Princeton to premiere unrealized vision of classic Russian play

A version of the classic Russian play "Boris Godunov" that was unrealized in the era of Soviet censorship some 70 years ago will have its world premiere at Princeton University in four performances April 12-14 at the Berlind Theatre.

In a wide-ranging collaboration, Princeton scholars and students are working to restore a version of Alexander Pushkin's 1825 historical drama that had been crafted by innovative director Vsevolod Meyerhold, with a score by famed composer Sergei Prokofiev. Meyerhold's vision for the politically charged production was abandoned in the late 1930s in the threatening climate of Joseph Stalin's regime.

The "Godunov" project is managed by Simon Morrison, an associate professor of music who has tracked down lost scores and choreographies by Prokofiev and other artists, and Caryl Emerson, chair of the Slavic languages and literatures department and a leading authority on Pushkin's play. The production will feature student actors, singers and musicians as well as a student-designed set, and is directed by Tim Vasen, a lecturer in the Program in Theater and Dance and former resident director of Baltimore's CENTERSTAGE theater company. The project also involves several academic initiatives related to the production.

"Tackling this play in 2007, Princeton has advantages undreamt of by Meyerhold in 1936," Emerson said. "Lighting, film projections, special musical and stage effects are the technological advances, but we also have a half-century's worth of experience in contemporary theater adaptation. Since Meyerhold only rehearsed intensively a handful of the play's 25 scenes, leaving copious notes for others, we are daring to speculate on his concept of the production."

The production is a collaboration between the University and the Russian State Archive of Literature and Art. It involves contributions from numerous departments and groups at Princeton, including the University Center for the Creative and Performing Arts, Department of Music, Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures, School of Architecture, University Orchestra and University Chamber Choir. The project represents a major step in Princeton's efforts to enhance the role of the creative and performing arts on campus.

"The University Center for the Creative and Performing Arts is the major sponsor of the production of 'Boris Godunov.' This is just the kind of project which we plan to underwrite in the future," said Paul Muldoon, director of the center, which was established last year. "Its collaborative aspect is one about which we're particularly enthusiastic."

Pushkin's play dramatizes Godunov's rise to power in late 16th-century Russia, his increasingly tyrannical reign as czar from 1598 to 1605 and the challenge to his throne by Dmitry the Pretender, who claimed to be a son of Ivan the Terrible. Godunov's death in 1605 launched the country into the "Time of Troubles," the interregnum and civil war between Russia's two imperial dynasties. For political as well as dramatic reasons, Pushkin's play was approved for performance only in 1866 and then adapted into an opera by composer Modest Musorgsky between 1869 and 1874.

Meyerhold, whose experimental productions made him a seminal figure in modern theater, twice attempted to stage "Godunov," first in 1924-25 and then in 1936. Prokofiev composed choral and orchestral music for the later production, which was intended to honor the centennial of Pushkin's death. The politics of Stalinist Russia, however, prevented Meyerhold from realizing his vision. He was arrested on charges of treason in 1939 and shot a year later. Prokofiev's score has never been used for a live performance of Pushkin's play, nor has the full text of the play ever received a first-class staging in English.

"I'm hoping the production ends up feeling connected to what Meyerhold was trying to do in the Soviet period and what Pushkin was trying to do in the 1820s -- a new way to look at a history play, something that is very physically dynamic and unexpected and involves a lot of different points of view," Vasen said.

Emerson added, "Although a gifted operatic director, Meyerhold very much wished to liberate Pushkin's play from the heavy, oily sounds of Musorgsky's opera, and of the operatic focus on guilt and punishment. There is plenty of guilt and fate in Pushkin's play, but it is balanced by fast movement, personal initiative, battles where no one knows who wins, dances, prophetic dreams and a lot of comedy and wit."

Morrison noted that recordings of Prokofiev's score for the production "have either been incomplete or inaccurate. The published score is likewise inaccurate, which meant that, for this staging, we have had to work with the archival manuscript." Princeton composer Peter Westergaard is providing the music for a scene that Prokofiev did not complete.

"'Boris Godunov' is one of Prokofiev’s most beguiling scores," Morrison said. "The music is terribly lonely, which might seem like a paradoxical thing to say about singers and instrumentalists working together, except that Prokofiev does all that he can to create a sense of empty, reverberant spaces -- the long, dark tunnel of Russian history. The score includes songs of lonely wanderers and earthy, text-less choruses, which frame resplendent dances for the middle scenes of the drama. Prokofiev offers us the musical equivalent of grainy black and white shifting to dazzling color and back again."

In addition to the production, the "Godunov" project includes: an April 12-14 international symposium on Pushkin, Prokofiev and Russian theater; an exhibition devoted to the project, opening April 1 in Firestone Library; and spring courses for undergraduates, graduate students and alumni focusing on aspects of the production. The set design for the play was generated by graduate students in an architecture seminar last fall.

Performances are scheduled for 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, April 12-14, at the Berlind Theatre, with a 2 p.m. matinee performance April 14. Tickets can be purchased by visiting the McCarter Theatre Center box office, calling (609) 258-ARTS or visiting the McCarter website at

Members of the press interested in attending the production should e-mail the University's Office of Communications at [email protected] by noon Thursday, March 29.

More information about the "Godunov" project can be found on its website at