On Saturday, I finally made it to Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov at the Met, with original orchestration and the restoration of some censored scenes, in Stephen Wadsworth's production. The libretto (in Russian) may be found here; images from the current production here. Shameful Confessions up front: I am not familiar with this opera at all. I frantically skimmed some background reading and gave the Karajan/Ghiaurov recording a listen-through, and that was it, not counting a childhood encounter with the clock scene on LP thanks to my Respected Father's ideas on High Culture (it is still as viscerally terrifying as it was then.) So I arrived ill-equipped, but eager. Unfamiliar as I am with the score, I can only say that under Valery Gergiev's direction, it seemed fluid, evocative, and nuanced. Pacing and balance were problem-free as far as I noticed, and the music came across as emotionally powerful: tense, humorous, mysterious, and achingly empathetic by turns.
I was impressed by the production, which offered an opulent, detail-rich depiction of historical events informed by and interpreted through a modern aesthetic sensibility. I was reminded in this respect of Tarkovsky's Andrei Rublev. The costumes, by Moidele Bickel, were rich without being fussy, with Glanz and rich colors and textures in the fabrics for the boyars and Boris, while the crowds were clad in muted shades, but with layering that added verisimilitude and individuality. (Bickel has a long and illustrious career in costume design for opera and theater, but my only previous first-hand experience of her work was through The White Ribbon, which is the best and most disturbing film I've seen this year.)
The lines of the sets by Ferdinand Wögerbauer were clean, even stark, and the production does not flinch from brutality. Oppression, corruption, and misery were omnipresent. The Holy Fool, however, is highlighted in this production as a symbol of what society is rejecting (apparently even the choice of name is distinctive, as he is often known as the Simpleton.) As the curtain rises, he is holding out his wooden cross to a priest, who turns away from him dismissively to join the persuasion of Boris. During the first mob scene, he staggers like a man possessed or ill, getting lost in the crowd only to be revealed collapsed, alone, as the crowds follow Boris in his coronation procession. Andrey Popov sang his laments and reproaches with such beauty that I wasted no time in seeing if he had been featured in a recording of Rachmaninov's All-Night Vigil, as I would love to hear him sing this. (He hasn't for a recording, yet.) The Metropolitan Opera chorus was, according to my Russian standing neighbor, not always perfectly intelligible, but still impressive. To me they were simply impressive. (I do occasionally recognize a Russian word, but that, alas, is all. Mostly things like love, death, weeping, war, peace, brother, friend, etc.) From being herded and beaten by policemen in the opening to being, themselves, the agents of terrifying violence in the final scene, they sang a convincingly volatile mob. That final scene, honestly, was one of the most disturbing things I've seen in the opera. The triumphal procession through the carnage featured the corpse of Boris' young son slung in a net. I stood there, asking myself: is the mob really going to beat that man to death on stage? Are they really going to martyr that Jesuit? Are they really going to make those two prisoners fight each other to survive? The answers were yes.
My favorite element of the production, though, was an oversize book of history, first seen as the chronicle labored over by the monk Pimen (another island of human decency.) Grigory's fascination with its events is illustrated by his eagerness to examine the written pages... and turn them over to an unwritten one. The book continues to be present, even if overlooked. In the czar's palace, it is part of Feodor's history lesson, and he walks experimentally over its margin as his father tells him of his future role as Russia's leader. It is ominously overlaid with a territorial map in the Polish act, and then walked all over by Marina. As seen in the photograph below, it is the scene of the fateful encounter between Boris and the Holy Fool. At the end, it is torn to bits by the enraged mob; fragments litter the stage, and bloodied pages serve as shrouds.
I confess that, unfamiliar with the language and the opera, I felt a little lost in Boris' Cast of Thousands. So, a quick review of standouts and then the czar himself: Mikhail Petrenko was sonorous as Pimen, and effective both as the world-weary hermit and the figure of authority in the Duma. Evgeny Nikitin, as Rangoni, was on the opposite end of the moral spectrum, manipulative, slimy, and lustful. I swear the man leered with his voice. Ekaterina Semenchuk, I have to admit, disappointed me a little, but I had very high expectations after her Didon. Maybe it was just my failure to connect with Marina. She was convincing as a woman for whom conquest is everything and who can only be attracted to the man whom she's attempting to get if he fits in with those plans. And she did sing beautifully. I just wasn't drawn in. Aleksandrs Antonenko, as Grigory, sang with commitment and ardor throughout. Oleg Balashov was a cynical and powerful Shuisky.
René Pape is a god. His Boris was utterly compelling, believable, sympathetic. Here may be found his frightening Act II monologue from the October 18 performance. His "O gospodin" gave me shivers. Not only did the man sing with power and beauty, his gestures and silences were eloquent, notably in the coronation and alms-giving scenes. His acting was heartbreakingly intense; the expressions with which he sings "moy zin," for example, "my son," felt wrenchingly true to life. After the encounter in which the Holy Fool calls him a Herod (and he protects the man from retribution) he walks like an old man. And I wept for him, from his maddened entrance into the council of the boyars onwards. That entrance took my breath away, as he fairly catapults into the room, yelling... and then gradually regains his composure and tries to pretend that the preceding mad scene (hardly anything less) never happened. His death scene was elemental, beautifully staged and sung. Lack of further detail may be attributed to me crying through most of it, losing it completely when his children lay down next to the body of a father who was respected, feared, and profoundly loved. I don't think I could have asked for a better introduction to Boris.