René Pape and Oleg Balashov in Boris Godunov Photo: Ken Howard/Met Opera 2010
Talk about déjà vu. Just about 48 hours after taking in the Metropolitan Opera’s large, but largely disappointing new Das Rheingold
, I found myself in virtually the same situation with the opening performance of the company’s new production of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov
. Outside of the fact that the latter was twice as long and in Russian, the strengths and weaknesses of the two shows were eerily similar. Perhaps the best news of the evening was the fantastic performance from René Pape in the title role. He was on his A-game this evening, steady and sure with a rich, booming tone and a nuanced, very physical performance overall. Undoubtedly a career defining moment for him, and the best I've heard him sing in a history of excellent performances. And this comes in the midst of an almost entirely Russian principal cast. Needless to say there were several other spectacular performances to marvel at including Mikhail Petrenko’s Pimen, Andrey Popov’s Holy Fool, and Ekaterina Semenchuk’s Marina. Grigory, the pretender to the throne, was sung by Aleksandrs Antonenko with vigor and plenty of volume if not a lot of subtlety and detail. But better than all this was the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra under Valery Gergiev. The typically great orchestra really outdid themselves on this evening with a performance as good as I’ve heard from the Mariinsky orchestra or any number of other ensembles. Gergiev knows Boris Godunov
inside and out, and his acumen paid off here spectacularly. The Met Opera Chorus excelled in some of the most important choral music in all opera.
What more could you want? Probably a production to go with it. Despite all these wonderful musical qualities, the production, and the evening as a whole, was another great big non-starter. It’s hard to know where to begin with this mess. As was widely reported earlier this year, the production’s original director, Peter Stein, dropped out only a few weeks before final rehearsals began over a visa spat. The Met turned to American Stephen Wadsworth to step in and make a coherent production at this point, largely relying on the costume designs, sets, and score that the rest of the still intact design team had already been working on for years. So it is not entirely his fault that the resulting hybrid work, part Wadsworth’s but with Stein’s indelible stamp, is rambling, obvious, and throws away many of its best assets.
One of the most unusual choices made early on was to develop a hybrid score using just about everything from Mussogrsky’s original 1869 version of the work as well as most of the additional scenes written for the 1872 revision. This everything-and
-the-kitchen-sink approach creates a very long Boris Godunov
that struggles for a sense of unity. I get the impression that the original goal here was to focus on Boris Godunov
as an opera first and foremost about the sweep of Russian history. The giant history text Pimen is working on at the start of the first act appears as a gaint book that is placed on the floor of the stage and remains there throughout with characters wrapping themselves in it at times or mangling it's pages in riots. The minimal sets consist of little more than gold-painted walls that are periodically removed to reveal a blank blue sky in the enclosed space. This is in contrast to the chorus' colorful costumes, which creates an overall effect reminiscent of Russian icon paintings. At first it is attractive but is very tiring after about 20 minutes. The stage action is otherwise predictable with people lolly-gagging around on huge maps and such.
Worst of all, the bonus material of Mussorgsky's later score dilutes the dramatic tension. Act III, "the Polish Act" recounts the pretenders seduction by a Polish princess and gives Pape a nice hour long break in the middle of the show. But while Grigory's interest is just perking up in this scene, ours is starting to flag. Worse yet, after the climactic final scene with Boris, we're treated to a violent riot of the peasants quelled only by the pretender's arrival. Talk about staying too long at the fair. In the end, the biggest problem with the production (and arguably with the opera itself) is wanting to have it both ways - both filled with the historical sweep and packed with psychological insight. In an effort to do both, neither is particularly accomplished. There was no booing I could hear on Monday when Wadsworth and the design team took their curtain call. Nor was there an enthusiastic cheer, suggesting that this Boris
was met with more ambivalence than feeling, never a good sign in any opera.
Labels: Met opera reviews 10/11