The Metropolitan Opera’s new production of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov was telecast around the world Saturday October 23. This production has a complicated history. The German director Peter Stein was originally engaged to make his Met debut as its director. But he quit in a snit supposedly because the US government had engulfed his visa application in a bureaucratic net or maybe it was something else. Anyway with just a little more than month to go the Met recruited Stephen Wadsworth to mount the opera using the work of Mr. Stein’s design team, which agreed to stay with the production. On balance the presentation of this unique work was a success. Ferdinand Wögerbauer’s sets were austere but effective. Moidele Bickel’s costumes were sumptuous. My only quibble is the Roman cross made by the bishop in the first act. He repeated it in the third act. This would be no big deal except that the director has the mob stop the Jesuits in the third act from crossing themselves Roman style; they’re made to do it the Orthodox way – ie, right to left. Also everyone else signs the cross Orthodox style throughout the opera.
Mussorgsky wrote the libretto for this his first opera – likely the most accomplished first opera in musical history. He reduced Pushkin’s historical drama Boris Godunov from 25 scenes to seven – 10 in this version which combines Mussorgsky’s original version with the revised one that was first presented in the Maryinsky Theater in 1874 five years after the first version was rejected by that house. Even though Mussorgsky orchestrated the opera two times, it was almost always given during the first half of the 20th century in a reorchestrated revision by Rimsky-Korsakov. Rimsky thought that the disappearance of the opera from the Russian repertory after Mussorgsky’s death was because of its poor orchestration. It has become a dictum of advanced political correctness to condemn Rimsky’s orchestration, as well as that of Shostakovich in 1940, as reactionary. Of course, the Met orchestra under the direction of Valery Gergiev used Mussorgsky’s orchestration – the second go around I assume. It’s a firing offense to declare that you prefer Rimsky’s setting, but I do. I may have to fire myself. Another manifestation of PC is that in this production the Simpleton has become the Holy Fool.
Mussorgsky knew almost nothing about the practical realities of the theater. This is why he had so much trouble getting his opera staged. If he had known more about the theater the opera would almost certainly not been the strange and wonderful beast it is. It’s also why I think Rimsky’s version makes the opera fit on the stage a bit better than Mussorgsky’s original. I know this makes me dead meat, but so what.
But any production of Boris succeeds or fails by the work of its title character and that of the chorus. The Met’s chorus is as fine as can be found anywhere. They showed their great skill again in this staging. The chorus presents a distinctly Russian characteristic – the total dependence on higher authority for the most basic of needs including bread. The restored scene in front of Saint Basil’s Cathedral is all about bread. The end result of all this dependence is wanton violence. It’s no accident that Boris Godunov was Stalin’s favorite opera. It’s all about power, guilt, and an oppressed and subservient people.
René Pape was an excellent Boris. He has an imposing stage presence and a big powerful voice. The only criticism that can be launched at him is that he does not yet inhabit the role. This is his third production of Boris. For Boris to fully succeed the artist portraying him must become him. This is what Deems Taylor wrote about Feodor Chaliapin’s first appearance at the Met as the Tsar on December 9, 1921:
He sang Boris at the Metropolitan last night for the first time here. One says “sang” because it is the conventional word and the most easily comprehended. It is not adequate. He lived Boris; he was Boris. When he strode upon the stage in the first act towering above his lords and nobles, his gold crown flashing in the sun, his kaftan heavy with embroidery, and swept his arm over his people in a great gesture of benediction, all sense of artifice, of the theatre, vanished. As long as he was there the other singers, the scenery, the audience, even Moussorgsky’s great music-all were blotted out. One saw only the Czar Boris Godunoff, living, triumphant, agonizing and dying.
I don’t go back to Chaliapin; but I do remember Boris Christoff who also offered an interpretation that was searing. Christoff still sets a standard for this great role that is almost unattainable. Like Chaliapin he was Boris. Listen for yourself. Boris death scene Christoff. Christoff’s’ use of filatura, his expressiveness, and his great sound set him apart from just about everyone else. If Pape wants to be Boris he has to elevate his game. Excellent is not good enough for this role.
The rest of the cast was fine. Oleg Balashov could have been a little more oleaginous as Shuisky, but he did convey the prince’s deviousness. Mikhail Petrenko was a mellifluous Pimen; but here too Christoff sets the standard. On his two complete recording of Boris he sang Pimen and Varlaam in addition to the title role. Vladimir Ognovenko was appropriately vulgar as the aforementioned Varlaam.
The brief, but beautiful love duet that concludes the added Polish scene was well sung and acted by Aleksandrs Antonenko (Grigory the false Dmitri) and Ekaterina Semenchuk (Marina). This duet is both the most cynical love duet in all opera and Mussorgsky’s only concession to conventionality. Here yet again, I prefer Rimsky’s grand ending of the duet and the act to the abrupt conclusion written by Mussorgsky. Evgeny Nikitin was a libidinous Rangoni. His pleasant voice was a little light for the part.
This leaves Valery Gergiev. The Russian maestro conducts everything he touches with passion and authority. But he likely holds this opera in his highest regard. His conducting was all that could be asked for. He and the Met’s great orchestra made the strongest case for both this unique opera and it’s composer’s orchestration even if I remain unconvinced about the latter. The complete list of participants in this broadcast are below.
Modest Mussorgsky-Modest Mussorgsky
Boris Godunov………..René Pape
Prince Shuisky……….Oleg Balashov
* Simpleton………….Andrey Popov
Missail……………. Nikolai Gassiev
Feodor………………Jonathan A. Makepeace
Boyar in Attendance…..Brian Frutiger
TV Director………….Brian Large
Set Designer…………Ferdinand Wögerbauer
Costume Designer……..Moidele Bickel
Lighting Designer…….Duane Schuler
* In this production the Simpleton is known as the Holy Fool