blue wigs. The eight-person dance troupe performed the polonaise and mazurka in muslin and silk.
The thirteen undergraduate actors were organised into a seminar that met together once a week (in addition to hundreds of part rehearsals) for table work, blocking, and physical exercises led by the choreographer; the final paper was a retrospective on the experience. Other courses dealing with Russian history, Pushkin’s drama, and Prokofiev’s music for film and stage were open to the undergraduate population and “testimonials” from these courses are included in the essays that follow. The University library mounted an exhibit featuring Pushkin, Meyerhold, and Prokofiev, and a six-week course for alumni was offered on-line. Finally, the University hosted two scholarly symposia, one in English and one in Russian for our invited guests from Moscow. Boris Godunov is a very difficult topic and a long, complex play. Since it was being produced out of its original country, language, and time, it required nurturing from an array of specialists.
The cluster of essays that make up this feature represents a sampling of the work that went into, and came out of, the Boris project from the Russians and Americans who worked to bring it about. Appropriately for readers of Three Oranges, emphasis has been placed on the music-theatrical aspects of the production rather than on its verbal texture (the adequate delivery of Pushkin’s sparkling lines in English is another, more specialised nightmare, as all Russian speakers readily acknowledge). Overall, we were amazed that so much managed to come across – that so much translated – in the performance. Among the nicest compliments we received came from Russian television (Channel One Moscow ran a brief segment on the staging in the evening news). The correspondent noted – part wistfully, part proudly – that “Pushkin had sold out in New Jersey”. Indeed he had.
To prepare the reader for these essays, we provide here some basic orienting material on the historical period in which the play was set, the conditions under which Pushkin wrote the play, and the 1936 collaboration between Meyerhold and Prokofiev. We then append a brief scene-by-scene synopsis of the play (which was performed in its entirety), illustrated with more production photographs. This synopsis will serve to contextualise the comments of the actors and musicians who brought it to life.
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