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
Dear Dr. Neil,
Just watched the Beethoven video. Absolutely wonderful. Who is that child? I’ve tweeted and facebooked to my kids.
Thank you for your response concerning Loge in Das Reingold. Your speculation makes a lot of sense.
I was waiting for your review of Boris and I’m so glad that overall you were positive. I loved it, even though my theater had a techical problem with volume. I think one of the speakers malfunctioned so nothing was as loud as it was broadcast. The great stirring chorus numbers were unhappily modulated down and some quiet moments were lost altogether. But, loved it anyway. I will have a chance to see it again on the encore performance. For free, actually – the theater gave us all refunds because of the sound problem.
I have the Chrisoff recording and it is wonderful, particularly Boris’ death. But to see the action on stage makes a world of difference. Just one small example, watching Pimen tell the story of the blind man’s miracle to Boris and seeing Pimen’s eyes’ rage with hatred of Boris, just does not come across in a recording.
Perhaps I should explain that I’m one of those folks who before HDTV Metopera presentations only saw maybe four operas in her entire life – and I’m 68. HDTV has been a revelation. There is not an opera I’ve not loved. How can you descriminate when it’s always the first time. So my enthusiasm is likely a result of inexperience. I even liked Dr. Atomic and I’m looking forward greatly to Nixon in China. (I’m not sure I could do Wozzak, but that’s not being broadcast on HDTV- whew). That’s why I depend a lot on someone like you. I love your musical examples and find them very educational.
Just one more comment on Boris. I thought the stage director did a great job. He didn’t need a quarter of a million dollar movable stage (ala Rheingold) to move his story along. He did very well with a couple of boxes. But, to be fair, with that grand 140 person chorus all you could fit on the stage was a couple of boxes. He cleverly introduced the politics – Shiusky at the Polish dance and the Jesuits accompanying the Pretender. The scene with Marina and the Jesuit priest, in effect, seducing her was powerful and dangerously sexy. Wow
Anyway, thanks and I’ll certainly keep reading and listening and enjoying and hopefully learning.
Give Wozzeck a try. I was at the Met’s first performance of Berg’s bizarre masterpiece – March 5, 1959. It was a triumph. Karl Böhm conducted Hermann Uhde and Eleanor Steber in the main roles. Kurt Baum was the horrible Drum Major. He was made for the role. It was the only one he was good at during his (too) long career at the Met. Like Boris, most operas in fact, it needs to be seen as well as heard. But try listening to a recording of it (Wozzeck) a few time before you go a performance of it. It’s certainly never going to rival Boheme or Butterfly in the public’s esteem, but it has a unique appeal.
Your comments about the staging of Boris were very perceptive and right on the mark.
Can’t imagine Kurt Baum being good in any opera. But yes, Wosseck should be given a try. Give it
a few hearings before judging. And read the libretto if you can.
“And what a stroke of imagination is the casting of Kurt Baum as the Drum Major!”
Alan Rich in the April 1961 issue of Musical America
Baum was born to be the Drum Major. All he had to do was be himself.
Rimsky’s orchestration is certainly very effective on its own terms,but it does make the opera too plush and glamorous,missing the stark ruggedness of the original.In addition, Rimsky bowderized some of Mussorgsky’s bolder harmonies and tamed them,because he thought they were too crude. The Rimsky version turns the opera into “My Fair Boris”.
Also,Valery Gergiev is not actually a Russian,but an ethnic Ossetian.
He was born in Moscow of Ossetian parents. The Ossetians are the descendents and last remnants of the ancient Scythian tribes who settled in the Caucasus mountains long ago,and speak a language related to Farsi,Kurdish and Pashto.
Hi, I’ve been doing some research about Boris Goudonov and came upon your webite. What’s really fascinating musically is Mussorgsky’s use of the fugue (#2) in Book 1 of the Well Tempered Clavier with its wonderful modulation in Act One Scene 1. Needless to say he may have done this unconsciously. Earlier there’s a musical line of what we know as the beginning of The Internationale.
You speak of the Rimsky Korsakov version,which I like but not anywhere near as much as the original, which I didn’t hear until the late ’90’s. (I’ve never heard the Shostakovich.) At least in memory I liked the Coronation Scene in the Rimsky better, but in general it lacks the intensity of the original that’s non-stop throughout.
For that matter the only other opera I can think of that is its peer in this regard is Tosca.
It’s interesting that while the Tzar and his family were responsible for disappearing Boris, it was Stalin’s favorite opera. Of course Stalin played no mean role in disposing of that family. Yet his displeasure with Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth immediately disappeared it…and almost Shostakovich as well. Greatest irony of course is that Stalin must have emulated the paranoid Boris’s reign as one of Russia greatest czars while at the same time, unlike Boris in the opera, remaining totally blind to his own evil.
Speaking of Shostakovich, this is just off the cuff. In order to get Boris produced Mussorgsky had to write a major female role,which became Act 3. What’s the connection with Shostakovich? From a purely musical
aspect the Marina-Dmitri scene has some of the most rapturous love music ever written, which despite the fact that one knows it’s a con, musically retains its power. What’s off the cuff is that, like Shostakovich after him, Mussorgsky may have been cloaking his distaste for having had to write the scene in the first place. At least there’s a strong element of artistic duplicity, something that Shostakovch was compelled to use in much of his music literally to survive. The 5th Symphony is from start to finish the most eloquent and courageous put down of the entire Stalinist crime that I know, just as his intro, “A Soviet composer’s response to just criticism,” is almost tongue and cheek. (Just how a noted English professor managed to interpret as pro Soviet the above and similar remarks I made in a paper about Henry Roth continues to mystify, but as he refused in typical Soviet style to duke it out what more can I say?)
Except thanks. I only wish Moussorsgky had lived to write more and in general had had a less tormented life.