The Princeton Glee Club performing schedule does not change much, so there was some surprise among the veterans when our director, Richard Tang Yuk, announced that the weekend before our biggest concert of the year we would be singing in Boris Godunov. It was the start of my fourth year at Princeton and my fourth in the Glee Club, and I had been wondering how we would top the previous year’s performance of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. We did so by premiering music by Prokofiev. I had never performed or studied Prokofiev’s music before, but I knew it ranged in character and difficulty, so I tried to be ready for anything.
I was surprised when the music turned out to be straightforward. The “Chorus of Drunken Boyars” and the “Chorus of Blind Beggars” might have been written for children. Several of the singers were able to perform the second of the three narod choruses from memory after a single read-through. We did not even have to learn Russian diction: the choruses were wordless.
As we began to incorporate the music into the play the character of each piece emerged. The already catchy “Chorus of Drunken Boyars” gained even more life when placed in the context of Shuisky’s raucous dinner party (we wore ridiculous strap-on beards on stage). The keening “Chorus of Blind Beggars” provided a striking counterpoint to the defiance of the Holy Fool in the scene that followed. But it was the narod choruses that provided the most opportunity for artistic expression.
We sang them twice: a cappella in the play’s opening scenes, and with the orchestra (as written in the score) in the last scenes. For the choruses’ a cappella incarnation, we stood in a tight semicircle on the far house right balcony ledge. An earlier plan to wrap the chorus around the balcony had to be scrapped due to ensemble issues. Our director Richard wanted a student to conduct these choruses and, because I had done some conducting the previous semester, he chose me. Richard decided on the interpretation in rehearsal; in performance I stood in the centre of the semicircle and tried to bring his interpretation to life.
The second chorus communicated the ritualistic mourning of the people that Shuisky mocks in the first scene. It was hummed with the exception of the fourth bar of each eight-bar sequence, at which point we briefly opened up to an “ah”. The climax of each sequence came in the fifth bar, and each repetition of the sequence increased in power.
The third chorus followed the speech of the Duma Secretary. Here we sang on “di di di” to bring out the rhythm of the chattering people. Prokofiev’s torrid dynamics highlighted the visual hustle and bustle. There swiftly followed the ominous first chorus, sung on “na na na”. It denoted the march of fate above and around the wailing of the people. The climax came in bar 25 with Boris’s ascension. The C-minor melody shifted to the upper register of the baritones as the tenors sang piercing high Fs. The chorus wound down and was cut off by a thump of the Patriarch’s staff.
The relative simplicity of the narod choruses made it especially important for our rhythm and tuning to be precise, as any error would be transparent to the audience. In the first chorus we had to shorten the rhythmic values, which, given the dissonance of the harmonies, made it difficult to tune. The second chorus involved conflicting rhythmic figures, making it difficult to stay together. And the third chorus collapsed from three vocal lines to two, a further challenge. We improved with each rehearsal.
The second incarnation of the narod choruses came at the end of the play. We were now taking direction from Michael Pratt, the orchestra conductor, who stood just offstage. We were arrayed on the second storey of the catwalk, crammed between the instrumentalists. The tempi remained largely the same, except for the second chorus, which Michael conducted at 96 beats per minute in order to fit everything in. We sang the first and second chorus on “na na na” and the third on “du du du”, to prevent the orchestra from drowning us out. With the orchestra, our singing took on violent urgency. It expressed the darkness of the play’s final moments, in which Dmitrii’s forces murder the young Tsar Feodor.
Working on a production like this was an opportunity I never thought I would have in college. My one regret is that I never got to see the play!