The Russian film director Andrei Tarkovsky, responsible for Andrei Rublev and the original Solaris, came to Covent Garden to direct Modest Mussorgsky’s mighty Boris Godunov in the mid-eighties. Being an admirer of the great man’s films I was delighted to be given the technical manager’s job on the production.
Tarkovsky was a short man with a pinched disgruntled expression, who habitually sat huddled in an old sheepskin coat at the back of the auditorium. The system in those days was that each new production had 3 ‘Technical Sundays’ in which to set up and light the production prior to the start of the piano/stage rehearsals. So on three consecutive Sundays we put the set up, hung around while Tarkovsky sat morosely at the production desk. We made changes, we made changes to the changes, but by 4.00 on the final Sunday afternoon we had not plotted a single lighting Q. I turned to Bob Bryan, the production’s lighting designer, who had sat for three weeks twiddling his thumbs, and said “Do you think it’s worth asking him if we could just put a few Q’s in the board for tomorrow’s rehearsal”? “It’s worth a try Ted” replied Bob cheerfully. So I slipped easily into Uriah Heep mode and went to Tarkovsky. “Andrei”, I said “perhaps we should try and put a few lighting Q’s in the board before we go home tonight so we have something to work with at tomorrow’s rehearsal”. I was subjected to a 5 minute tirade in Russian which our interpreter sweetly translated as “Andrei says that it is very difficult to work under these conditions”.
Some of his dissatisfaction with things at Covent Garden stemmed from his relationship with the designer, a London based Russian fine artist called Nicholas Dvigoubsky. Nicholas was as unlike Tarkovsky as it was possible to be. Affable, hearty, and possessed of the most bone crunching and painful handshake in London, and, being a good European, he would insist on shaking hands every morning with anyone that he met for the first time that day. The trauma of these morning handshakes was such that staff would peer nervously round the auditorium doors as they came to rehearsal to check if Nicholas was in range. If cornered one cast around desperately for something that required both hands to carry like a tea tray or a crystal chandelier but Nicholas was remorseless in his quest for good fellowship and he always got his man in the end.
The climax of Tarkovsky and Nicholas’s deteriorating relationship came as the result of a dispute over some floral garlands. Tarkovsky wanted something to decorate the distinctly spartan ‘Polish’ scenes, Nicholas didn’t, I had run out of budget and sided with Nicholas. Right at the end of the production period Tarkovsky finally lost patience and called a meeting of everybody who was anything in the Opera company in the producer’s office. In front of an audience that included Sir John Tooley, Claudio Abbado (who was conducting), the rest of the creative team, every HOD in the building, interpreters and riff raff like me Tarkovsky launched a volley of abuse in Russian at Nicholas. Nicholas turned grey and stood pinned to the wall by Tarkovsky’s words like a man in a knife throwing act that has gone horribly wrong. I turned to Irina, our interpreter and asked desperately for a translation. She too had turned grey and said “I can’t tell you! I can’t tell you!” When he had finished Tarkovsky stalked out of the room looking well satisfied with his mornings work.
Was the production good? Yes it was and Tarkovsky’s staging was at times extraordinary. Here is an example. I won’t trouble you with the plot which is a rambling chronicle (so rambling that you can change the order of scenes pretty much at random and no one would be any the wiser) of events in Russia around 1600, most of the time the stage is packed with people bewailing the fate of Mother Russia. At the beginning of Act 3 there is a short scene between Marina, the daughter of the Voyevode of Sandomir (definitely not top billing in the European royalty stakes) and a Jesuit named Rangoni. She is trying to decide whether to get hitched to a pretender to the Russian throne named Dimitri. Rangoni is urging her to remember her Catholic duty and to convert the Orthodox Russians if she makes it to the throne in Moscow. To be honest this is not the most interesting scene in the opera, it is one of those scenes that 19th century composers thoughtfully put in to give the audience a break. It gives you a few minutes to wonder if your PA remembered to book the restaurant or whether you have a shirt ironed and ready for tomorrow. In Tarkovsky’s version Marina sat on a rather Disneyesque throne while Rangoni simply paced backwards and forwards across the forestage. Nothing more than that, nothing else happened but it was gripping. No one was thinking about PAs or shirts, we were all gripped, and to this day I can’t work out why. The production was dotted with similarly compelling moments.
None of us realised at the time how ill Tarkovsky was (he died 3 years later) and perhaps he can be forgiven the evil temper because of those moments that have stuck in my head for more than 20 years.