A New Boris Godunov at the Met

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René Pape in the title role in Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov. Photo Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

René Pape in the title role in Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov. Photo Ken Howard/Metropolitan OperaRené Pape in the title role in Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov. Photo Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

René Pape in the title role in Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov. Photo Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

Modest Mussorgsky (music and libretto), Boris Godunov
Metropolitan Opera House: 10/18/2010.

Boris Godunov – René Pape
Prince Shuisky – Oleg Balashov
Pimen – Mikhail Petrenko
Grigory – Aleksandrs Antonenko
Marina – Ekaterina Semenchuk
Rangoni – Evgeny Nikitin
Varlaam – Vladimir Ognovenko
Simpleton* – Andrey Popov
Nikitich – Valerian Ruminski
Mitiukha – Mikhail Svetlov
Shchelkalov – Alexey Markov
Innkeeper – Olga Savova
Missail – Nikolai Gassiev
Officer – Gennady Bezzubenkov
Xenia – Jennifer Zetlan
Feodor – .Jonathan A. Makepeace
Nurse – Larisa Shevchenko
Khrushchov – Dennis Petersen
Lavitsky – Andrew Oakden
Chernikovsky – Mark Schowalter
Boyar in Attendance – Brian Frutiger

Conductor – Valery Gergiev
Met Opera Orchestra and Chorus

Production – Stephen Wadsworth
Set Designer – Ferdinand Wögerbauer
Costume Designer – Moidele Bickel
Lighting Designer – Duane Schuler
Choreographer – Apostolia Tsolaki

Today science fiction seems to have replaced history as the field in which the great truths of our inner and social lives are reflected, and historicism, as it evolved in the nineteenth century, is no longer a tangible part of our world. This is not to say that the discipline has died out or even declined, but the historical perspective which for a century or so stood as the foundation of people’s perception of their world, became a branch of philosophy, and permeated fiction, poetry, and theatre is no longer so essential to us. And this, in turn, is not to say that great history is no longer being written, or that people don’t reach for historical books with some urgency, or that historical fiction is no longer popular. Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov is a powerful case in point. It even stands apart from the rest of nineteenth century historical opera in the seriousness of the composer-librettist’s faith in history as a potent subject in itself. In other prominent examples of this immensely popular genre — Rossini’s Guillaume Tell, Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux, Wagner’s Rienzi, Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots, Verdi’s Don Carlo, and Tchaikovsky’s Mazeppa — either political commentary of a revolutionary tinge or a manufactured love interest, both of which might be characterized as Romantic “entertainment values,” mediated between history per se and the operatic stage. Mussorgsky avoided the Romantic conventions set in motion by Schiller, Scott, Bulwer-Lytton, and Hugo, reaching out for a more sober kind of history, which would serve the Russian nation best and raise his opera to the highest intellectual level.

In this Mussorgsky drew on concepts developed by Nikolai Mikhailovich Karamzin, whose History of the Russian State was both rich in documentation and written for a broad audience. It enjoyed such authority at the time that it was taught in schools. One can get an idea of the importance Karamzin attached to his work in a statement he made in his Preface: “In a certain sense history is the sacred book of peoples, its main and indispensable book…a supplement and explanation of the present and an example for the future.” For him, the course of Russian history was the combined product of divine will and the character and circumstances of the protagonists, above all the Tsars, who were for Russians human mediators with God. The reign of Boris Godunov was especially important to Karamzin in that it prepared the way for the accession of the Romanov dynasty to the throne, and he regarded their enlightened ideas and policies as a sign of progress and the greatness of the Russian state. Karamzin and virtually all his contemporaries believed the story that Boris Godunov, a commoner whose sister married Ivan IV the Terrible’s feeble-minded son, Fyodor, as the most likely suspect in the death by knife-wound of Ivan’s nine-year-old son Dmitry. This murder cleared his way to the throne, supposedly, although Dmitry’s own legitimacy was questionable, since he was the offspring of Ivan’s seventh marriage, and the Orthodox Church recognized only three as marriages. Hence for Karamzin Boris reigned without divine grace under a cloud of guilt, and in his account of it he stresses psychological portraiture and moral example — the basis for Mussorgsky’s overwhelming portrayal of his protagonist, which has given his opera a secure place on the operatic stage for many years.

I have chosen to stress this because the power of Mussorgsky’s character and his value as a vehicle for basses tends to diminish the historical sweep of the opera, which begins among the people, themselves protagonists in the opera, and ends with them, after Boris’ death. The new Met production balanced these elements especially well, providing a fitting and solid foundation for the story. If not every scene in the production lives up to this, it is not the fault of carelessness or misguided notions of the work or of opera production in general, and it should be possible to correct the shortcomings in a revival, when its estimable director, Stephen Wadsworth will have more time to perfect it. As everyone knows, Peter Stein was to have directed this production, but difficulties with US immigration and the Met administration caused him to bow out in July, and Mr. Wadsworth has proven himself a true gentleman and scholar by taking the production on at such short notice. The sets and costumes, designed by Ferdinand Wögerbauer and Moidele Bickel, both regular collaborators of Stein’s, had already been made, and he himself had already put in his hand. I have the highest respect for Stephen Wadsworth, whose supremely intelligent and thoroughly thought-out Ring at the Seattle Opera is the most satisfying we have these days, but there is no denying that it would have been a great feather in the Met’s cap to have a production by Peter Stein, one of the great European directors. His all-night Oresteia in the Roman theatre at Ostia Antica will remain one of my fondest memories, and not only because of the generous flasks of red wine that made the tragedy very much πρὸς τὸν Διόνυσον. (Oddly, with his specialization in marathon performances, Stein would have been an obvious choice for the Ring, a new production of which has just been launched at the Met.) Many artists and academics who have come to work in the US in recent years have had harrowing stories to tell, and Herr Stein has doubtless heard some of them. Ultimately, he seems to have been unhappy with working procedures at the Met, which he called “a factory.”

While Mr. Wadsworth began by informing himself about Stein’s approach, he did his best to follow his own thoughts, which seem to be thoroughly sensible, if less experimental than his predecessor’s. While he set his own stamp — most brilliantly — on the final scene, the sets, which often required shallow stages and cut-out spaces, often seemed to constrain him, and the lack of preparation time seemed apparent in some scenes. Even if he did not work miracles (and who can expect that of him in less that three months?), his thoughtfulness and insight were clear throughout the evening, and this Boris is no doubt a major positive achievement in his career. Peter Gelb should give him everything he needs to make a revival everything he wants it to be. The stark sets would not seem to be to Wadsworth’s taste, given the rich environment he worked in at Seattle, while the sumptuous costumes could be fully effective in many different styles of production.

Actually it is odd that Wadsworth should encounter difficulties on shallow sets — a fashionable trend these days, but often effective — since he managed them so well in his Ring. His use of such a set in Götterdämmerung, a magnificent early medieval Hall of the Gibichungs, was absolutely brilliant, the finest treatment of those scenes I have seen on stage. I can only assume it was a matter of Wadsworth’s tight schedule. For example, the St. Basil’s Scene (IV.1) looked constricted and somewhat confused in its earlier part, although this proved very effective when the police appeared and pinned the crowd against the wall of the cathedral. The problem was occasionally apparent earlier in the Coronation Scene (Prologue.2), but Act III, comprising the scenes at Sandomir Castle in Poland, was quite strange. The first scene, set in Marina Mniszek’s dressing room, and the second scene in the garden were played out on the same set, which consisted of three receding spaces marked by arcades. The chorus and dancers were confined (and I mean that literally!) in the middle of these and were barely visible behind the figures in the front. (I was sitting in the center section of the orchestra, so I had an excellent sight line.) One might conclude that the purpose was to conceal bad dancing or choreography, but the effect was an excess of activity and confusion. If I were Apostolia Tsolaki, the choreographer, who was making her Met debut, I’d not have been happy with this. On the other hand, one could not fault the intimate scenes in Boris’ apartment in the Kremlin, and the concluding scene in Kromy Forest was a masterpiece, aided by an open stage and an exceptional amount of concentrated work. The movement and composition of the crowd, one of Wadsworth’s usual fortes, was meticulous and a delight to behold. One cannot fault the decision to make the most of this important scene, but more polish in the earlier scenes would have created more confidence among the audience. However fascinating Peter Stein’s production may have been, Stephen Wadsworth’s is going in the right direction…but it still has a way to go.

Andrey Popov as the Holy Fool, René Pape as Boris, and Oleg Balashov as Shuisky in Mussorgsky'€™s Boris Godunov. Photo Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.

Andrey Popov as the Holy Fool, René Pape as Boris, and Oleg Balashov as Shuisky in Mussorgsky'€™s Boris Godunov. Photo Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.

I should add that Wadsworth has a few trademark devices, which he likes to reuse from one production to the next. I like them both, although they can be distracting in certain contexts. First he likes to compose certain scenes, namely those with less than twenty soloists and extras in them and on shallow stages, with figures arranged in static, quattrocentesque tableaux. Both poses and costumes pay hommage to Masaccio and Piero della Francesca, which shows excellent taste, I think. Wadsworth shows no interest, however, in the perspectival science which produced such depth in the Renaissance originals — which is not a fault of course. Secondly he shows a fondness for horses, especially very beautiful ones. In Kromy Forest, Marina and the Pretender arrive on gorgeous, sturdy animals to survey the scene. Both were attentively soothed by professional handlers, while all hell broke loose in the music and their surroundings on stage. In Götterdämmerung poor Grane witnessed the end of the world, retaining a noble calm all through it. At the time I could only think of what a pity it was that such a beautiful and noble animal should be destroyed, and I forgot all about Brünnhilde and the rest. I thought that a distraction at the time, but perhaps that is what Mr. Wadsworth wanted. In Boris, the animals patiently did their job of carrying the powerful and the power-greedy about, as the Russian people suffered and agitated.

While the production showed potential greatness, Valery Gergiev’s work in the pit was undeniably great. He managed Mussorgsky’s original score with an almost superhuman confidence and fluency. [1] Of course he has championed Mussorgsky’s own orchestrations for many years, and he obviously understands them profoundly, not to mention Mussorgsky’s Russian text and his abrupt dramaturgy. Perhaps this kind of understanding of Mussorgsky’s words is essential to understanding his music. Between Gergiev’s perfect balances and the superb playing of the Met Orchestra, Mussorgsky’s plain score sounded exceptionally beautiful, shifting from transparency to violent impact and accompanying the narrative like an eloquent historian of the Romantic age. Did Mussorgsky actually mean to embody Karamzin in the orchestra, as a narrative and interpretive level that followed and explained his characters’ passions? In any case Gergiev’s reading seemed as close to perfection as one can get.

Then why on earth were the sung performances so far from perfect in effect, as excellent as they were individually, both as singing and acting. René Pape, who is without a question one of our finest singers, sang with refinement and lyrical appeal, and his voice was close to, if not quite at its top form. (Some of his mezzo voce, whispered, and gasped lines failed to project.) His interpretation favored the pathetic side of Boris and rather neglected his more dangerous moods. With him were some of the best Russian singers, Petrenko, Nikitin, Popov, and others, and they sang and acted to perfection. The Latvian tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko sang with a fine heroic voice (as unheroic as his part, the Pretender, or false Dmitry is), although his high notes in the Garden Scene were thin and scratchy. Ekaterina Semenchuk as Marina sang magnificently. Although no better than the other greats in the cast, her performance seemed to be the only one that was somehow impervious to the problems of the ensemble. What could the problem have been? Surely the changes and pressures of the preparation, rather than the inadequacy of any individual, although I can point to one scene, Act I, sc. 2, in which the perversely constrained proportions of the set, restricted by the backdrop to a corner in front stage right, made for a claustrophobic and hyperactive environment that undermined the singers’ fine work. What’s more, as in this scene, there are intense interchanges in Boris, but none of the subtle and fluent ensembles we know in Mozart, Wagner, or any of the great western European composers between them. Dramaturgically, Tchaikovsky’s exquisitely modulated ensembles in Eugene Onegin must be the very opposite of what Mussorgsky was trying to achieve. His unique  theatrical aims are indeed extremely difficult to realize.

I should also note that Mussorgsky’s own, now standard 1872 score was performed, but with the insertion of the 1869 version of Boris’ monologue in Act II and the St. Basil’s scene, also from 1869, as Act IV sc. 1, following a common practice initiated by the Moscow Bolshoi Theatre. In 1925 they commissioned Mikhail Ippolitov-lvanov to make an orchestration of the scene suitable for insertion into the then standard Rimsky- Korsakov edition, which, although repudiated today, lingers on in this conflation. Richard Taruskin has pointed out that Mussorgsky never intended the St. Basil’s scene and the Kromy Forest scene to be performed together. Although at least three generations of Boris-lovers are used to the extra scene, it may well create an additional obstacle to dramatic success. Producers are less ruthless in killing their darlings than the original creators.

Boris Godunov, if one tries to achieve more than a simple star vehicle, must surely be one of the most difficult operas to perform, but none of the flaws in the Met’s new production seem insurmountable.

[1] Until the mid 1970’s Rimsky-Korsakov’s adaptation had become standard in opera houses, primarily his second version of 1908, which improved on his first version of 1896. There were some revolts against his authority, by Shostakovich in1939–40, used mainly at the Kirov Theatre since 1960, and by Karol Rathaus, commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera in 1952, and used there for two decades until the famous adoption of the original score in 1974. Today the Rimsky-Korsakov version is a rarity. Some still prefer it, and it is worth hearing. One of the better, if rather Wagnerized sources is the 1970 Vienna recording (Decca 747902), with Nicolai Ghiaurov in the title role and Herbert von Karajan conducting.


About the author

Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

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