Making a scene

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 55, Summer 2018

Page 30

Stravinksy's first opera played for just a single night, but Alexander Golovin's fantastical designs for it remain. Claire Wrathall explains

Going through her father's possessions after his death in Hong Kong in 1968, Masha Engmann came upon a set of 30 drawings in watercolour, gouache, ink and pencil, unframed and wrapped in newspaper.

Exquisitely wrought in the spirit of Chinoiserie, they were annotated in Cyrillic. She had found scenery and costume designs for a three-act opera entitled Solovyei (The Nightingale).

Masha did not yet know that Solovyei was Igor Stravinsky's first opera – better known by its French name, Le Rossignol – nor that the radically experimental Russian theatre director, Vsevolod Meyerhold, had directed this production. Neither did she know that the Cyrillic initials 'AG', with which the drawings had been signed, stood for Alexander Golovin (1863-1930), the great stage designer and artist, arguably best known for his work on the original 1910 Ballets Russes production of Stravinsky's fairy-tale ballet The Firebird, which the Mariinsky Ballet still uses. But she could tell they were important, so she packed them up and took them home to America, where they now belong to her sons. This summer they will go on show at Bonhams in London for an exhibition to mark the centenary of the production for which they were created, the first time the series has been seen in public.

"It was probably not until the late 1970s or early 1980s that I actually understood what they were," Douglas Engmann, co-owner of the collection, tells me by phone from his home in San Francisco. By then, Engmann's passion for Russian ballet and the art associated with the Ballets Russes had led him to visit Russia to research it. His grandfather's brother had married a sister of Léon Bakst, another of the great designers associated with Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, so there was even a family connection with the company.

Even so, it is not certain how the designs came to be owned by his grandfather, Michael Klatchko. Dr Klatchko's extraordinary life (see right) brought him from Russia to Hong Kong, via Egypt, Gallipoli, Australia, Vladivostok and Shanghai. "He wasn't really a collector," recalls Engmann. "But he had an eye for fine art. Growing up in St Petersburg in one of the most amazing times for culture and art in the world, he'd been exposed to all those artists in the Mir Iskusstva (World of Art) movement." Engmann believes Klatchko either bought or was given the Golovin designs in Paris during the 1920s. "But we don't know the details."

The designs themselves are physical evidence of a production "that opened and closed the same night, 31 May 1918" at the recently nationalised Mariinsky Theatre in Petrograd. (The city abandoned its Tsarist name, St Petersburg, just after the outbreak of World War I in order to sound less German.) The Russian Revolution was only six months old, and Russia was in the grip of famine and civil war, as well as political upheaval. Opera was not foremost in many people's minds, perhaps especially the kind of ground-breaking operas developed by Meyerhold.

Vsevolod Meyerhold was a good Bolshevik and a member of the Commissariat for the Enlightenment, but he was also a visionary theatrical experimentalist. His method, as Irina Shumanova, head of 18th to 20th-century prints and drawings at the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, explains, "can be easily recognised in the characters' 'personality split' and the use of 'theatre inside theatre'." This means the singers sang from the pit, while on stage silent performers danced or mimed their roles, sitting on chairs within the proscenium arch and looking on as viewers when they were not acting.

Though his name appeared on the posters, Meyerhold did not direct the short-lived 1918 production: "He was already preoccupied with other projects," Shumanova points out. (The staging was delegated to Pavel Kurzner.) Nor was the work new. It had first been produced in 1914, in Paris at the Palais Garnier, then a month later at London's Theatre Royal Drury Lane, where the Ballets Russes premièred it in a mise-en-scène by Alexandre Benois.

The Hans Christian Andersen tale on which the opera was based didn't help its popularity, either. It is the story of a nightingale that is brought to the Porcelain Palace of the Chinese emperor, but which flies away when some Japanese envoys arrive with a more beautiful mechanical bird. The emperor then falls sick and is stalked by Death dressed in the imperial crown. He recovers only when the bird returns – not a good augury for the nascent revolution. "So you can imagine its [Tsarist] theme wasn't going to be very popular with the Bolsheviks," says Engmann.

As the critic of theatre magazine Teatr i Iskusstvo wrote of the production, which would have been planned before the revolution began, this was not the time, nor "dreary, abandoned Petersburg [sic] the place" for such an opera. "Even under normal circumstances [it] would be difficult to stage such a work, but given the state of Russian society, it was absolutely impossible. We do not now have the suitable psychological base from which to comprehend it."

Only the "excellence" of its visual splendour drew praise, at least from the newspaper Novye Vedomosti, which hailed Golovin's production as "magnificent": a fantastical confection of exotic oriental tropes, invented and (in the case of the Porcelain Palace's moon gate and pagoda) authentic, rendered in fabulous colours in a style Shumanova describes as "an original artistic vocabulary and style based on the application of national traditions seen through the lens of European Art Nouveau".

It may not have had the shimmering romantic appeal of Stravinsky's early avian-inspired score, The Firebird, it may not have been a succès de scandale on the scale of The Rite of Spring, but its score and its story were certainly inspirational. In 1920, Stravinsky reworked it as a one-act ballet Le Chant du Rossignol, first staged in Paris, with choreography by Léonide Massine and sets and costumes by none other than Henri Matisse; and in Monte Carlo in 1925, the young George Balanchine, then just 21, was the choreographer for yet another production.

But to be able to see Meyerhold and Golovin's vision for the fleeting opera is a privilege, with the images that Golovin created for it possessed of a beauty, majesty and mystery all their own.

Claire Wrathall writes on culture for The Telegraph and the Financial Times.

The exhibition Music, Magic and Flight: Alexander Golovin's Designs for the Lost Production of Igor Stravinsky's Le Rossignol is being held at Bonhams, 101 New Bond Street, London W1 until 6 June.

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