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Modern meets medieval When you put Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich together with a classic opera about medieval Russia, what do you get? We went to Germany to find out.

Source: Meduza
Mattias Baus / Staatsoper Stuttgart

The Staatsoper Stuttgart (Stuttgart State Opera) recently premiered one of this season’s most unexpected works. It’s a hybrid called Boris in which characters from the 19th-century operatic classic Boris Godunov declaim monologues from Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich’s post-Soviet oral history Secondhand Time. Underneath their voices, Modest Mussorgsky’s original Pushkin-inspired score clashes with contemporary chords by Sergej Newski. We asked opera critic Alexey Munipov to watch this chimera and describe what he saw and heard in Stuttgart.

On the promotional posters hung up all over town, the composers — 19th-century giant Modest Mussorgsky and 48-year-old Berliner Sergej Newski— are separated only by a comma. The opera advertised, Boris, is actually two operas, albeit tightly intertwined: the piece combines a textbook Russian classic with a freshly commissioned novelty. Newski’s opera could easily be performed without Mussorgsky’s, but on this particular evening, the two are presented in complex entanglement: Scenes from Secondhand Time appear in between slices of Boris Godunov. The result is much like a DJ set transitioning seamlessly from Mussorgsky to contemporary music and back, though the latter gradually overtakes the former over the course of the show. There are points where the gaps between the two styles are obvious (e.g. in between acts) or just unexpected, but they leave the audience dumbfounded regardless. The action skips from the 17th century to the 20th and back, singers start to choke on their own words, and grand orchestral tuttis disintegrate into spectral-sounding scraps. Somehow, by the end of it all, every single note of Mussorgsky remains untouched, Newski’s far more modern musical language maintains an unbreachable distance from its predecessor, and the two combine into a completely new operatic unit nonetheless.

Godunov is based on the new critical edition of Mussorgsky’s first complete version of his opera, and that decision merits special attention. Boris Godunov, based on an eponymous play by Alexander Pushkin, has one of the most jumbled biographies in the history of music. Mussorgsky completed the first (and shortest) version of the piece in 1869, but the Directorate of Imperial Theaters rejected it on the grounds that it did not feature a significant female role (or, as a result, a full-fledged romantic storyline). Mussorgsky could easily have inserted a single act to fix that problem, but instead, he wrote enough new music to last a full hour, including the massive Kromy Forest scene. The differences between the two versions don’t end there: Musicologist Richard Taruskin devotes more than a hundred pages to comparing the two editions in his monograph Musorgsky and ultimately concludes that they should really be considered two different operas. The first version of Godunov was long regarded as a kind of untamed sketch written by a self-taught composer as yet uncapable of working with an orchestra. For that reason, when Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov went about improving and smoothing out his contemporary’s hit opera, he chose the second version of the piece for the job. Before and after Rimsky-Korsakov, the first version was far less popular, but it is now making a kind of comeback. The world is coming to rely on a new critical edition of Mussorgsky’s first take that attempts to incorporate every version of the opera while preserving the uneven but brilliant first breaths of the original.

Staatsoper Stuttgart

This opera in Stuttgart begins even before the first note of Mussorgsky sounds. Instead, a pre-recorded choral prologue composed by Newski begins to play while enormous, unblinking eyes emerge on screens installed directly in the theater’s royal box. These immediately call to mind the words of the dissident Soviet writer Venedikt Yerofeyev, who wrote, “I like that the eyes of my country’s people are so empty and protuberant.” They gaze down as ‘the people’ themselves gather in stained leotards at the steps of what looks like a tar-splattered bowl. Here, they will beg Boris Godunov to accept his place as tsar.

The set, imagined and designed by a young German team, looks like a primer on Russian memes of yore: The stereotypes range from kokoshniki (upright women’s headdresses) to Kalashnikov rifles. Apparently relying on the assumption that overdoing everything is an inherent component of the Russian spirit, director Paul-Georg Dittrich attacks his viewers from multiple angles. Characters pop up in side boxes and at the very back of the theater; screens glint in every corner; video montages cut in and out onstage, sending the audience from the Soviet cartoon version of Swan Lake to contemporary German art by Vincent Stefan. The dominant colors in the room are red, black, and gold. During Boris’s coronation scene, the tsar is decked out in tight gold latex; he later appears robed in a modern-day tracksuit. The shrewd boyar Shuisky flaunts what looks like a red vinyl raincoat. The Holy Fool has an enormous cross etched onto his belly. Pimen, the devout monk, is husky but perverse in a swaddle of black ribbons. The boyar chorus strides across the stage in Putin and Gorbachev masks. Notably un-devout ‘wandering monks’ Varlaam and Misail smoke hookah in the countryside. Grisha Otrepyev, the false tsar and the opera’s central villain, has become a young woman in this production. For some reason, his role is played by three different singers, most notably soprano Ramina Abdulla-Zade.

This production heralds the final consolidation of a new visual language deployed by anyone and everyone whose work is forced to convey some sense of the Russian or the post-Soviet. From Hollywood directors to Robbie Williams and Little Big, these creators put fur coats on a level playing field with tracksuits, Georgy Millyar together with Gosha Rubchinsky, Khrushchev-era apartments alongside the Kremlin, ballerinas next to bums, icons by tattoos, and traditional wood painting techniques across from Soviet mosaics. One can also report with a dollop of satisfaction that post-Soviet artists and directors have done a significantly better job of handling these artistic scrambled eggs. Nevertheless, Stuttgart’s Boris Godunov provides a rare opportunity to examine the world’s new visual conception of Russia as built on a German foundation by people who have nothing to do with us.

The performers’ training testifies to that very same German foundation, but it nonetheless disproves the currently accepted notion that only Russians can properly perform a Russian opera. This production exclusively features Stuttgart’s own soloists, and they all sing with no hint of an accent and with an exceptional understanding of Mussorgsky’s vocal mechanics. The libretto, a collaboration between Newski and the dramaturg Miron Hakenbeck, is also truly remarkable. It was Hakenbeck, known for his work with the prolific Polish director Krzysztof Warlikowski, who devised the winning idea of rhyming the Time of Troubles with the Russian 90s. Meanwhile, it was Newski who curated the stories behind the opera and searched for intersections between Alexievich’s text and Mussorgsky’s libretto. Ultimately, six characters from Secondhand Time end up finding karmic twins in Boris Godunov, whether as individuals appearing in very disparate circumstances or as apocalyptic hallucinations that force the victims of the 90s to finish out their lives in operatic bodies from the turn of the 17th century. One post-Soviet boy who loses his apartment in a hostile takeover lands on the street and becomes Mussorgsky’s Holy Fool. A teenager hiding his Jewish surname from his comrades in a partisan gang soon finds himself pretending to be Tsarevich Dmitry instead. A policeman’s wife becomes a tavern owner doing her best to survive the Troubles. A death-obsessed Abkhazian refugee turns into Boris’s daughter, a doomed royal mourning her dead fiancé.

Mattias Baus / Staatsoper Stuttgart

This unusual decision is an unexpected gift for the company: Mussorgsky’s highly populated opera typically leaves performers with significant but very small roles (“five minutes onstage, and you’re off to the cafeteria,” one rehearsal director joked). For example, the Holy Fool’s appearance is one of the opera’s most recognizable scenes, but the role itself is absolutely miniscule. Newski, on the other hand, grants that singer a vast, extremely ambitious part. The result is a gift to the viewer as well. It’s these unexpected crossovers from scene to scene, carried over by Newski’s music, that make Boris a truly memorable adventure. Even though the composer pointedly ignores Mussorgsky’s presence and practically avoids using any allusions to the score of Boris Godunov in his work, Boris most definitely feels like a unitary whole.

In Newski’s rendition, the False Dmitry’s famous jump out of a borderland tavern’s window becomes a jump into memories from a Minsk ghetto. There the would-be tsar forces out uncharacteristic lines like “Thousands of Jews walked around the city… I was ashamed…” Later on, Mussorgsky’s final major chord, which usually seals the title character’s death, morphs into a stifling musical cloud with six different characters singing over one another, each trying to finish their story amid the fog. These nameless shadows from the 90s are the only addition to the actual text of Godunov’s ancient tragedy. Meanwhile, Newski’s complex polyphony fills in the blanks, its vocal lines taking on different tonalities and tempos simultaneously, its breathless cantilenas accompanying the floating sounds of a harmonium and the quiet whistling of corrugated brass. These sounds neither compete with Mussorgsky’s music nor get lost in its splendor. Instead, by some rare feat, they naturally coexist with it. “The most surprising thing isn’t how well Newski and Mussorgsky fit together,” said the opera’s mastermind, Staatsoper Stuttgart Commissary Viktor Schoner; “The most surprising thing is how unusual, contemporary, and fresh Mussorgsky sounds after Newski. That’s why we went and created all this.”

Review by Alexey Munipov

Translation by Hilah Kohen

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