Sent by a friend in Berlin. I know of a recording of excerpts, but I
hope somebody does the whole thing.
April 11, 2007
A Lost 'Boris Godunov' Is Found and Staged
By PATRICIA COHEN
PRINCETON, N.J., April 8 - In 1936, two of the Soviet Union's
greatest artists decided to work on a new theatrical production
of Pushkin's "Boris Godunov" for its author's coming jubilee.
Sergei Prokofiev wrote 24 musical pieces while the visionary
stage director Vsevolod Meyerhold mapped out scenes and started
rehearsals. The following year, Stalin's terror fixed its gaze
on Meyerhold and he abandoned the project. Three years later,
he was dead, shot by a firing squad.
Now, thanks to the recent discovery of Meyerhold's original notes
and Prokofiev's handwritten score and comments, their collaboration
is finally having its world premiere on Thursday night at the
Berlind Theater at Princeton University, 70 years after its
This mammoth undertaking by Princeton, in conjunction with the
Russian State Archive of Literature and Art in Moscow, rescues
a production that artists and scholars thought was lost forever.
The four sold-out performances will also introduce Meyerhold, a
seminal theatrical thinker, to an audience largely ignorant of
"I was fairly stunned and I continue to be stunned," said Simon
Morrison, an associate professor of music at Princeton, who
excavated Meyerhold's notes in 2005 from a sealed section of the
Russian archive, to which he managed to gain access. Mr. Morrison,
who is writing a book about Prokofiev, said: "This is one of the
scores that he composed in the '30s when he was at the top of
his game, and it went to waste. He never heard it in his
"Boris" ran afoul of the government long before Prokofiev and
Meyerhold got hold of it. Pushkin's play - about the 16th-century
tyrannical czar Boris Godunov, and Dimitri, a pretender to the
throne - "is very seditious," said Caryl Emerson, chairwoman of
Princeton's Slavic languages and literature department, who is
overseeing the project with Mr. Morrison.
This production, which is using a new English translation by
Antony Wood, is the first in which all 25 scenes that Pushkin
wrote are being performed together, Ms. Emerson said. "It
combines three geniuses of Russian culture," she said. "Pushkin,
Prokofiev and Meyerhold, the poet, the composer and the stage
Modest Mussorgsky used Pushkin's play as a source for his
fabulously successful opera "Boris Godunov." But Prokofiev and
Meyerhold were contemptuous of what they considered that work's
thick, syrupy, optimistic and romantic score. Meyerhold, for
example, envisioned the final scene with a choral sound for the
crowd that was "dark, agitated, menacing, like the roar of the
sea." He wrote, "One should feel a gathering of forces, the
restraining of an internal rage." Mussorgsky's was a 19th-century
sound, Mr. Morrison said, "Prokofiev was the first to get at the
Meyerhold gave Prokofiev detailed instructions about the kind
of orchestral and choral music he wanted and which scenes it
would go in. Those notes, along with Prokofiev's manuscript,
descriptions of the work in various memoirs and Meyerhold's
rehearsal transcripts, guided this production. "This is an
original creation based on some of his ideas," Tim Vasen, the
production's director, said, referring to Meyerhold. "It's an
amazing collaboration with someone who's not in the room."
Since Meyerhold often worked with architects, Mr. Morrison asked
Princeton's Architecture School to design the set. Graduate
students came up with rows of floor-to-ceiling bungee cords made
out of stretchy surgical tubing (3,750 feet in all) set along
grooves that run across the stage. The cords can be arranged
to suggest trees in a forest, pulled and snapped like bows and
arrows during a battle scene or wrapped around a character's
body to evoke emotions like anger or frustration. The set is
remarkably flexible, though it did prevent the choreographer,
Rebecca Lazier, from using pointe steps, because the dancers'
toe shoes kept getting stuck in the grooves.
For a scene set at a Polish ball, Meyerhold wrote that he wanted
a "full orchestra in a social setting performing three numbers,
'Reverie,' 'Polonaise,' and 'Mazurka,' " which Prokofiev composed.
Mr. Vasen has placed some of the musicians and the conductor,
Michael Pratt, onstage. Wearing 18th-century-style wigs that
look like neon-colored cotton candy, the musicians are stacked
on levels behind a giant red window frame, like an extended
"Hollywood Squares" set.
Although he originally worked with Stanislavsky, Meyerhold came
to disdain the naturalistic method of acting, preferring much
more stylized, physical movement that he developed into a system
called Biomechanics. He drew on a wide range of influences,
from Kabuki to Frederick Taylor's time-motion studies, to create
theater that would dissolve the wall between actor and audience.
An enthusiastic revolutionary, Meyerhold initially found his
"people's theater" embraced by the Bolsheviks. But by the 1930s,
Socialist Realism had become the approved revolutionary aesthetic,
and Meyerhold's avant-garde, cinematic style was considered
Mr. Vasen, with advice from Mr. Morrison and Ms. Emerson, has
incorporated these ideas into the play. Marina, the Polish
princess with whom Dimitri falls in love, stands rigid, arms at
her sides, wrists bent at 90-degree angles like a mannequin while
her suitor professes his undying love. To accompany her command
to "Reveal your heart to me," Prokofiev wrote an "Amoroso" that
was inspired by the cheap, trashy soundtracks of 1930s Hollywood
During the battle scenes, Mr. Vasen uses one of Meyerhold's
physical warm-up exercises - a rhythmic, mechanized toe-to-heel
step - for the soldiers' march. Prokofiev composed what Mr.
Morrison calls a "musical cartoon," using carnival rhythms and
the fife and drum. During Sunday night's rehearsal, the line
of soldiers, wearing helmets like the Tin Man's in "The Wizard
of Oz," clumped toward the edge of the stage, and then pivoted.
One went a couple of inches too far and accidentally fell off
the stage before quickly scrambling back up. After the scene,
Mr. Morrison shouted up to a few musicians perched on a balcony
to slow down the tempo.
Harlow Robinson, who wrote a biography of Prokofiev and is a
professor at Northeastern University in Boston, said of the
Princeton production that it was "certainly significant to be
hearing and seeing it all together." The original aborted
production "promised to be very brilliant."
A Russian television crew from the state-run Channel 1 was
scheduled to film Tuesday night's dress rehearsal and explain
to viewers how it is that this essentially Russian work is being
first performed in New Jersey. In Russia, Pushkin is more often
read than performed, particularly since the fall of the Soviet
Union, which ended state subsidies and introduced artistic
From Mr. Morrison and Ms. Emerson's perspective, only a university
with resources like Princeton's could afford such an undertaking.
The 15 actors (who play 70 parts), 10 dancers, 24 choral singers
and 35 musicians are all undergraduates. "The entire campus
became a kind of creative workshop, an atelier," Mr. Morrison
Many are taking part in the play as part of an academic course.
On Thursday, a three-day symposium begins with Russian and other
scholars, and there is an exhibition of materials from the period
at the Firestone Library on campus here. Putting on the four
performances is costing an estimated $140,000, Mr. Morrison said.
The performances are sold out, but he said there was a chance
some seats would become available before curtain time. There
are also free tickets to Wednesday night's dress rehearsal that
may become available 20 minutes before the 8 p.m. start.
For Mr. Morrison, "one of the great tragedies of musical history
is what happened to Prokofiev's art." Only half of what Prokofiev
composed is known; the rest was unpublished, altered or lost,
he said. Though Prokofiev's music for "Boris" has been recorded,
Mr. Morrison said, "the music doesn't make sense without the
words." Now, after seeing this production, he said he felt as
if the "words don't make sense without the music."
Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company
The CLASSICAL mailing list is powered by L-Soft's renowned LISTSERV(R)
list management software together with L-Soft's HDMail High Deliverability
Mailer for reliable, lightning fast mail delivery. For more information,
go to: http://www.lsoft.com/LISTSERV-powered.html