René Pape as Boris (photo by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)
Composed by Modest Mussorgsky
Conducted by Valery Gergiev
Directed by Stephen Wadsworth
Starring René Pape, Aleksandrs Antonenko, Vladimir Ognovenko, Mikhail Petrenko, Andrey Popov, Ekaterina Semenchuk
October 11, 15, 23, 25, 30, 2010; March 9, 12, 17, 2011
Mussorgsky’s classic Boris Godunov has been kicking around in versions made after the composer’s death, notably the famous Rimsky-Korsakov orchestration (Shostakovich also did one). Now that Mussorgsky’s own version of his powerful epic work has made a comeback in opera houses and on recordings, his dramatic achievement can be more readily appreciated.
Based on Pushkin’s play, Mussorgsky’s opera follows the 17th century Russian tsar whose problematic reign was haunted by his guilt over how he first assumed power. It begins before Boris is crowned ruler and ends after his death. In one of the most haunting scenes in any opera, the Russian people celebrate the ascension of the pretender to Boris’ throne, the cunning monk Grigory, who has fooled many into believing that he is Dmitry, the long-dead son of the previous tsar, whom Boris killed, returning to rightfully reclaim the throne. Only the Holy Fool foresees trouble: his sad lament for Russia’s future ends the opera on a plaintive note.
Valery Gergiev leads the Met Orchestra in a thrilling account of Mussorgsky’s score; in addition to the hefty orchestral sections, there are equally brawny choral parts for the superlative 120-strong Met Chorus. The splendid cast is led by German bass René Pape, whose Boris is both a force of nature and an introspective father: his near-mad scene in the final act, when he disorientedly calls out to the dead tsarevich, is transcendent; with his shaggy, long hair and wild eyes, he resembled King Lear lost in a storm on the heath, which in Stephen Wadsworth’s intelligently interpreted staging, he could have been.
Others registering strongly both vocally and dramatically are Andrey Popov’s Holy Fool, Ekaterina Semenchuk’s Marina (the Polish noblewoman who becomes Dmitry’s betrothed), Aleksandrs Antonenko’s Grigory/Dmitry and Oleg Balashov’s Prince Shuisky, Boris’ closest advisor.
Visually, the production is dominated by Moidele Bickel’s dazzling period costumes, which more than compensate for Ferdinand Wögerbauer’s makeshift set design: we don’t need replicas of St. Basil’s or the Kremlin’s cathedrals, but something more than walls standing in for various buildings and a most un-Tsar-like throne room would have sufficed. But it’s Mussorgsky’s masterly music that makes Boris Godunov a masterpiece, and the Met, with Gergiev leading the charge, has given the composer his belated due by performing his own 1875 version with crucial additions from the original 1869 edition.