A medieval ‘Whodunit’ about Real Love

The story about the Seville aristocrat, Don Juan Tenorio, is one of the most popular subject matters in theatre. To count all the stage variations on this theme is simply impossible! The Don Juan myth was to become an all-time favorite, and the character of its hero an all-embracing model. Each age would find in it something of their own. From a madcap prankster he evolves into a philosopher, from a sceptic into a neurasthenic, from a rebel into a passionate lover. Cursed and forgiven, now cocking a snook at the universe, now repentant – this hero became a litmus paper of a sort for each age. And sometimes his appearance indicated a new watershed in art, and for many authors to turn to this subject matter was in a way a manifesto.

And this was the case with Dargomyzhsky’s The Stone Guest – one of the boldest of innovatory operas in the second half of the 19th century. It was in 1863 that Dargomyzhsky conceived of the idea of The Stone Guest, however he didn’t start composing the opera until three years later – because, as he put it, the ground-breaking originality of the idea frightened him. Work on the opera proceeded slowly: there was a rapid deterioration in the composer’s health. “My bad health notwithstanding, I have embarked on my swan song…You will understand what is involved when I tell you I am writing music to the Pushkin text, without changing or adding a single word. The majority of our music-lovers and newspaper hacks refuse to acknowledge that I have inspiration. Their routine outlook seeks for melodies which are pleasing to the ear and this is not my goal. Music, in my view, should not be reduced to entertainment. I want sound to act as a direct vehicle for the expression of the word. I want truth”. On 17 January 1869 Dargomyzhsky passed away, he died with the open manuscript of The Stone Guest in his hands. All that remained to be written were the last eleven verses of Scene One. In accordance with the composer’s will, the opera was completed by Cui and Rimsky-Korsakov. It was given its first performance at the Mariinsky Theatre on 16 February 1872. The Stone Guest immediately gave rise to conflicting opinions: it was both sharply criticized and praised to the skies. It was too unusual to meet the tastes of the average opera goer. Dargomyzhsky was attempting something quite new, he was suggesting a totally different model for opera - the classical operatic forms were jettisoned. In The Stone Guest there are neither arias, nor duets, nor ensembles. Instead we get live human speech with all that this entails, intonations, mood changes etc. We get subtle, well constructed dialogue and an incredibly accurate psychological portrait of each role. This experimental chamber opera may be described as the first Russian ’musical play’.

The present Bolshoi Theatre production of The Stone Guest is produced by the young director Dmitry Belyanushkin. It is Belyanushkin’s third work for the Bolshoi (his two preceding productions for the Theatre The Story of Kai and Gerda and The Fables of the Vixen, the Duckling and Balda were for children). The well-known designers Viktor Shilkrot and Irena Belousova are responsible for the scenography and costumes. Evgeny Vinogradov - for the lighting. Anton Grishanin (at the Bolshoi he has several productions to his name - the operas The Story of Kai and Gerda and Iolanta, the ballet – A Hero of Our Time, and the musical play The Fables of the Vixen, the Duckling and Balda), conducts.

Dmitry Belyanushkin: we decided to return to the sources, the origins of this myth. To establish who was the prototype for Don Juan, how it all took off. And it turns out there was a real man by the name of Don Juan Tenorio, a Seville aristocrat and friend to the king. Together they led an utterly immoral way of life, indulging in all possible forms of pleasure and sin, including rape and murder. And when Don Juan killed the Commandant, Franciscan monks (at that time the Church in Spain was very powerful) acting via an unknown female arranged a rendez-vous with Don Juan in a church and had him murdered. And then put the rumor round that the statue of the Commandant had dispatched Don Juan Tenorio to hell. I decided to consider The Stone Guest via the prism of this real life story. And suddenly many things became clear, the motives for certain actions and the cause-and-effect relationship were immediately established and everything fell into place. Who were Laura’s visitors? Why did a monk appear in Scene l? Why did he speak about Donna Anna? We are left with a medieval detective story. Probably even a ‘whodunit’. And the opera, incidentally, lends itself to this. Dargomyzhsky had an extraordinary sense of timing. He had written an opera with an ideal time study scenario. Added to which the plot is incredibly gripping and the concentration of events is such that the action unfolds at an extremely rapid pace. Our ‘whodunit’ is one layer of the story. But, there is another layer, the human aspect. This is a story about how the cynical, skeptical Don Juan, who knows everything there is to know about life, suddenly falls in love. And love effects a cardinal change in him. Dargomyzhsky has a simply brilliant, very poetical moment –Donna Anna’s fainting-fit. An awesome metaphor, this. It is no ordinary fainting-fit, it is a moment of change in her consciousness, awareness of the world. Suddenly the world which, up to then, had seemed so crystal-clear and rational, was transformed. It is at this moment that a new Don Juan and a new Donna Anna are born.