Review: The Met’s “Boris Godunov”

Nothing less than the fate of all of Russia seemed to hang in the balance in the Metropolitan Opera’s new production of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov. The opera’s premise, like much in Russian literature, flows from the symbolic representations that serve a larger purpose—the body-racking guilt of the title character himself, the mind-numbing anguish of the Russian peasants, and the religious-driven machinations of behind-the-scenes characters. That larger purpose appears to be, at least from this production, the juxtaposition of those that seek to rule and those that are ruled. We must also ask ourselves:  did this particular production allow us to care? The answer to that seems to be a qualified…yes.

Equaling the anguish of Boris’s Russian peasants, perhaps, was the anguish of the Met management who was forced to endure the strange, last-minute departure of the production’s original stage director, Peter Stein. Assuming the reins was Stephen Wadsworth, known to Met audiences for his productions of Handel’s Rodelinda and Gluck’s Iphigènie en Tauride. Saddled with the bleakly minimal abstract set (Ferdinand Wögerbauer) already designed under his predecessor and a somewhat baffling historical amalgam of costumes (Moidele Bickel) already constructed, Wadsworth unselfishly set about to prepare the feast that is Boris Godunov in someone else’s kitchen.

Anguishing, too (but perhaps understandable given the circumstances), was the pace and quality of Wadsworth’s movement for both his characters and the chorus of Russian people. I can only surmise that Wadsworth, scrambling to find motivations for crowd movement during preparation, may have taken in a few too many Sergei Eisenstein’s silent films. The crowd blocking became just a bit too predictable and the final scene of mob brutality was more than a little cartoonish. Some subtle stage business that would later be apparent in HD broadcasts was lost in the deep expanse of the Met, and in the equally deep expanse of Mussorgsky’s extended musical illustrations.

The exceedingly strong cast did everything possible to make those illustrations work. René Pape, as Boris, was a mesmerizing force of dual strengths. As a singing actor, Pape let the guilt of his character’s past misdeeds press down on his shoulders, confining him to slow, angular movement. In his death scene, he gives a portrayal so devoid of melodrama, it is chilling and gut-wrenching. As an acting singer, though, Pape gave a rich vocal depiction that came from a place deep inside where a troubled soul churns in darkness. His ability to capture the vocal dark anguish of Russia was amazing.

The remaining cast of Russian singers was solidly impressive, not just for their vocal impact but also for theatrically substantial performances. These are Russian faces that seem sculpted by their national history. Story exposition flows from the monk Pimen (the wonderful bass Mikhail Petrenko), tortured by history, who is writing the symbolic, and brilliantly oversized, “book of Russia.”

The pretender to the throne, Grigory, was sung by the strong tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko. I struggled with a bit of Antonenko’s character development and his motivation for movement; he tended to pace about instead of letting body language paint his character. Like the other singers, though, his diction was impeccable. In this bass-heavy cast, the mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Semenchuk gave her Marina, the Polish princess supporting Grigory as pretender to the throne, a strong, but still feminine portrayal.

While the role of the Holy Fool has often devolved into one of comic relief in some productions that come to mind, tenor Andrei Popov, with his wonderfully angular face, along with director Wadsworth, would have nothing of that. This character comes to symbolize the confusion of the Russian people being squeezed between the heavy hand of religious obligation and the uncaring political forces of the ruling class. The closing image of the opera is a heart-breaker. The Holy Fool stretches out his arms in a plea—a plea that is left for the audience to fathom.

Amazingly, despite the perceived heavy nature of the Russian language and the abundance of lower register voices, Mussorgsky’s score is wonderfully lyrical and full of comfortably textured orchestration. Conductor Valery Gergiev did not exert a heavy hand in this production, but produced a carefully woven cloth of color and instrumental flavor. In many ways, Gergiev countered the harsh reality of the text’s lament, anguish, and pessimism, by keeping the orchestral colors—bright with woodwinds and rich with the low strings—clean, sharp, and in constant motion.  And, Gergiev admitted during a recent interview that the Met orchestra is one of the world’s great orchestras. Yes, that goes without saying.

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