Poetry on the stage

Poetry on the stage

Published: May 11, 2011 (Issue # 1655)


Modigliani’s sketches of Akhmatova form the backdrop for the opera about the persecuted poetess.

A performance about the life of Russia’s best-loved poetess is the only new opera to be commissioned by the Paris Opera (Bastille) for the 2010-2011 season.

Nicolas Joel, the theater’s director, explained that he had been looking for a subject and wanted to stage an opera set in modern times, in which war and suffering engulf an artist, yet where, in spite of all this, the creative spirit survives.

From his years as director of the Toulouse opera house, Joel has closely collaborated with the librettist Christophe Ghristi, and he spoke to him about his quest. The librettist has a passion for Russian poetry, and suggested the life of the persecuted Soviet poetess Anna Akhmatova as a subject. Her biography had everything the director was looking for: Life under an oppressive regime, a fighting spirit that helped her to remain a poet and preserve her talent, war with all its deprivations, and lastly, the torment of the political arrests of her son and her husband. Ghristi was invited to write the libretto.

The opera’s composer, 33-year-old Bruno Mantovani, is considered by many to be the most outstanding French composer of his generation. In 2010, Mantovani was appointed director of the Paris Conservatory. He is the author of many orchestral and instrumental pieces, one opera and a ballet, “Siddhartha,” which was staged by the Paris Opera last season.

The opera “Anna Akhmatova” premiered at the Bastille on March 28.

Ghristi’s libretto is based on the memoirs of Lydia Chukovskaya, a close friend of Akhmatova, and contains poems by the poetess and by Alexander Pushkin, whom Akhmatova revered.

Questions were invariably posed about the possible involvement of Russian singers, translators or memoirists in the production, but Joel, who staged the opera himself, made it clear that this is a French opera, and the singers are French. The opera is performed entirely in French using translations of Akhmatova’s poems.

One of the problems the director faced in attracting audiences was that many French people had never heard of the Russian poetess and her difficult life. The stage director identified two moments in the life of Akhmatova that bring her closer to France — to Paris, to be precise. In 1910 and 1911, the poetess traveled to the French capital, where she met and befriended Amadeo Modigliani. The painter made about 10 drawings of Akhmatova, some of which she kept with her for the rest of her life.


A key focus of the opera is the troubled relationship between Akhmatova and her son, Lev Gumilyov.

Modigliani’s sketches are used in the production as major stage props. The opera opens with Akhmatova’s words — a monologue in which she reminiscences about Paris and Modigliani. Spectators become involved with her character and find out about this small but strong tie to Paris. The large drawings consist of black lines on enormous white panels that move around the stage. They serve as comfort for the poetess; they are a reminder of normal life. They also serve as hiding places for KGB agents when they wait for an opportunity to enter her apartment and take away either her husband, her son or both.

The show could be divided into two parts. In the first part, the creators have tried to communicate the oppressive atmosphere of Russia from the 1930s to ’50s ,with universal fear, poverty, exile, executions and the labor camps. To strengthen the point, film footage is projected showing the Gulag system, the lonely, nameless graves concealed among birch trees, and the prisoners themselves — a sad picture of misery and grief. On stage, Akhmatova is in a crowd of women waiting outside the prison gates, hoping to find out something about the fate of her son. Lydia Chukovskaya, one of the main protagonists, recites lines from Akhmatova’s celebrated “Poem Without a Hero.”

The second part has more action. In this part, the authors have compressed the most dramatic events in the country’s 20th-century history and in the life of the heroine: World War II, the Siege of Leningrad, bombing, evacuation and her return to a destroyed city.

Arrests and persecution form a constant theme throughout the opera.

Gradually, the main conflict emerges. This is between Akhmatova and her son Lev.

After Stalin’s death, along with many others, Lev is released from the camps. Upon his return, he accuses his mother of doing nothing to secure his freedom. It is doubtful that she could in fact have obtained a pardon for Lev, whose father was executed as an “enemy of the people” and whose mother had fallen into disgrace with the regime. But some of the his accusations remain unresolved, such as why Akhmatova did not write letters to him, sending only rare postcards, and why she did not send him food parcels. After a shower of accusations, Lev leaves his mother, saying he will never come back. She does not stir. Her last words are: “Poets should not have children.”

The composer has only recently ventured into the world of opera, and has not attempted any vocal ensembles in “Anna Akhmatova.” Instead, the score is filled with monologues and recitatives.

Another curious feature is that the opera’s overture, in which the lines of conflict and the melodies that characterize each character are usually first heard, is placed at the very end. After the last words of the heroine, the orchestra — a small chamber ensemble — embarks on a 20-minute musical interlude for which the composer has saved the most interesting music. The only clear musical reminder of Russia is the inclusion of an accordion in the orchestra.

Mantovani has said that his intention was to deliberately avoid any association with the music of the leading Russian composer of Akhmatova’s time — Dmitry Shostakovich — and to create a new musical world.

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