Tuesday, 26 June 2018

Mussorgsky - Boris Godunov (Paris, 2018)

Modest Mussorgsky - Boris Godunov

L’Opéra national de Paris, 2018

Vladimir Jurowski, Ivo van Hove, Ildar Abdrazakov, Evdokia Malevskaya, Ruzan Mantashyan, Alexandra Durseneva, Maxim Paster, Boris Pinkhasovich, Ain Anger, Dmitry Golovnin, Evgeny Nikitin, Peter Bronder, Elena Manistina, Vasily Efimov, Mikhail Timoshenko, Maxim Mikhailov, Luca Sannai

Culturebox - 7 June 2018

There's a sense of the epic in Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov that is entirely in keeping with the importance of the period in Russian history and with the nature of the Russian characteristics displayed in it. What is also essential about Mussorgsky's epic vision for the work is its ability not just to capture a sense of intimacy and personal conflict within that historical drama - a common enough characteristic in opera - but how he is able to make those personal sentiments just as grand and epic without losing their human character. Mussorgsky takes human sentiments of sadness, regret, guilt and internal conflict and gives them a Macbeth-like Shakespearean depth and complexity on a scale that befits their importance.

You get a sense of that right from the start in the opera, with the people of Russia calling out in chorus for him to be their new ruler. You also get a sense of how Boris feels about this from his very first line: "My soul grieves". He has a heavy duty to perform to live up to the expectations of the Russian people and do them justice, but there is also a sense of guilt and remorse for the manner in which he has come to power, with rumours already accusing him of murdering the young Tsarevitch Dmitriy from the line of Ivan the Terrible to ascend to the throne himself. An accumulation of misfortune and other forces, including the rise of a Pretender to the throne in Lithuania, turns the people against Godunov, and the combined results strike the Tsar in deeply troubling ways.

Finding a balance of scale between epic and intimate is one matter, but there is also the consideration of which version of Boris Godunov is the most authentic and effective in achieving the necessary impact. Historically it's been the revised 1872 version that has been most commonly used, and understandably so as it contains many extensions to Mussorgsky's brilliant score, but Rimsky-Korsakov's reworking of the original materials has also been popular. Gradually however, we are seeing more productions of the original 1869 version, commonly with a few additions from the revised 1872 version that are deemed too good to be left out.

The 2018 Paris production however, directed by Ivo van Hove and conducted by Vladimir Jurowski, takes very much a purist approach by sticking to the complete 1869 original version of Boris Godunov, with no Polish Act nor any of the 1872 additions. It's purist at least in musical terms, but clearly with the controversial Belgian theatre director Ivo van Hove involved in the project it's going to be anything but purist as far as the staging goes. That presents an intriguing team that should find a good balance between the grandly epic and the deeper underlying personal sentiments and in many respects both sides of the work are well represented, but the production seems to be more effective for the choice of the stripped down force of the 1869 version than for anything that Jurowski or van Hove bring to the work.

As is usually the case with this director, Ivo van Hove relies on a minimal staging, abstract-modern with no period or historical trappings. The use of the space, opened up with back projections of the Russian people and landscapes that are mirrored to the sides, permits a sense of epic scale that can also close the work down to a more intimate level of intensity. A staircase is often present, leading up and also leading down beneath the stage, the symbolism of which is clearly apparent, representing rise and fall, and the separation of the ruling classes from the people. Other scenes are effectively austere, such as between Pimen and Grigoriy in the cell of the monastery in Chudov, needing no further elaboration than two people in near-darkness recounting events in words and divulging the thoughts that run through their minds.

How much of the success in getting this across is down to effective direction, how much is down to the musical performance and how much of this is simply down to the power of the story and Mussorgsky's scoring of it is debatable, but it seems to me that it's Mussorgsky's score that does the bulk of the work. Even then Jurowski's conducting seems rather restrained and unfocussed, although it's hard to judge fairly from an internet stream (I'll be listening again more closely to the live radio broadcast on France Musique this weekend), and yet there's no question that the drama and the dynamic is all there. Likewise Ivo van Hove doesn't seem to bring much to an interpretation of the drama, but it doesn't get in the way of it either.

There are a few stylistic touches applied, but perhaps the only significant twist is at the conclusion. Not only does Boris Godunov finally and dramatically succumb to the pressures of family problems, famine blighting the country and growing instability in his mind over his murder of Dmitriy, but his son dies too at the hand of the Pretender Grigoriy. It's a dark dramatic moment that doubles down on the music that Mussorgsky provides for this finale and, as Boris's son's reign was indeed cut short in deference to the False Dmitriy, it even effectively conveys the suggestion in Mussorgsky's music that the conflict and turmoil of this historical period is far from over.

Ideally you want a Russian cast in Boris Godunov for maximum effectiveness, at least in the principal roles, and there's little to find fault with in team assembled for the Paris production. Ildar Abdrazakov is perhaps a little too smooth and lacking the necessary depth and edge to get across the full conflict of Boris Godunov. He sings the role well, but there's not enough emotion in the voice and too much overplaying in the acting to try to compensate for it. Ain Anger is an appropriately grave austere and occasionally ominous Pimen, there's a similar good balance of restraint and gravity in Maxim Paster's Shuysky, and Vasily Efimov brings vocal colour and some hard truths as the Holy Fool. Lots to enjoy in the singing performances then with strong a strong chorus combining to make a convincing case for the original 1869 version of Boris Godunov becoming the canonical version of this great work.

Links: L’Opéra de Paris, Culturebox