A few hours before curtain call last Friday at St. Petersburg’s famous Mariinsky Theatre, a Moscow photographer named Rustem Adagamov posted an entry on his blog that caused a sensation. Adagamov had been sitting in on the dress rehearsal of the Mariinsky’s new production of the classic Russian opera “Boris Godunov,” and the pictures he took shot through the Russian blogosphere: they showed riot police on stage beating protestors; the words “The people want change!” grafittied onto a wall that looks much like the inside of the Russian parliament; and chorus singers who appeared to have waltzed in from the Occupy camps that were pitched around Moscow in the past couple of weeks.
The Mariinsky, whose conductor and artistic director, Valery Gergiev, is close with Vladimir Putin, seemed to have become the latest unexpected staging ground of the anti-Kremlin protests that have seized Moscow since the disputed parliamentary elections in early December. Liberal bloggers expressed elation and surprise, and the production quickly became the talk of both cities. “All of Petersburg is waiting!” wrote one commenter on Adagamov’s blog. “We’re waiting for it as if it were a miracle!” And many Muscovites wrung their hands, wishing they could flock to the Mariinsky to see the sadistic behavior of the riot police they had witnessed on their streets enacted on the stage of one of the most famous theatres in the world.
Intrigued by Adagamov’s photographs and the voluptuous praise for the production, I jumped on a plane the next morning to catch the second day of the première. Turns out, I could’ve saved myself the trouble.
Written between 1868 and 1873, Modest Mussorgsky’s opera is based on a long poem by Alexander Pushkin about Boris Godunov, who ruled first as regent for Ivan the Terrible’s mentally retarded son Fyodor, and then as Tsar, from 1598 to 1605. Because Godunov was not from Ivan the Terrible’s Rurik dynasty, his hold on power was tenuous. It didn’t help that he was suspected of having murdered his rival for the throne, Ivan the Terrible’s other son and potential heir, the seven-year-old Dmitri. On top of this, his reign coincided with an economic and national-security crisis, to which Godunov responded by tightening the screws. Eventually, a young man claiming to be the slain prince Dmitri led a rebellion of the poor, hungry, and disaffected. With the sudden death of Godunov, in 1605, Moscow was opened to the “false Dmitri.”
The opera, which hews fairly closely to the facts of this historical saga, would seem to provide a rich vein of symbolism: four hundred and seven years later, Russia again faces economic trouble, social unrest, and a ruler whose legitimacy is being vigorously questioned. Indeed, the winter’s protests, which the “Godunov” production is clearly referring to, quickly turned on Putin himself: in March he was elected to his third presidential term, never having gone away when his second term ended in 2008. (Putin seemed very much the regent for the weak and comical figure of Dmitry Medvedev.) In fact, the opera, which premièred at the Mariinsky a hundred and thirty-eight years ago, was always seen as a political opera. Royal censors first banned, then heavily edited it, in part because of an imperial edict banning the portrayal of the Tsar onstage.
And yet, this production of “Boris Godunov” fell absolutely flat. The director, Graham Vick, who is British, tried so hard to squeeze the opera into the outlines of today’s political situation that he lost the plot entirely. There were certainly political parallels he could have played with: Able but vaguely illegitimate ruler? Check. Popular unrest? Sure. But who, for example, is the haunted Boris Godunov supposed to be? If he’s Putin, then whom did Putin kill to get the throne? And why is he kicking a huge gilded Soviet crest lying on the ground at the beginning of the opera? Is it because it’s actually Boris Yeltsin, who toppled the Soviet Union? Whom did he kill? Who is this false Dmitri? The anti-Putin protests have yet to find a real leader. And yes, it could have been powerful to watch riot police in their trademark blue fatigues bringing down a shower of nightsticks on singing protesters. But why are these protesters begging for bread, when the core of the Moscow protesters are white collar and upper-middle-class? And why did even the gratuitous violence of the police, which should have rung so true, feel so emotionally empty?
First, the production was hobbled from the get-go by the hype surrounding it, which was mostly generated by those involved with the Moscow protest movement, who are eager to see signs that their rebellion is echoing anywhere outside their relatively small circle. But it also seemed to me that Vick, as a foreigner, simply didn’t understand the nuanced political situation he was trying to stage. (He declined to talk to me for this piece.) I often find this explanation odious, but in this case it seems particularly apt: a lefty baby-boomer—he was described in the playbill as “a socialist, a philosophical communist”—he arrived in Russia amid unprecedented social unrest and projected onto the situation the clichés he has likely heard in the West, clichés culminating in the image of Putin as the slayer of children. The Moscow protests, viewed from abroad, have often been erroneously compared to Tahrir Square and the Arab Spring. Vick seemed to fall prey to similarly pat—and therefore misleading—stereotypes. A particularly cloying touch was the out-of-nowhere parade of fur-clad wives of state dignitaries sashaying haughtily past the protesters.
In the ruckus surrounding the Mariinsky production of “Boris Godunov,” Russians seem to have forgotten that the subject of protest has been taken on by some of the most prominent Moscow theatres for years. Many provocative productions have been staged by a young, punkish director named Kirill Serebrennikov. His latest, a production of “The Golden Cockerel,” at the Bolshoi, mocks a king’s coronation (which for a while become the byword for Putin’s recent inauguration), as well as the now annual and highly ridiculous Victory Day parade that clogs Moscow every May 9th with tanks and intercontinental ballistic missiles in a feeble show of aggressive insecurity.
I recently saw Serebrennikov’s production of Brecht’s “Threepenny Opera” at the Moscow Art Theater, which was founded by Stanislavski and Chekhov shortly before the Revolution. There, in the final act, hungry and wretched crowds gather, and the London police worry that these malcontents will sully the Queen’s upcoming coronation. The Queen, they tell the ringleaders, wants to roll through empty streets. The line instantly generated applause: On May 7th, the day Putin became President for a third time, his black limousine rolled through streets so deserted that some commentators said it looked like a neutron bomb had gone off in Moscow. All the streets even remotely near his route had been cordoned off, and people trying to get close were instantly arrested.
But here’s the rub: Serebrennikov staged “Threepenny Opera,” a Marxist critique of the corruption of Western Europe (it premiéred in 1927), in 2009, when protests and coronation-inaugurations were the last thing on anyone’s mind. Back then, Muscovites talked about modernizing a stagnating state—and about Apple products. It was a subtle, masterfully clairvoyant touch. (A bum holding a sign that says, “We demand a fair coronation!” seems to be a later addition for the new production; “We demand fair elections!” has been a rallying cry for the protests. Even this, however, was so subtle as to be a satisfying surprise when you spotted the sign in the thicket of them on the stage.)
Serebrennikov’s approach is also more powerful because it is in the best Russian traditions of political satire and subtle mockery of the powerful—summed up by a phrase which translates to English as “middle finger in the pocket,” the rough equivalent of flipping people the bird as soon as they turn their back. It’s a satire that’s masked by necessity, but it’s also one that Russian audiences, steeped in the satirical literary canon, will recognize immediately.
In a recent interview with Moscow’s Rain TV, Serebrennikov said that he couldn’t avoid talking about politics because that was all anyone was talking about. Perhaps because he is so attuned to the atmosphere of political obsession among the cultural élites of Moscow, Serbrennikov knew that he didn’t have to march riot police onstage or have anyone beaten for the audience to pick up on his planted references. He knew that they wouldn’t miss his furtive wink, the middle finger in his pocket.
“Boris Gudnov” in St. Petersburg [TNY]