Met’s new production delivers a bleak yet nuanced “Boris”

October 13, 2010
By Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim

Rene Pape in the title role of the Metropolitan Opera's new production of Mussorgsky's "Boris Godunov." Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

For one brief moment, towards the end of the Prologue of the Met’s new production of Boris Godunov, the huge chorus of Russian commoners turns to face the auditorium. They have been corralled to the steps of the Novodievichy Monastery by police wielding whips and forced to shout slogans in support of Boris all day; they have been denied rest and water, they have been called half-wits; one of their own has been clubbed to death by a sneering officer. Now they are told to disperse and report to the Kremlin the next morning ready to cheer again: perhaps then Boris will be tsar. “We must do as they say,” they sing, standing stock still as they stare out at the audience in their plush seats.

It’s an arresting moment and one that could have spelled the beginning of the kind of Boris Godunov popularized in the Soviet era, a folk drama about the oppression of the Russian people at the hands of unjust rulers, which will end, four and a half hours later, with the first stirrings of revolution. But the production by Stephen Wadsworth, who took over the sets and costumes designed by Peter Stein when the German director resigned in a huff over U.S. immigration policies last July, offers a much more nuanced picture of the unholy symbiosis of rulers and subjects in seventeenth-century Russia. In this tense and bleak drama, it is not only the tsar who came to power through the murder of the seven-year-old heir to the throne and is tormented by guilt who elicits conflicting emotions on the part of the viewer, but the people too, by turns pious and noble, boorish and cruel.

It is fitting, then, that the two stars of this production are René Pape and the Metropolitan Opera Chorus — the tsar and the mob, locked in a stranglehold embrace born out of need and fear.

Pape has sung Boris in recent productions in Dresden and Berlin, but this is his first time singing the 1874 version – with the addition of the St Basil’s scene from the original 1869 version – which forms the basis for the Met’s production.

A regal appearance standing well over six feet tall with long, tangled hair, Pape had a shaky beginning on Monday evening, struggling with intonation in his prayer monologue during the coronation scene and oversinging some early high notes. But by the time he reappeared in the second act he was in full command of his powerful, dramatic bass, letting it soar as he surveyed the maps of his empire — “like looking down from the clouds” — in a show of political power and paternal pride that made his ensuing descent into madness all the more riveting. Pape is able to convey intensity independently of volume, and knows how to build up dramatic tension over the course of his long monologues.

The enormous crowd scenes were skillfully directed by choreographer Apostolia Tsolaki, who made the most of the clean open spaces afforded by Ferdinand Wögerbauer’s minimalist but evocative sets. Their simplicity drew the eye to the gorgeous costumes by Moidele Bickel, a designer whose work includes the Oscar-nominated costumes for La Reine Margot, a film characterized by even more excessive levels of opulence and brutality than Boris. Here, she had the crowd dressed in rich shades of russet and mustard with flashes of turquoise and the boyars in spectacular embroidered coats, while Boris, in the final scene, wears a coat so heavily lined with fur that you can virtually feel the weight of responsibility pressing down on him.

The counterweight to Boris’ throne is a book – quite literally, for the six-foot high tome in which Pimen, sung with a velvety bass by Mikhail Petrenko, writes his chronicle of Russian history is so hefty that it is hard to imagine anyone being able to lift it, much less an ascetic monk. Perhaps that is why the book remains on stage for the remainder of the opera’s Russian scenes, serving by turn as a prayer rug, stumbling block and make-shift shelter to the characters.

In an opera dominated by great basses, it should be easy for any tenor to make the role of Grigory, the monk-turned-pretender to the throne, stand out, but Aleksandrs Antonenko mostly failed by trying too hard vocally, and adding too little by way of convincing acting. Antonenko has a pleasing bright tenor, shimmering with head tones, but his melting delivery sometimes hovers on the border of schmaltz, an appropriate tone perhaps for his love duet with Marina in Act III, but out of place in the monastery. His somewhat plodding physical presence was underscored – to nice effect – in the final scene, where he stands amid the rioting rabble while Marina and the Jesuit Rangoni ride by on white horses.

Ekaterina Semenchuk made a dashing Marina both visually and vocally, though her rich, dark golden mezzo sometimes seemed to get the better of her diction. The dynamic between her and Rangoni, sung with suitably Mephistophelian subtlety by Evgeny Nikitin, was the only truly convincing aspect of an otherwise jarring Polish Scene in which the costumes and garden benches were 200 years ahead of the rest of the opera. While the portrayal of the West as immoral, pleasure-seeking and casually imperialist is certainly true to Mussorgsky’s vision, in Stein’s vision – for it must have predated Wadsworth’s involvement – it is literally another planet. Catherine the Great, the message seems to be, should never have bothered trying to bring the Enlightenment to Mother Russia.

Fortunately, that benighted backward people is granted a more subtle treatment, and it is here that the musical direction of Valery Gergiev really came into its own. Forgoing the various attempts at “improving” Mussorgsky’s score by such composers as Rimsky-Korsakov and Shostakovich, Gergiev dug deep to bring out the earthy humor and sly wit of the footsoldiers of Russian history, with rough string chords devoid of vibrato accompanying Nikolai Gassiev’s cunning Missail, and bleating winds coloring the nonsense songs of Larisa Shevchenko’s bubbling, ebullient nanny.

But Gergiev is also capable of reaching for high drama, such as in Act IV when Pimen enters to deliver the death blow to Boris with his tale of the graveside miracle over the sound of lush violins indulging in big portamenti – the sound of Fate with a capital “F.” Boris’ death, though, is made all the more devastating by leaving fate out of it: he dies not because it is written, but as a consequence of individual responsibility, collapsing halfway between his throne and the enormous, open book. In the ensuing scene of mob violence – and what graphic violence this is, with people being stabbed, slashed, hanged and beaten to death on stage – the book, too, is dismembered and violated. The Holy Fool, sung with simple transparency by Andrey Popov, is left to lament the fate of a people unable to govern itself and unwilling to heed the lessons of history.

Boris Godunov runs at the Metropolitan Opera House through Oct. 30; and again from March 9-17, 2011. (212) 362-6000;

One Response to “Met’s new production delivers a bleak yet nuanced “Boris””

  1. Posted Oct 19, 2010 at 9:07 pm by Edward Albert

    This reviewer is excellent: understanding eyes & ears; brilliant language skills. I agree with everything she says in this “Boris” review except her assessment of tenor Antonenko; but I respect her right to an opinion different from mine. This gal knows her stuff.