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A gaunt young actor is staggering about the chalked-up floor of a rehearsal room, a vodka bottle to his lips. “Russia is dying,” he cries. “The old order must die. Russia will be reborn. The time is now.”
It could, of course, be anyone, any time. So pervasive is alcoholism to Russian culture that the drama being readied for the Young Vic could be drawn from Pushkin, Leskov or Dostoevsky, Scriabin or Tchaikovsky, Gogol, Babel or Esenin.
The life on this slab is that of Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881), a composer so essential that many consider him the inventor of Russian music. And you can’t tell his story on tap-water.
Mussorgsky was a helpless drunk, addicted from his army days and often afflicted with delirium. At his death, aged 42, he left the monumental opera Boris Godunov, many songs and a piano suite describing a visit to an art gallery, Pictures at an Exhibition. Much of his work was in a chaotic state, requiring intervention by arrangers. Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, who made the operas performable, also orchestrated the Pictures suite. Maurice Ravel made another version, even more popular. Mussorgsky went down in folk memory as an incompetent, his abiding image the unkempt, red-nosed drunk of Ilya Repin’s celebrated portrait.
Yet to regard drink as the devil in Mussorgsky ignores the circumstances that drove him to the bottle and distorts his genius even more than some of Rimsky's smoothed-down arrangements. The Young Vic’s project, Pictures from an Exhibition, aims to drag him out of the alcoholic mists by means of an experimental collaboration of four different art forms: music, theatre, dance and text.
A week before premiere, the work exists not as a script but as an exchange of emails, still ongoing, between two main collaborators: the poet James Fenton and the director Daniel Kramer. Fenton, a former foreign correspondent, started the conversation by feeding Kramer authentic sources on life in late feudal Russia where, as Fenton puts it, “your nursemaid could simultaneously be your mother and your slave”. Kramer believes these confusions fed into the composer's evident homosexuality.
“Mussorgsky refers to his sexual deformity and shared a bed in digs with Rimsky-Korsakov for a year”, he says. “Like others who went through music teachers and military school, he was brutalised. He is a man caught in a painful spiral of self-destruction.”
The trigger for choosing a Russian theme was last summer's invasion of Georgia, a reassertion of militarist priorities. “James began recalling terrifying images of his time in Vietnam”, says Kramer, “when blood-soaked bodies were brought in from the battlefield.” Fenton suggested that “as such bodies were removed, their valuable boots and uniforms would be taken off them and given to new recruits.” Although there was no war in Mussorgsky’s life, he was raised by a father who glorified the military ethic and felt himself to be a failure.
The enigma of Pictures at an Exhibition is that its sonorous grandeur and fury are out of all proportion to the insipid, static paintings of Viktor Hartmann, a friend of Mussorgsky’s who died in 1873 of an aneurysm, aged 39. How close the two men were is open to conjecture, but the unusual speed with which Mussorgsky wrote the suite, 16 episodes in six weeks, and the intensity of his music provide a template for Fenton and Kramer to explore the relations between the two men and the ever-unequal balance between rival art forms. The music is played as piano score with gunfire and orchestral collages. It ends at the Great Gates of Kiev in a rite of orgiastic mortification.
That’s where the dance becomes dominant in the Young Vic production. Co-commissioned with Sadler’s Wells, the new work is choreographed by Frauke Requardt, who uses the interplay of bodies to create fantasy narratives. As Mussorgsky stumbles to a sodden death, his fellow drunks sway and strip into a drunken orgy on a farm cart or railway carriage, a scene reminiscent of Leskov and Shostakovich in Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and evocative of a timeless nihilism that Kramer sees as innately Russian and Fenton as universal.
There is no agreement between the collaborators on many points in this production, giving it a potential for theatrical friction and an outcome that may not be resolved until opening night. David Lan, who runs the Young Vic, says that it has been “as close to a deep-level co-conceiving as I have ever known.”
This idea is what sets my pulse beating faster. When music is brought together with other arts, you can bet your first-edition Fidelio that it will come out tops, or the composer will throw his tunes out of the pram. Wagner, when he imagined a “union of all arts”, meant that words and scenery were to be subjugated to his music, at times raped by it. For Diaghilev, dance was paramount and the rest decoration. The great English actor-managers budgeted for stagecraft and paid peanuts for sets. Art is unfair, always has been. But there is room for change and when genres bend, as they do in the works of Stravinsky and Harrison Birtwistle, blending post-tonal harmonies with Greek tragedy, the impact can be transforming.
Kramer, 32, is a bit of a genre bender who came to attention last year with a savage realisation of Birtwistle’s uxoricidal opera, Punch and Judy. Raised on a sheep farm in Ohio, Kramer did not get to see an opera until he was away at college and was so overwhelmed by Peter Grimes that all he has ever wanted to do since is direct opera. Easier said than done. Big houses have their stock directors and small ones don’t pay. Kramer had been eight years in London before he landed Punch. He will do Bluebeard’s Castle at English National Opera next year, his main-stage breakthrough.
Bigger still is his July staging at the Manchester Festival of a debut opera by Rufus Wainwright, the ecstatically gay and lavishly melodic singer-songwriter, who regards opera as a private indulgence. “It’s going to be lush, lush, lush”, gushes Kramer who has been sworn to secrecy about all details except to disclose that there are four singers and an orchestra of 70. Wainwright, he adds, has done all of his own instrumentation. “People who are terrified of opera are going to melt”, he smiles. There is a growing anticipation that barricades may fall between enemy genres, an extension of the Pictures experiment.
Art thrives when two forms cohere on a basis of mutual respect. That process yields fusion; the opposite is called crossover. Fusion is elusive, as the Royal Opera House discovered when it tried to conjoin dance and opera in a recent Purcell-Handel double-bill. It's not enough to want to join hands in art - the subject has to be right.
What’s happening at the Young Vic is exactly the sort of experiment that stratified art forms ought to engage in more. Pictures is not a Ken Russell biopic or a Michael Frayn docudrama. Rather, it is an attempt by four different arts to imagine what it might have been like to be the man who gave Russia its musical pride. Mussorgsky is no hero and his story is morally unedifying. But by viewing him through the prism of other creative forms we might find an entry point into the torments of his mind and a deeper appreciation of the music.
“All art flirts with self-destruction”, says Kramer. “This not Pictures. It’s Impressions of what it was like to be Mussorgsky, a very painful ritual.”
Pictures from an Exhibition is at the Young Vic 8-23 May. Information: 020 7922 2922; www.youngvic.org
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Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]