Da Vinci and Godunov

A fantastic exhibit of drawings and an unforgettable operatic experience in London.

‘LEONARDO DA VINCI: 500 The First Start-Up Man.’ (photo credit: NOAM MORANO)
‘LEONARDO DA VINCI: 500 The First Start-Up Man.’
(photo credit: NOAM MORANO)
Leonardo da Vinci is known predominantly as a painter, yet fewer than 20 of his paintings survive. His eternal fame rests on thousands of unrivaled drawings. Leonardo worked out his ideas on paper. Studying them helps to explain his unparalleled thought processes. Leonardo carefully preserved all his work and when he died: he bequeathed his drawings and notebooks to his pupil Francesco Melzi, who spent decades organizing this vast treasure trove. One album containing more than 550 drawings came into the Royal Collection in about 1670, during the reign of Charles ll.
The year 2019 commemorates 500 years since Leonardo’s death, an event that is being celebrated by many international museums. One such exhibition currently on show is at the Queen’s Gallery in Buckingham Palace and it comprises two hundred drawings selected from the Royal Collection by Martin Clayton, the exhibition curator.
Most of Leonardo’s drawings were for his own edification and entertainment and were not intended for widespread distribution. His drawings include numerous representations of human figures, even those with comical and grotesque heads. There are studies of the Battle of Anghiari, a painting unfortunately never completed, with images of violent clashes of horses and men in battle. There are also drawings of his lost painting, Leda and the Swan, exploring Leda’s hairstyle and the surrounding foliage.
His oeuvre contains many animals, especially horses, which he drew from different angles as preparations for equestrian statues, none of which were ever completed. Also featured are his studies of water, drapery, botany, geological formations and architecture.
Leonardo produced a series of maps, engineering projects and designs of weapons for the Italian military leader Cesare Borgia, for whom he worked briefly. Indeed many of his drawings can be considered as his resume, a type of “Renaissance curriculum vitae,” to be shown to powerful patrons for potential employment. These included the Sforza family, rulers in Milan and Francis I, King of France. These patrons and many others readily accepted his unique services.
Leonardo was left-handed and his drawings are often complemented by his observations, written backwards in his classical mirror script. His fertile mind continually oscillated from one subject to another. He often abandoned a current project, picking it up again after many years or decades. As a result, a large number of his projects remained incomplete.
In many drawings, different topics are often depicted together on the same sheet of paper. An example is a preparatory drawing of his famous Last Supper. Prominently displayed with Jesus and his disciples is a large geometrical diagram. Thus, even while formulating his greatest painting, Leonardo’s mind wandered off in the direction of mathematics.
PERHAPS MOST famous of all are his anatomical studies. Throughout his life, he had an unbridled interest in anatomy and dissected more than 30 corpses. In one dissection of an old man’s heart, he discovered shrunken blood vessels with fatty substances in the vessel walls thus documenting the first description of cardiovascular disease. His representation of tendons, ligaments and muscles of the limbs as well as the fetus in the womb as well as several others, were decades ahead of his time.
He intended publishing a book on these studies, but being the perfectionist, he was always dissatisfied with his own work and never got round to it. And what a pity! These drawings, acknowledged by experts as some of the best ever created, unfortunately languished in the Royal Collection for more than 150 years until interest in them was kindled. Regrettably, these studies of the human body and natural world could not benefit scholars living in Leonardo’s time.
This collection shows the versatility of Leonardo’s genius as artist, engineer, botanist, anatomist, architect, cartographer and weapon’s expert. Based on his drawings, Leonardo is acknowledged as one of the most versatile geniuses ever to have lived, the quintessential Renaissance polymath. This assertion is fully justified by this once in a lifetime magnificent exhibition, which remains on view until October 13.
THE ROYAL OPERA House mounted an outstanding revival of Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky’s masterpiece, Boris Godunov. This opera is set in a troubled time in Russia’s history. When Ivan the Terrible died, he was succeeded by Fyodor, his feeble-minded son. The boyar, Boris Godunov, was the acting regent and real power behind the throne. Another of Ivan’s sons, the young Tsarevich Dmitry, died under mysterious circumstances. According to some sources, this was suicide, whereas others maintain that Boris planned the murder. When Fyodor died, Boris reluctantly became tsar. His tenure was initially successful, but then a series of disastrous wars and a severe famine plagued the country, leading to discontent and the peasants rose against their tsar. A plot to depose Boris was hatched by Grigory, a scheming monk who made his way to Lithuania, raised an army, impersonated the murdered Dmitry and eventually took over the throne.
Mussorgsky’s libretto was based on a drama by the great Russian writer, Pushkin, who believed Boris to be the mastermind of the murder. The libretto traces the tragic collapse of Boris who is progressively overwhelmed by guilt and remorse as he reflects on the murder of the young Dmitry. Mussorgsky reduced Pushkin’s play to seven scenes and submitted the opera to the imperial theater in 1869. It was rejected mainly because there was no significant soprano role. Mussorgsky reworked it and an extensive revision was accepted in 1872. This version, often with subsequent alterations notably by Rimsky-Korsakov and Shostakovich is the one that is generally performed today.
Richard Jones, who directed this production, chose Mussorgsky’s original 1869 rejected version. This was a co-production with the Deutsche Oper Berlin and originally premiered in 2016. The production brilliantly succeeded in demonstrating Boris’s dramatic psychological and mental deterioration. The seven tableaux were played uninterruptedly without any intermission and the audience remained riveted throughout.
Miriam Buether’s sets divided the stage into a brightly lit upper section and a lower half where most of the actions take place. This section is dark and often populated by the oppressed serfs and as well as Boris, either alone or with his family or entourage. Possibly the darkness was a reflection of the depressed mood of the tsar and the sorry state of the peasants.
Nicky Gillibrand’s costumes contrasted the dark gray ragged outfits of the peasants with the opulence and splendor of those of the boyars and clergy. Boris’s costumes also reflected his mental status from royal finery at his coronation to an austere, unadorned linen undershirt in his death scene.
Richard Jones has no qualms about who was responsible for the death of Ivan’s young son. On entering the opera house one was immediately confronted by the curtain on which was prominently displayed a large colored spinning top. The curtain rose to reveal a young boy, the Tsarevich Dmitry, playing with a small version of this top in the upper stage. Three figures clothed in black then stealthily make their appearance, cut the young boy’s throat and make off with the body. This occurred even before the orchestra started up. This macabre scene was repeated on another two occasions when Boris’s mind was clouded by thoughts of his own guilt.
THE INCOMPARABLE Welsh bass-baritone, Bryn Terfel, who had just completed a successful run as Scarpia in Tosca at the Royal Opera, reprised the role of Boris. A consummate singer and actor, he was a worthy Boris in the tradition of his other famous predecessors. Vocally, he gave a fearless, dramatically chilling and psychologically devastating account of the daunting title role.
Terfel is also an accomplished actor with tremendous stage presence. All aspects of Boris’s complex personality were brilliantly portrayed, his ruthlessness to his enemies, but fairness to the hapless serfs. Even when addressed as Tsar Herod by the fool, he prevented the boyar Shuisky from arresting him. In his encounters with his son and daughter, he was a loving father. But above all, Terfel depicted Boris’s progressive descent into madness and eventual death. Much of his demeanor, the hallucinations were evident in his eyes which said it all. The unforgettable climatic moment in his final monologue when he gives words of advice to his son and then dies will forever be emblazoned on my psyche as the gold standard for this death scene.
The remaining cast was exceptionally strong. There were no weak links. In the scene on the Lithuanian border, veteran British bass John Tomlinson, with his mellifluous voice, gave an extraordinary often comic performance of Varlaam, the drunken monk and was well supported by soprano Anne Marie Gibbons as the inn hostess.
Canadian tenor Roger Honeywell, with his cool, focused voice, portrayed with great conviction Prince Shuisky, Boris’s crafty duplicitous adviser. Historical buffs will remember that Shuisky did in fact become tsar for a short period after the murder of Boris’s unfortunate son.
Most impressive was the young British bass, Matthew Rose, who gave a masterful account of the monk Pimen. A sonorous bass, he succeeded in filling the opera house with his crystalline articulation both when he related the fate of the young Dmitry to the monk Grigory, and in the penultimate scene with his final duet with Boris.
British tenor David Butt Philip, as the monk Grigory, sang with a cool, focused voice. Other smaller roles were also all competently sung, including Joshua Abrams as Boris’s young son and tenor Sam Furness as the holy fool.
The large Royal Opera chorus, under the direction of William Spaulding, handled the work’s dramatic choral passages confidently and produced a ravishing sound.
Marc Albrecht, chief conductor of the Dutch National Opera, gave a riveting tight account of the score and drew vigorous playing and shimmering sound from the orchestra of the Royal Opera House. This inspiring, clear and detailed orchestral accompaniment conveyed the broad sweep of Mussorgsky’s score.