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Prokofiev's Boris Godunov

Vsevolod Meyerhold, costumed as Ivan the Terrible
In case you missed it, Patricia Cohen has an article (A Pushkin work rises from the Soviet scrap heap, April 10) in the International Herald Tribune -- the article was also published in the New York Times today -- about Princeton University's premiere of a 1936 collaboration between Sergei Prokofiev and director Vsevolod Meyerhold, a planned production of Pushkin's Boris Godunov with new music. Stalin's opposition caused the project to be canceled, and three years later Meyerhold was executed by firing squad. Moscow's Russian State Archive and Literature in Art has cosponsored the performance, based on Meyerhold's recently discovered notes on the production and Prokofiev's autograph score and comments.
"I was fairly stunned and I continue to be stunned," said Simon Morrison, an associate professor of music at Princeton, who is writing a book on Prokofiev and excavated Meyerhold's notes in 2005 from a sealed section of the Russian archive to which he managed to get access. "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 lifetime."

"Godunov" ran afoul of politics long before Prokofiev and Meyerhold got hold of it. The play, which tells the story of the 16th-century tyrannical czar Boris Godunov and Dmitry, a monk who pretends to be the true heir to the throne, "is very seditious," said Caryl Emerson, chairwoman of Princeton's Slavic Languages and Literature Department, who is overseeing the project with Morrison. Although Pushkin is close to a national saint in Russia, his 1825 work was not published until 1831 and not performed until 1866. This production is the first time all 25 scenes that Pushkin wrote are being performed together, Emerson said. "It combines three geniuses of Russian culture: Pushkin, Prokofiev and Meyerhold, the poet, the composer and the stage director," she said. [...]

Modest Mussorgsky used Pushkin as a source for his fabulously successful opera "Boris Godunov." But Prokofiev and Meyerhold were contemptuous of what they considered to be Mussorgsky's thick, syrupy, optimistic and romantic score. Meyerhold, for example, envisioned the final scene with a choral sound for the crowd that is "dark, agitated, menacing, like the roar of the sea." "One should feel a gathering of forces, the restraining of an internal rage," Meyerhold wrote. Mussorgsky offered a 19th-century sound, Morrison said, while "Prokofiev was the first to get at the 20th-century sound." Meyerhold gave Prokofiev detailed instructions about what kind of orchestral and choral music he wanted. Those notes, along with Prokofiev's manuscript, descriptions of the work in various memoirs and Meyerhold's rehearsal transcripts guided this production.
The Mussorgsky opera is a favorite, but it would certainly be worthwhile to see and hear Prokofiev's take on the story. For another view of the Boris Godunov story, pre-Pushkin, see my post on Johann Mattheson's 1710 opera on the story of Boris Godunov, staged in Boston two years ago.


Anonymous said...

Stalin's opposition caused the project to be canceled, and three years later Meyerhold was executed by firing squad.

Stalin's opposition? I don't think this sentence makes any sense.

Charles T. Downey said...

Stephanie, here are the relevant quotes from the article:

"The following year, Stalin's Terror fixed its gaze on Meyerhold and he abandoned the project. Three years later, he was dead by firing squad."

"An enthusiastic revolutionary, [Meyerhold's] 'people's theater' was initially endorsed by the Bolsheviks. But by the 1930s, Socialist Realism became the approved revolutionary aesthetic, and Meyerhold's avant garde, cinematic style was considered subversive."

Is "Stalin's opposition" not strong enough?