Tuesday, October 26, 2010


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.


  1. I think its the minority view but I liked the production as well. A nice mix of richness and cleanliness, good personal management and fairly effective telling of the story. I also like the book as a narrative device. You say all that needs to be said about Pape and most of the cast and, unfortunately, Semenchuk. Some criticize the insertion of the Polish Act but for me it doesn't compromise the narrative excessively and I absolutely love the music. In my first Boris the Rangoni was Leiferkus and even more impressively Borodina was Marina. Extraordinarily rich voiced, commanding, and seductive in possibly the best performance I've seen from her. The scene between them absolutely crackled with electricity and regrettably that was not the case here.

    Another thing that bothered me was the use of the 1869 monologue even though the much more lyrical 1872 would have been entirely appropriate in this particular version and Pape could have sung very beautifully. I read an interview in which he said he was used to the version used here but its sufficiently short that he shouldn't have had too much trouble learning it and I can't imagine that he wouldn't appreciate how well it would suit his voice. The October 18th performance (which I attended) was recorded and there should be a broadcast and hopefully a DVD.

  2. @marcillac: enviable casting, that! Nice to know that my love for the history book wasn't solely borne of professional partiality. Interesting tidbits about the monologue(s). Maybe the explanation lies somewhere in the form in which the versions survive? I really don't know. I'll hope for a DVD as well!

    @Dr. B. :) Glad you enjoyed it as well.

  3. Just to clarify, the 'simpleton' or 'holy fool' is known as a 'yurodivy' in russian and this is a word that has a wealth of scope for interpretation and translation. Examples range from Lear's fool to Dostoyevsky's Prince Myshkin to Shostakovich himself, but genrally, it is simply someone who gets away with telling truth to power.

    Like calling Boris "Herod"! :)

    couldn't agree with you more about Nikitin & Pape - I thought Markov was also excellent, though maybe his voice is getting darker?

  4. Thanks so much for the elucidation, numeroligist!

    I was impressed with Markov, although I don't have enough exposure to his earlier work to comment on darkening of the voice or its absence.

  5. I'm by no means certain about the whats whys and wherefores of the musicology but I'm reasonably sure about the monologue and its mentioned in this article/interview about Pape and the production http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703358504575544172929357994.html

    The links are

    1)Pape singing the version we heard at the Met http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q5N898GfQ_4


    2)Matti Salminen singing the alternative version ttp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GE43OdJZ0sk

    You can judge for yourself but it seems to me Pape could really have made something of it.

  6. I heard the Karajan CD, and concluded I'd probably prefer any CD version of this opera to any live performance... Somehow Russian operas from the Kuchka era are rarely given the regie treatments, there's a certain reverence about the costumes and settings and the whole Orthodox business... Am I wrong, do you have any counter-examples? I think I can say this, since it's my own religious tradition, but Russian operas all seem to me like a propaganda tool for the Russian Orthodox Church. Well, Khovanschina, Boris and partly Igor do anyway. (Onyegin isn't of course.)

    And this one is cartoonishly anti-Polish and (worst) misogynist. The Polish piece added after he was asked to create at least one major female role for his opera by a commissioning body. But hey, "as long as it's not Orientalist..." (Compare the treatment Konchakova gets by Borodin and Mussorgsky's Marina here for two very different takes on the Enemy Woman.)

    Apart from the two un-subtleties above, obviously it's a complex work worth digging into and enjoying. I read the (surprisingly cogent, none of that sneering of his columns) article about it by Taruskin in the Grove, and he breaks down the version one of BG next to the version two item by item.

  7. Thanks for the tips on further reading on the different versions of Boris!

    The anti-Polish and misogynist aspects in Boris are indeed cringe-inducing, and I didn't see that there were attempts to problematize that from Wadsworth. I will have to look into the other works you mention.

    As to Regie productions, (in)frequency of, I'm afraid I don't have much of a sense. Tcherniakov's is the most striking example of Regie Boris; it premiered in Berlin in '05, and will be playing in Copenhagen this coming spring. I don't know if there's a DVD, but I think the first video marcillac posts above might be taken from that production? I don't know if you subscribe to theoperacritic.com; I just checked there for performances of Boris since '00 and there are a handful of productions which seem, based on images, as though they could qualify for a "Regie" label.
    Maybe Opera Cake or Likely Impossibilities, more assiduous in following directors, would have better information. :) I really have almost no sense of whether there's the mistaken "reverence" you suspect.

    As for the Orthodox propaganda... I have only a superficial familiarity with most of these pieces, so I'm hardly qualified to say. In the case of Boris (said she, proceeding to hold forth) there is the rhetoric in the libretto about "our holy church" contrasted with the Jesuits... but I'm not sure I see how that could be taken as non-problematic given the opera as a whole. Maybe traditional productions have religion in a more positive light; Wadsworth's had visibly corrupt priests; the Holy Fool was rejected by all; and although Pimen is a good monk, there's also Grigoriy and his two dissolute traveling companions.

    I say all of this, of course, from a relatively uninformed perspective. Thanks for your reflections! I am spurred to try to find out more, and dig in deeper.

  8. One BIG BIG problem with Boris is that it is so badly represented on dvd! I haven't seen the Mariinsky one because I'm not a fan of Robert Lloyd, the one wth Matti is probably the Willy Decker one which is a little regie in the easist sense, but not pushing anything too far (he drags a giant thrown behind him when he enters for "chur, chur ditya" is pretty cool :)). There is an interesting and quite ugly one in rep in Dresden which I saw last year with Pape - his homelife is nightmareish and all the boyars are KGB, which is also what the Berlin one looks like from tiny clips one youtube and production photos on thier website... So basically, you either get modern Boris where he is either Medvyedev or Putin or a real Slava, slava one with robes & big hats.

    Cheek by jowl did a staging of the original Pushkin text in the Barbican London a few years ago...christ it was amazing...

  9. This is great help, thanks. To see the play must be a different kind of thing altogether... And I wonder if any of the new BG stagings change due to the fact that the present day historians deny Boris had anything to do with the tsarevitch murder. Even more sinister if BG is being driven mad by guilt for something he didn't do -- great dramatic possibilities. Gaslight-meets-Iago.

  10. i liked Markov´s singing very much in Boris Godunov, now he is singing in the queen of spades by tschaikovsky.


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