Boris Godunov: Students and Scholars Present a World Premiere

March 1st, 2007 / Advancement

Dozens of student actors, architects, musicians, and dancers have joined forces with faculty members to bring a Russian masterwork to the stage, 71 years after it was supposed to have premiered.

The production, presented in April at the Roger S. Berlind Theatre in the McCarter Theatre Center, is poet Alexander Pushkin’s Boris Godunov—based on plans created by theatrical innovator Vsevolod Meyerhold and composer Sergei Prokofiev in 1936.

“All indications suggest that it would have been an astonishing production,” said Simon A. Morrison *97, associate professor of music and a moving force behind the project. But it never materialized, a victim of Stalinist politics and the Soviet authorities’ growing distrust of Meyerhold, who was arrested on trumped-up treason charges and executed in 1940.

Enter Morrison many years later. While conducting research in archives in Moscow for his forthcoming book examining Prokofiev’s period in Soviet Russia, he found documents about the Godunov project, including, most significantly, Meyerhold’s plan for the type of music he wanted and its placement in the play.

Inspired, Morrison teamed up with Caryl Emerson, a Pushkin expert and the A. Watson Armour III University Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures, to bring Meyerhold’s vision to life. The production, he knew, would call for high-level scholarship and expertise from many departments, including architecture—critical if the staging was to reflect Meyerhold’s passion for architectural settings.

Fortunately, Princeton could provide all of those elements. Thanks to the pathbreaking $101 million gift from Trustee Peter B. Lewis ’55, the University is currently working to make the creative and performing arts a focus of campus life. This brings with it a commitment to art, support of innovation, and an emphasis on collaborative work that crosses disciplines—all the ingredients that the Godunuv project needed to succeed.

Morrison knew that Princeton would be the ideal site for the project, indeed perhaps the sole venue in higher education—or commercial theater—where it would be possible. “This could only be done in an environment that fosters interdisciplinary, collegial experiments,” he said. “Princeton is unique in this respect. For me to be able to go over to the architecture department and get them to help design sets—it’s just unthinkable. It’s marvelous.”

The outcome is a production that involves 70 or so Princetonians, including the Princeton University Orchestra, the Princeton University Glee Club, numerous undergraduate dancers, and the students in a graduate architecture seminar that tackled the set design. A two-day symposium, with speakers including scholars from Russia, is accompanying the event, as is an exhibition at Firestone Library’s Leonard L. Milberg Gallery.

The cast is made up mostly of the 12 undergraduates enrolled in a special theater course on the play cotaught by the director, Timothy K. Vasen, a lecturer in theater and dance and the University Center for the Creative and Performing Arts. Vasen is clearly taken by the play, which centers on the life of its title character, the late-16th-century czar whose death signaled the beginning of a civil war period known as the Time of Troubles. “It’s a very sophisticated, very modern look at how power is used,” Vasen said. “There are no good guys and no entirely bad guys, just a lot of manipulation.”

For Nadia Talel ’10, who, like most of her classmates, plays multiple roles in this heavily populated cast, the production presented a unique opportunity. “Perhaps the most fascinating thing about our class is our study of how Boris Godunov is to be realized in performance,” she said. “We explore body movements, styles of speech, ways of examining text, as well as other different ways of expressing ourselves that were previously unknown to us.”

Another cast member, Jessica M. Kwong ’07, is taking Emerson’s course this semester—“Pushkin, Prokofiev, Meyerhold: Boris Godunov on the 20th Century Stage”—and Kwong’s thesis revolves around the play. “This is an especially exciting opportunity for me because this is the sort of immersion that is unfortunately not possible with most plays or theater companies,” Kwong said. “It is a luxury only available in an environment like Princeton that is committed to both creativity and scholarship.”