Most directors spend years preparing a new production of Boris Godunov. Stephen Wadsworth had five weeks. He tells the Met’s Matt Dobkin about staging Mussorgsky’s masterpiece and why René Pape will make an ideal tortured tsar.
You took over this production on very short notice. How did you come to direct this new Boris Godunov?
When General Manager Peter Gelb realized that Peter Stein would have to withdraw, he called me up and asked if I would do it. After thinking in stunned silence for a moment, I said, “Can you give me 24 hours?” He said, “No, you have to fly to Europe before then!” So I thought about it a little bit, tried to figure out how it would all work, and then decided to go for it. I have never directed Boris, but I have known and loved it for 40 years.
What’s your approach to the piece?
There are three stories here. First is Boris himself and the moral disintegration he suffers. The second story centers on the people and how they respond, in their infinitely skeptical and restless way, to repression, poverty, and their fallible leader. And third is the story of Boris’s successor—hatching his plan, putting it into action, and taking the throne. In a bigger sense the opera is about history repeating itself—in the beginning the people resent a leader who took power through deceit and violence, and in the end they celebrate a new leader who does the same. And they themselves celebrate with violence. It’s frightening.
As a director known for his psychological insight, a figure like Boris must be especially fascinating to you. How would you describe the character?
Boris made a terrible mistake and ultimately cannot live with it. He wanted to be tsar. He was willing to arrange for the killing of the heir to the throne—a child—in order to get it himself. He got what he wanted, but inside, he’s ruined. That’s a beautiful nexus of the political and the personal. Meanwhile his conscience and vulnerability evolve. You know, one moment that kills me is when he talks to his son as he is dying, telling him what to do when he becomes tsar: “Guard your innocence—it’s your power, your strength, your balance, your salvation.” He yearns for his own lost innocence, and God, that’s sad. I just had a daughter nine weeks ago. For any person with a child, to watch that scene and to hear those words is very powerful.
Your Boris will be René Pape, the world’s leading interpreter of the role. What’s it like collaborating with him?
René is a fantastic artist with a lot of life experience. He has complexity and intensity and a rich inner life. Things have happened to him—you can see it on him. He already carries a lot of Boris in him, not just because of who he is, but because he’s played the part, taken that journey. His Boris will be very powerful and fresh.
It’s unusual for a director to step into a production that has already been designed. How has that affected your work?
It’s really a different kind of job. Normally I have at least two years to prepare. I am trying to compress every angle of the work into this short time, so it all has integrity. The costume designer, Moidele Bickel, is a legend in the German theater. Her drawings are genius and her dramaturgical insights are fascinating. She and Ferdinand Wögerbauer, who’s done the sets, have bent over backwards to allow for this collaboration—with someone they didn’t even know. Ferdinand and I have repositioned the whole show and found a new way of looking at the scenes. He has impeccable taste, a deep, searching artistic fire, and the kindest of hearts.
Have you discussed the production with conductor Valery Gergiev?
I met with him in Germany. His knowledge of and experience with Boris is huge—you can suggest the most nuanced detail, and his eyes immediately twinkle with recognition and response.
Aside from the abbreviated schedule, what has been the biggest challenge so far in putting on Boris at the Met?
The same thing I always find: have I really considered the story from the point of view of each character? From the very start, I said to myself, “If I’m going to do this, I’m going to think about it as a complete process.” I don’t want to jettison any important part of it, including the part where I just float, mentally, and in my heart, with the material, so I can dream things into being. I’m not interested in, “Eek, I only have five weeks.” I’m interested in making it fly. You know, I don’t think I would have done this before my daughter was born. I think I would have freaked out. There’s something calming in that little person. I’m having a wonderful time.
Boris Godunov opened October 22 and returns March 9, 2011.
This interview was first published online and in the Met's Playbill in October 2010.