23 October 2010: Mussorgsky, Boris Godunov

Metropolitan Opera, broadcasting live in HD. Conductor, Valery Gergiev; production, Stephen Wadsworth; set designer, Ferdinand Wögerbauer; Marina, Ekaterina Semenchuk; Grigory, Aleksandrs Antonenko; Shiusky, Oleg Balashov; Rangoni, Evgeny Nikitin; Boris Godunov, René Pape; Pimen, Mikhail Petrenko; Varlaam, Vladimir Ognovenko; Shchelkalov, Alexey Markov; Holy Fool, Andrey Popov

An opera on an epic scale, this Metropolitan Opera production of Boris Godunov, indicated in the Met Opera guide as lasting 4 hours 25 minutes, timed out at 5 hours 10 minutes. It has something of the real distance, the long perspective that we tend to associate with epic drama and epic narration in general. Sheer length is a dominant factor. Over the five hours that Mussorgsky devotes to this large-scale story, we are vastly well entertained musically and dramatically by what might be described as two quite different kinds of opera, were it not for the additional fact that Mussorgsky distinguishes his work as much by what it does not contain as by what it does. The closest he comes to another composer’s style and approach is in the third act, set in a castle in Poland, which introduces a ravishing redheaded woman, a scheming, voluptuous, ambitious woman with an eye on the throne of Russia, whose love for the pretender to the throne, Grigory, is simultaneously a bid for political power — a perfect opportunity to compose an act fully in the manner of Tchaikovsky as in his Eugene Onegin, in which the hero and the heroine are passionately in love and hopelessly at odds. Mussorgsky being Mussorgsky, however, he fully adapts the more romantic Russian composer to his own style and purposes. Verdi would not know what to make of this, nor would any of the other grand Italian opera composers. There is not an aria to be found in this five-hour work. Nor do there seem to be motifs in the style of Wagner. What we have are constantly varying, self-renewing, fully expressive melodies that move in constantly shifting directions, as if they are being generated by the constantly progressive dialogue itself, which they convert into stirring, ever-modulating, richly orchestrated music.

Much of this music is choral music, sung by the Met Opera chorus, 150 strong, augmented by 40 extra singers hired for this one opera. It is truly magnificent choral music. In an interview between acts, the director of the chorus was asked what it was like to prepare his singers for this opera. He replied that it was the most difficult of all operas for which to prepare a chorus, partly because it is sung in Russian and also because there are so many singers that his work is not done once the curtain has risen; he must stand backstage, or just off in the wings, and conduct them himself. He did not specify how he coordinated this directing with the conductor of the Met orchestra, but one can imagine a TV monitor sequestered backstage which allows him to see Valery Gergiev as he works. Add to this the challenge presented to the stage director, Stephen Wadsworth, of how to place these singers so that they can act their way to conviction without compromising their ability to sing in unison or in harmony. It requires a singular talent to place such a large contingent of performers so that they do not look as if they are giving a concert; as we watch them, we must never for an instant be reminded of the Tanglewood Chorus. Wadsworth was completely successful in meeting this challenge, and he must have done so knowing that the camera work involving medium shots and close shots, and occasionally extreme close-ups, would put a burden on a chorus that might have preferred to be recording the opera for an audio CD. The fact is, this is a magnificent chorus, probably the best opera chorus in the world. They perform marvelously, both musically and dramatically, constantly maintaining their characters (they were apparently given specific characterizations by the director, at least in some general ways) and never missing a musical entrance meanwhile.

I will not attempt to summarize the plot of this grand opera. Let it suffice to say that, at the beginning of his adult life, Boris has murdered the infant heir to the throne, a secret transgression that will haunt him for the rest of his life. The people want him to become the czar, and, with seeming reluctance, he acquiesces. Over the next several years Boris attempts to atone for the terrible crime he has committed, but to no avail. He is threatened by a pretender to the throne, Grigory, a melancholy man, who claims to be that dead infant, Dimitri, now all grown up, brooding and unhappy himself, but ambitious and determined to gain the crown. There is talk of embattled forces on either side, but we are not treated to battles on an epic scale. The chorus represents, not an army, but the people of Russia, starving, grossly maltreated, and yet fiercely devoted to their czar.

Given this conflict, we might have been justified in expecting a kind of Shakespearean showdown; but no such eventuality occurs. Instead, what Mussorgsky emphasizes and concentrates on is the individuality of Boris and the generality, one might call it, of the pretender. We see that generality in proof in Act III. We are given that whole act, in which Grigory takes that long journey to Poland, finds himself entranced by the beautiful Marina, and determines to take her back to Moscow as his czarina. And yet we find out rather little about how this man works; it is only what he represents that is important. Marina is different; we are shown at length how her psyche operates, as she keeps at bay an extraordinarily fleshly Jesuit wearing a transparent mask of piety that only more lucidly reveals his lust for her, until Grigory arrives and is masterfully taken in hand by the Polish woman with whom he has fallen hopelessly in love and is given the strongest of hints of how it is going to be, once the two of them occupy the Russian throne. We see him, that is, mostly through Marina’s eyes and realize that, on the battlefield a man of steel and iron, in the palaces of princes he is going to turn out to be a pushover.

This, however, is something we have worked out for ourselves; it is not really Mussorgsky’s central occupation. He has no time for psychological analysis. He has larger fish to fry. The closing acts of the opera concern themselves with the thankless attempts of Boris to keep politics at bay while he prays fruitlessly to God for forgiveness, consoles his daughter over the death of her fiancé, and grooms his preadolescent son for the rigors of czardom. That is, much of what we get in the closing acts are the private parts of Boris’s life, as we see this now gaunt and rapidly aging man failing in his physical powers and, once it happens, dying. It is true, Act IV begins with the peasants (the splendid Met chorus on stage once again) debating whether Czarevich Dimitri is still alive, as they hear that the pretender’s troops are nearing. Boris enters and is accused of having murdered the infant czar-to-be long ago. He realizes there is nothing he can do to redeem himself. According to the plot summary, this act continues in the same location; but, thanks to the flexibility of his concept, the stage director has moved it indoors, emphasizing the personal and private nature of Boris’s plight. It is here, in the all but empty throne room, that Boris bids a loving farewell to his boy and falls dead. In a forest clearing (this is still Act IV — there is no Act V), we see Grigory and Marina arrive (on two white horses, which we have seen backstage during the previous intermission, being primed with carrots, followed by a man with a large pan and broom) on their way to claim the throne. An angry mob greets them, but they now recognize Grigory as the true, not the false, Dimitri, and proceed to follow him on his march to Moscow.

It is clear, and Mussorgsky’s music makes it abundantly so, that no good will come of this transition. The angry mob that we have seen (yes, once more, the tireless Met chorus) have demonstrated a colossal descent into barbarity: an elaborate display of mayhem and ruthless treatment of wounded and dying men and women is accompanied by extraordinarily fierce choral music. It is a stunning end to an unforgettable opera. One may well be immediately reminded of undergraduate world history lessons in which the instructor explains that the Russian character is ill-suited for democratic government. What the Russian people want is a strong, superabundantly imposing and powerful monarch who will take care of their every need. The consequent history of Russia is the history of such a monarch, under one guise or another (czar or totalitarian dictator), who takes care of his people for better or for ill — more often for ill than for better, and sometimes murdering millions of them. One of the most interesting characters in the opera is a Holy Fool, who seems mostly out of his mind, raving mad, and yet possessing insight into political and psychological truths that others would do well to pay attention to, but do not. At the end of the opera, the last character on stage is this Holy Fool, who, sorrowing, laments the bleak and uncertain fate of his country.

The opera is magnificently well sung. René Pape, a resonant, articulate German bass, tall and commanding in presence, the very model of a troubled, ill-fated czar, has wonderful deep notes and a terrific range. But there were half a dozen other male singers with voices almost as good as Pape’s, who were fully up to the inordinate demands placed on them by Mussorgsky’s music, an endurance contest if ever there was one. Antonenko, the Grigory, was one of the few tenors, and he had such a full, rich middle range that he seemed more like a baritone with ringing high notes. The only female voice of note was that of Ekaterina Semenchuk, the Marina, and she was a mezzo. Again, we see Mussorgsky running at brave right angles to the Italian, and for that matter French, convention. No Lucia or Tosca in sight anywhere on the Met stage this afternoon. So much the worse for convention, in this case.

A few words more about Stephen Wadsworth’s staging. He saw clearly that Mussorgsky’s opera is as much about the soul of Russia as it is about Boris Godunov and his fateful act. He collaborated with the set designer to use the deep and enormous Met stage as a wide, broad platform with square stone tiles seeming to cover much of its terrific expanse, and then bringing in platforms, wagons, and set pieces of various kinds, along with flats and other verticals flown in to represent a variety of locations, indoors and out, which could be swiftly cleared and replaced by something else, simultaneously tawdry and fascinating. Perhaps the most dominant and symbolic of the set pieces, properties so-called, was an enormous open book, as tall as a man and wider, in which the monk Pimen is laboriously writing a chronicle history of Russia. The scene is the monk’s cell in Chudov Monastery. Eventually the scene changes, but the book remains open on the floor, in a prominent place downstage, and from time to time is referred to and even read from. Then, toward the end of the opera, the pages are walked upon and torn. Clearly, we are to understand that the book represents Russia itself and the sad chronicle of its fruitless yearning for peace and enough to eat.

Wadsworth’s instincts are to be applauded. He is not an auteur, not a post-modern stage director who thinks he or she is a far more important creative artist than the author and is ready to impose a radical interpretation of the text, at whatever cost to its integrity. Wadsworth makes it his business to draw out meanings evident in the libretto and given great dimension by Mussorgsky’s music. The great expanse of the Met stage has been devoted to this purpose, and the great symbolic book of Russian history is one of its chief, most telling features. There is nothing strained or untoward about this symbolism; rather, it is a natural outgrowth of the text and the score of the opera itself. Bravo, to all concerned.


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An American Playgoer at Home by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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