Generally when I work with composers, the music ends up getting written around the stage action – timings are taken off the actors, and the score is adjusted accordingly. If it’s too loud, we just turn down the volume. Dealing with extant music by a great composer, and having it performed live, meant that often we were following the lead of the music, and at every turn that proved to be a good idea.
Prokofiev understood Pushkin on a very deep level, and his score was by far the most tangible evidence of Meyerhold’s thinking about the production. Particularly in the later stages of rehearsal, the music proved to be a second script, one brilliantly intertwined with Pushkin’s, at times amplifying the action, at times complicating it, but always moving the story forward. In the battle, of course, the music WAS the story, and it was a great joy to develop action that fit the organised chaos of Prokofiev’s triple-band tour de force. It is difficult to imagine this as an orchestral suite, even though that’s how it has been heard until now, because what it is first and foremost is very particular music with a dynamic and detailed relationship with this very particular play.
In addition to the music itself, the physical fact of the live musicians and singers was central to how the production worked. In his notes to Prokofiev, Meyerhold wrote a great deal about the choral music representing unseen, tectonic forces gradually coming to consciousness by the final scenes. In his era having an orchestra and chorus wasn’t a big deal, and with recording technology still rather primitive, hearing – but not seeing – a vast chorus rumbling through the beginning and ending scenes would have had a huge impact on his audience. Fast forward to the realities of the twenty-first-century American theatre. We can record anything, and most theatres have very sophisticated sound systems that can create near-perfect surround sound. Nobody ever sees a chorus or an orchestra in a play, because no theatre could afford to hire them, and why bother, if all you are after is a soundtrack.
Early on, I wanted to make it new by going old school – I wanted the audience to see the chorus, to experience them as a dynamic part of the production. The other logistical/aesthetic challenge was the orchestra, which plays for less than twenty minutes in a two-hour-plus production. Having them in a pit, between the audience and the stage, inert for most of the evening, would have been deadening. Also, Simon Morrison kept highlighting the overall structure of Prokofiev’s score, in which the Polish scenes, with a lush ballroom dance suite, were meant to feel vastly different than the darker, more musically spare Russian scenes – to use his metaphor, when we arrive in Poland, we leave Kansas and enter Oz. At this point, the orchestra becomes a character in the drama, providing the dance music for the ball that enchants and distracts the Pretender and nearly derails his quest for Moscow’s throne. It’s no big deal to have the chorus cross from one side of the stage to the other, or even walk all around the building to enter behind the audience. Not easily done with even a smallish symphony orchestra.
So I asked the architects to solve the problem of an orchestra that could be a central presence when we wanted them, and invisible when we didn’t. The first thing I wrote in my notebook was Meyerhold’s Good-Communist phrase “for moments of synthesis, one must pay with weeks of analysis.” We should have put this on t-shirts, because it became the motto of the entire production. The moment of synthesis I remember with the most clarity is my first look at the Hollywood-Squares approach to the orchestra. It looked like an iconostasis from a Russian Orthodox Church. It would create a visual and aural wall of sound when we wanted it, and thanks to the magic of lighting and flying draperies, could totally disappear when necessary. And it meant that the final scene, in which the young Tsar Feodor and his mother are brutally murdered in their apartment high above the Kremlin’s Cathedral Square, pretty much staged itself, with Prokofiev’s massive climax of chorus and orchestra providing both soundtrack and witness to the unsettling events.
The “Songs of Loneliness” were the last pieces of the score to be integrated into the production, and I understood the least about how Meyerhold planned to use them. Simon and I came up with a plan that made sense to him at least, and I hoped they could carry us through a few transitions where Pushkin’s play seemed to do a lot of travelling. The set was also doing a lot of travelling and I worried about drowning out the mostly solo a cappella pieces. It turned out that the noise – the sound of the bungees scratching through the tracks in transitions, like the feverish scribbling of some chronicler’s pen, counterpointed beautifully with Prokofiev’s haunting songs of disconnected wandering. It didn’t hurt that John Travis, the undergraduate who sang all the songs and played Father Misail in the tavern scene, was an accomplished musician who was really enthusiastic about his work being part of a play rather than a concert. Most importantly, Simon’s obvious delight that the music was being used in a context, even a noisy, messy one, encouraged me to see what was essentially an accident (or at least an unplanned inconvenience) as essential to the relationship of music and text.
Prokofiev’s score is a profoundly live event, and my engagement with it would have been impossible without the musical ensemble’s talent, patience and willingness to work outside the normal bounds of chorus and orchestra. At the final moment of the final scene, the entire cast, orchestra and chorus were chanting Pushkin’s original and non-canonical ending, “LONG LIVE TSAR DMITRII IVANOVICH!” Any distinction between music and text, between actor and singer and musician, between 2007 and 1937 and 1605, melted away into a moment of synthesis. I have no clue if Meyerhold would have liked it – after all, he was a great champion of the silence of the narod, and Prokofiev wrote the silence into the end of the score – but for me, it was the closest we came to harnessing the power latent in that remarkable, interrupted collaboration.