The Met in HD series returned after an absence of more than a year and half. Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov was previously telecast by the Met in October 2010. German Bass René Pape then and now assumed the title role. This time around the Met decided to stage the composer’s original seven scene version of the opera. The one that was rejected by the Mariinsky Theater for reasons both good and bad. The result was a new version completed in 1872 that in my opinion is far superior to the one the Met offered today. The Viking Opera Guide sums up the revisions as follows:
The two most notable features of this revision are the addition of an entirely new act (Act III) set in Poland, thereby providing the leading female role of Princess Marina, and the removal of the scene outside of St Basil’s Cathedral in order to accommodate a new scene depicting the advance of the Pretender’s anti-Boris forces and the defection of the Russian people. Mussorgsky boldy decided that this wonderful new choral scene should follow and not precede the highly impressive death of Boris scene, and thus end the opera with the simpleton singing his solitary lament over the fate of Russia. Act II in which the character of Boris is most full revealed, was also substantially revised. Here, in addition to writing new songs for the nurse and Fyodor, Mussorgsky largely recast the tsar’s great monologue, added a touchingly domestic scene between Boris and his son, and recomposed the Boris Shuisky confrontation and hallucination scene, making the whole act incomparably richer in the process. He also rewrote part of the Pimen cell scene (Act I, Scene 1) and added the hostess’s song at the beginning of the following inn scene.
Revisions are often better than an author or composer’s first go around. This is certainly the case with Boris Godunov. The absence of the Clock Scene leave a giant hole in the work. The Met should bring back the 1872 version. The performance today was a tuneless misshapen shell of a great opera. Boris Godunov without the clock scene is a different beast. The Met chose to stage the first draft of a masterpiece.
So how was the show? Okay. The singing was uniformly at the highest level. The prolonged period of inactivity seems to have resulted in a lot of weight gain. There is more of almost everyone involved in the broadcast than there was two years ago. This was particularly true of Maxim Paster – he was Prince Shuisky. Shuisky who became tsar after the False Dmitry was deposed was himself deposed and died in a Polish castle two years later. Shuisky is an oily guy and should be as thin as a thorn.
René Pape’s voice is still a splendid instrument, but his portrayal of the tormented sovereign is rather bland. Listen to any of the recordings of Feodor Chaliapin or Boris Christoff in the role and you’ll immediately hear what’s lacking. The Estonian bass Ain Anger sang with refulgence and security. He is a regular at the Vienna Staatsoper. As far as I can tell Boris is not in his repertoire, but he certainly has the voice for it. Whether he has the acting chops I can’t tell. His Pimen was stolid, as the role requires.
David Butt Philip is a British tenor who as Gregory was deprived of the great duet that’s in the excised Polish act. He did as well as could be expected with the remnant of his part. Ryan Speedo Green continues to impress. He’s ready for the big-bass baritone roles. I don’t know who decided to have the simpleton wander through most of the opera. He looked like he was at the end stage of a severe neurological disorder flailing all over the stage and generally making a bothersome distraction of himself. Another bad idea.
German conductor Sebastian Weigle directed a secure reading of Mussorgsky’s opera in its original orchestration. Both Rimsky-Korsakov and Dmitri Shostakovich reorchestrated the piece to fix Mussorgsky’s “errors”. But as the sound volume in the sparsely attended theater I was in was set at 8th nerve wrecking levels I can’t be sure how the band sounded in the house.
The set’s were mostly browns and dull reds. They and the costumes were a neutral part of the show. Video director Gary Halvorson has returned to the colonoscopic style he had largely eschewed before the layoff. Way too many sweaty closeups.
About the house, the entire audience was masked as if they were ready to be supers in Un Ballo in Maschera. None of those onstage, including the large chorus, has facial coverings and they were not socially distanced. Only one or two of members of the orchestra were masked. What are we to make of this? Does the Met care for their audience more than their performers? Or are they afraid of them? Like so much of today’s weirdness it’s hard to tell.
Metropolitan Opera House
October 9, 2021
Modest Mussorgsky-Modest Mussorgsky
Boris Godunov……….. René Pape
Prince Shuisky……….Maxim Paster
Grigory……………..David Butt Philip
Varlaam……………..Ryan Speedo Green
Missail……………. Brenton Ryan
Boyar in Attendance…..Mark Schowalter
Set Designer…………Ferdinand Wögerbauer
Costume Designer……..Moidele Bickel
Lighting Designer…….Duane Schuler
Video Director…………Gary Halvorson
Note: The original 1869 version of Boris Godunov performed in the critical edition by Michael Rot, arrangement with European American Music Distributors LLC, U.S. and Canadian agent for Verlagsgruppe Hermann Wien, publisher and copyright owner.
*In this production the Simpleton is known as the Holy Fool
As you aptly point out, the recordings of Feodor Chaliapin from nearly a century ago capture the essence of the character, as do the critics’ reviews of his Metropolitan Opera performances. An excerpt from Deems Taylor’s review in the New York World, 10 December 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. Chaliapin 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 Godunov, living, triumphant, agonizing and dying.”
Ain Anger has sang Boris in 2017 in Berlin Deutsche Opera in a co-production with Royal Opera House, where he initially sang Pimen in London with David Butt Philip as Grigory and Sir Bryan Terfel as Boris. Ain Anger’s Boris in Berlin had favourable reviews, but he tends to be still typecast as Pimen.
Great opinion and …
Great sense of humor.