Modest Mussorgsky - Boris Godunov
The Metropolitan Opera, New York - 2021
Sebastian Weigle, Stephen Wadsworth, René Pape, Ain Anger, Maxim Paster, David Butt Philip, Aleksey Bogdanov, Ryan Speedo Green, Miles Mykkanen, Richard Bernstein, Bradley Garvin, Tichina Vaughn, Brenton Ryan, Kevin Burdette, Erika Baikoff, Megan Marino, Eve Gigliotti, Mark Schowalter
The Met: Live in HD - 9th October 2021
The opportunity to see a staged performance of the original 1869 version of Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov - even in a streamed live performance from the Met in New York - is something that should not be missed. Up until recently, you would have been more likely to see the 1872 revised version or a hybrid of both versions, but rarely nowadays (I haven't seen or heard one in my time watching opera) the Rimsky-Korsakov version. Watching Mussorgsky's original version of the work in a staging at the Paris opera in 2018, was something of a revelation and a sign that it could very easily become the canonical version of the work. The Met's production consolidates that reputation somewhat, but there are still a few reservations about how to best present this problematic opera.
There are certainly valid reasons why the later revisions of the opera where more favoured. Obviously no one wants to lose the additional music and scenes that Mussorgsky composed for the 1872 version, but principally there's the fact that the original wasn't considered to hold together dramatically. There's validity in that and it is something that is confirmed by the Stephen Wadsworth's production, but what is also confirmed from the Met's performance of the work - as it was in Ivo van Hove's rather more successful staging of the work in Paris - is that even in its 'embryonic' form Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov is still indisputably a masterpiece.
The Met production consequently struggles to find a way to reconcile this contradiction between the quality of the music and the challenges of representing the dramatic material. Where Ivo van Hove was perhaps more successful than Wadsworth is in the efforts he makes to make the stakes of the drama feel more real - and indeed dramatic - by presenting it in a more recognisable context than the Russian history of the years 1598 to 1605. There are obvious connections to the modern world that can be made in a ruler's handling and manipulation of the people, and how that reliance on populism can turn just as quickly against him, but Wadsworth's production - like most 'safe' Met productions - makes no effort to even hint that there is still relevance in this situation today.
The closest we get to a representation of the context of the rule of Boris Godunov within the tides of history is one that fortunately, Mussorgsky (or perhaps more accurately, Pushkin, the author of the original work the opera is based on) included with the character of Pimen, the monk who is compiling a book of Russian history. This is presented as a huge oversize volume and maps spread out on the stage, testifying to the importance of this period of Russian history, its significance and the lessons we can learn from it. Some indication of where that might go might have made more of this, but it's effective on its own terms.
As generally is the stage production as a whole, setting the mood well and generally matching the dark tone of the work, filling the huge Met stage with the chorus, putting the all-important Russian folk onto the stage. Inevitably, despite the high production values, it does feels a little am-dram period, static and 'stagy' in its depictions of the drama. It doesn't really bare any teeth to really get across just how turbulent and violent this post Ivan the Terrible period of history is. Where is it perhaps most lacking however is in its failure to make the opera work on a dramatic level. That might be as much to do with the nature of the original 1869 version as it is with any deficiencies in the direction, but it still feels dramatically disjointed and incomplete.
Part of the problem for that could be down to the fact that Wadsworth's production was originally created at the Met for performances of the longer 1872 version, so in parallel with the removal of Mussorgsky's added scenes, the production also suffers the same cuts. I don't know whether Wadsworth was involved in the reworking of the cut-back production, there would certainly be some necessary changes made. There is perhaps an extended role for the Holy Fool, present spinning and whirling, mocking Boris even in his coronation scene, a representation of his own folly and madness, an attempt to give the drama additional weight by tying it into the dark Shakespearean horrors of Macbeth and King Lear.
Whether the stage production satisfies or not, the success of the production is nonetheless assured under the musical direction of conductor Sebastian Weigle. Musically, its an absolute treat, if somewhat heavy going in its unwavering dark lugubrious tone that plays out for nearly two and a half hours without intermission. If the dramatic representation doesn't beat Boris Godunov down into submission to his fate, the music certainly does, and so to - all importantly - does the chorus. The work of the chorus is simply outstanding, ensuring that the solemn heft of the work carried the necessary weight and depth that was clearly audible in its impact, even in its livestream broadcast.
(On a side note, the quality of these broadcast livestreams - from the Met, Covent Garden and the Paris Opera as well - has improved considerably over the years with stunning HD quality images and powerful sound recording, with no more stream interruptions and breakdowns of communication. Alongside some good camera work - the Met's production directed well for the screen as usual by Gary Halvorson - that captures angles and closeups, it's becoming a great way to experience live opera in a time of restricted travel).
The quality of the musical performance and chorus certainly played an important part, but good principal casting and singing can make all the difference to any failings in the dramatic presentation. That was certainly the case here with René Pape singing the role of Boris. It's the performance of an experienced bass with great technique who also has the maturity to bring real human emotion to characters like Boris just as he has done with Philippe II in Verdi's Don Carlos. He puts real dramatic weight and character behind Boris, savouring the beauty and conflict of the role and Mussorgsky's extraordinary writing for it.
Pape's tormented magisterial performance is supported by similarly fine performances from Ain Anger as Pimen and Maxim Paster as Shuisky, both bringing long previous experience of heavyweight Russian opera and indeed prior experience of these Mussorgsky roles to similar effect. Supporting roles were also well handled, from Miles Mykkanen's Holy Fool to an enjoyable performance from Ryan Speedo Green as Varlaam, his reading of the ukaz, the wanted edict for the Pretender Grigoriy, enlivened a scene that can otherwise seem random and at odds with the tone of the rest of the work. All of this went a considerable way to bringing across the sheer brilliance of this great opera despite some minor reservations about the stage production and direction.