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Met’s ‘Boris Godunov’ and its criticsBY: Steve Cohen 10.23.2010
The Met’s new production of Boris Godunov has been criticized because it’s so long. Nonsense. At last we have a restoration of this epic of Russian history as Pushkin put it in words and as Mussorgsky transcribed it into music theater.
Boris Godunov. Opera by Modest Mussorgsky; directed by Stephen Wadsworth; Valery Gergiev, conductor. Through March 17, 2011 at Metropolitan Opera, Lincoln Center, Broadway and 66th St., New York. High-Definition transmissions to movie theaters October 25 and November 1, 20100. (212) 362-6000 or www.metoperafamily.org.
Boris, we hardly knew ye (until now)STEVE COHEN
The divergence of opinion about the Met’s new Boris Gudonov is unusually polarized– and surprising. After all, this production is a straightforward, conservative presentation.
Some patrons are put off by its length, since this production includes more music than usual. But Wagner’s Die Walkure and Gotterdämmerung, are longer than Boris. Verdi’s Don Carlo is routinely given in its five-act version and no one complains.
With Boris, as with Don Carlo, the composer sanctioned a revised version that omitted scenes that were included in the original production. But in our generation those cut scenes have been re-inserted. And when Verdi added music to older works, as he did with Simon Boccanegra, impresarios included the extra material. No one argues against that, either.
So why do some critics decry the decision to include all the scenes that Mussorgsky wrote for Boris in 1869 and in 1874? If they don’t want to see this almost-complete Boris, the masterpiece of Mussorgsky’s career, maybe these critics should stay home. Perhaps this epic of Russian history isn’t for them.
(It could have been even longer, by the way. Mussorgsky composed ten scenes over a period of years and this production uses nine of them.)
Alexander Pushkin, in his drama in verse, and Mussorgsky in his opera based on Pushkin created a drama of the downtrodden Russian people symmetrically overlaid with the personal story of an ambitious ruler tormented by his conscience– somewhat like Macbeth.
The Boris Godunov conducted at the Met by Valery Gergiev and directed by Stephen Wadsworth is musically and dramatically satisfying. Uniquely in my decades of Boris-going, the work unfolds in a balanced and cogent manner. The details in the chorus scenes provide the needed background for the sections that focus on the Tsar’s family and his court. And the complete Polish act contains plentiful detail that illuminates the selfish motives of the various parties who oppose Boris.
It’s hard to fathom how so much of this opera was censored during most of the 20th Century. It was presented as a family drama, and the common people’s story was relegated. Often the opera concluded with the death of Boris; audiences rarely saw Dmitri’s ascension to the throne or the continued discontent of the masses. The Polish act, too, was trimmed to just a romantic interlude, without enough examination of the maneuvering forces.
Now we have a restoration of the epic as Alexander Pushkin put it in words and as Mussorgsky transcribed it into music theater.
Wadsworth reinforces the historical idea by showing large maps and a large manuscript on which the monk, Pimen, is recording the history of his time. At one point, Boris’s young son Fyodor wraps a map around him as if it were a security blanket, a gesture that reminds us that the map represents his inheritance.
Mussorgsky coped with the story’s sprawling nature by writing music that created a connective tissue of sound. Wadsworth supports this by dovetailing scenes so the opera flows inexorably forward even when the focus shifts from forest to Kremlin or from starving rioters to Polish aristocrats. The concept’s effectiveness is largely due to evanescent lighting changes designed by Duane Schuler.
The most creative scene change is the transition from Boris’s death to the final crowd scene. As Boris dies quietly, the audience wants to applaud René Pape’s work; but we hesitate because of the silence.
Suddenly we hear cheering, from chorus members in the wings. Then the throng pours onto the stage, joyfully celebrating the defeat of Boris’s army. As they fill the stage, the body of Boris, his throne and his children disappear. Then the mob turns on Boris’s followers, beating, stabbing and strangling captured boyars and virtually raping a young woman follower of Boris. Wadsworth’s characterizations of individuals in the crowd are nicely detailed.
Unjustly maligned Mussorgsky
Mussorgsky’s original orchestrations here emerge as subtle and atmospheric— a revelation to those of us who were taught in our youth that the composer’s orchestrating was crude and therefore had to be replaced by the more accomplished (at least, the lusher) charts of Rimsky-Korsakov. Listen, for example, to Mussorgsky’s quiet, dissonant chord after Boris’s last words in Act III, his hallucination scene.
René Pape, the German bass, is superb as a wrenching Boris. He’s surrounded by a large number of excellent deep-voiced Russian singers, as well as the Russian lyric tenor Andrey Popov, as an appealing Holy Fool, and tenor Oleg Balashov as the scheming, double-dealing adviser, Shuisky. They know the idiom and their portrayals are completely satisfying.
More problematic is the Slavic dramatic tenor Aleksandr Antonenko as the False Dmitri. His leatherbound voice is too stolid, and he fails to project any romance in his wooing of the Polish princess, Marina.
She is sung and acted by Ekaterina Semenchuk who lacks a chesty lower voice but makes up for it, and ultimately wins me over, with her fine handling of the upper reaches of her part. She looks appropriately glamorous, and she was unorthodoxly erotic in her interaction with Evgeny Nikitin as Rangoni the Jesuit priest.
That brings me to the costuming, which is rich for the aristocracy and grungy for the masses– very impressively. The sets are simple— which doesn’t bother me as much as some other critics. The focus belongs on the people, not the scenery.♦
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