The Tarkovsky Production of Boris Gudonov at Dallas Opera

Classic Arts Features   The Tarkovsky Production of Boris Gudonov at Dallas Opera
Acclaimed director Stephen Lawless stages Andrei Tarkovsky's production of Mussorgsky's Boris Gudonov at Dallas Opera in April. Lawless discusses Tarkovsky's history with Gudonov.


This is not my production of Boris Gudonov. This production originally premiered at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in 1983, conducted by Claudio Abbado and directed by the visionary Andrei Tarkovsky, the foremost Russian film director of his generation. I was the assistant director on the project. Abbado had seen Tarkovsky's masterpiece Andrei Rublev and had requested Tarkovsky as director. Much of Andrei Rublev was influenced by the Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenetein and his epic wartime films of Ivan The Terrible, Alexander Nevsky and Battleship Potemkin. Eisenstein, in turn, had stated that his epic style had been directly influenced by Mussorgsky's opera, based on Alexander Pushkin's dramatic poem of the same name (Pushkin, the father of Russian literature and the person who really defined and invented the Russian language, had set out to write a history play along Shakespearean lines.) In short, here is a unique apostolic succession of Russian artists. Tarkovsky had never directed an opera before and was unaware of its protocols. He treated me as he would an assistant director on a film, i.e., I was basically in charge of the "crowd" scenes (we had a chorus of 140). I didn't realize at the time how significant a personal and professional milestone this would prove to be.

What distinguishes the production for me is its synthesis of the spiritual and the political. The starting point of the production is Nicholas Dvigubsky's scenic design, a monumental building site. A courtyard and colossal arch rise up from the detritus of previous generations in an attempt at building something better. The people who inhabit this space grope around in the dark trying to climb upwards out of the rubble. This remains the presiding image of the production. History may march in through the centre arch in an attempt to change things for the better but the building is destined to remain incomplete and unfinished.

Into this space, objects intrude: many of them familiar from Tarkovsky's films. A giant pendulum swings ominously, statues come to life, the Rublev icon of the Trinity bursts into color, and a giant map envelops the space. It is this latter setting: the nursery: that is at the center of both the opera and this production. Boris spends the scene obsessively trying to straighten out the map of Russia, only for his political rival Prince Shuisky to keep re-arranging it into the shape he wants. Again, as an image of two political rivals fighting over territory it is very potent (and ironically amusing). As Shuisky's "poison" works on Boris's conscience, in regard to his complicity (never proven) in the murder of the Tsarevich Dimitri at Uglich (the event that brought Boris to the throne), Boris's attempts at straightening the map grow increasingly frantic. At the end of the scene, he collapses wrapping the great map around him like a child with his security blanket. It powerfully illustrates the irony of the most powerful man in the land being brought down by the least powerful: a child. Only men without conscience (like Shuisky) can survive in this world of real-politik. Both the opera and production have a healthy scepticism about politics and the people who engage in it. For example, we see the process at work with the monk Grigori who starts out as a visionary but is readily corrupted by the Jesuit Rangoni. Lured by the honey-trap of Marina and her ambitions, the young man is easily manipulated into assuming the role of the Pretender Dimitri. Boris may have started out with the best of intentions (like so many in politics do) but these are compromised by his fatal pursuit of power.

At the end of the opera, the False Dimitri (the former Grigori) promises a better time for all. Nevertheless, just as the crowd seems intent on marching on Moscow, their resolve collapses and a "vision" of a massacre in a snowy landscape appears. This, despite every attempt to change things for the better.

Political skepticism is counterbalanced by the personal and the spiritual. The scenes between Boris and his children are very tender (reflecting perhaps Tarkovsky's situation at the time of rehearsals and his attempts to bring his son out of the U.S.S.R, where he was being held to guarantee Tarkovsky's return to his homeland, after his sojourn in the West). And a deep spirituality pervades the production (as indeed it does Tarkovsky's films as anyone who has seen the end of his film Stalker can testify). The "ghost" of the murdered Tsarevitch wander through the architecture of Dvigubsky's set as they wander through Boris's conscience. At the end, the Simpleton (in Russian "yurodyevi" or "holy fool"), alone on stage amongst the corpses of the Russian people, removes his hood to stare at an apparition high up on the set hinting at a higher authority and a better life after the horrors of this world.

On a personal note, I can illustrate how this mixture of the political and spiritual works: When I was 17, my school visited Moscow (in the days when it was still the capitol of the Soviet Union). The day before we left, my friends and I were approached by a Russian girl of roughly our age who spoke very good English. Eventually she asked us if we would take some postcards out of the country for her and post them abroad. What had seemed like a random meeting had now turned dangerous. We said we would try and take them out. Back at our hotel we read the postcards. Two were intended for the U.S.; the other two for the U.K. All that I remember is that they started "Dear Brother and Sister in Christ, pray for our prisoners in belief." We resolved (foolishly, I now think) to get them out of the country. The day before, I had bought a boxed set of LPs of Boris Godunov from the Melodiya store on Kallinin Prospekt and we hid the postcards between the LP and the sleeve. At the airport on departing, the guard opened up the box and looked in. Siberia seemed to beckon. If he saw them he ignored them, we boarded the plane and posted them in the U.K.

I even lived to tell the tale.

Tarkovsky died in 1987. He didn't live to see the success of his production. After 1990, it traveled the world: New York, Vienna, San Francisco, Washington, Venice, Turin and Monte Carlo, as well as regular revivals at Covent Garden. I directed most of these revivals and it played a major part in launching my career as a director. I owe a deep debt of gratitude to both the production and its creator. A hundred years from now the majority of 20thcentury cinema will be forgotten; however, I believe the works of Andrei Tarkovsky will still be valued and viewed.


Critically acclaimed British director Stephen Lawless is staging the Tarkovksy production of Boris Godunov for the Dallas Opera. His insightful work as a director for major opera complanies has earned Mr. Lawless a devoted, worldwide following.

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