Now TDK has released another fine Decker effort, Boris Godunov, with sets and costumes designed by John MacFarlane. Recorded in October 2004 at the Liceu in Barcelona, the staging displays all of Decker's strengths, from the preference for contemporary costumes and a spare set with a few well-chosen props to, most importantly, a great talent for dramatic, involving stage movement.
In a short pantomime as the opera begins, the son of Tsar Ivan, Dmitri, plays with a crown as he sits on the frame of a huge, over-turned golden chair. Three sinister men approach him, surround him, and leave his murdered body on the ground, as the chorus streams in from the rear to call for Boris to take the throne. That huge chair dominates the action in most scenes, carried in and out, sometimes with Boris astride it. Decker also uses painted images of Dmitri as a constant reminder of the guilt secret behind Boris's rise to power. Decker manages to employ these devices without making overt, symbolic statements - the images truly highlight the action, rather than simply interpret it. The resulting effect makes the drama all the more involving, where a more plush, traditional approach can distance some audiences from the story.
Matti Salminen surely deserves a showcase performance opportunity such as this opera provides. A strong, commanding bass, he is also an imposing stage presence, never overplaying but always finding the heart of each moment. The roar of respect and affection at his solo curtain call shows that the Barcelona audience knew what a great singer had just performed for them.
Among the more well-known members of the strong supporting cast, special commendation must go to the wonderfully slimy Shuisky of Philip Langridge, Eric Halfvarson's conflicted Pimen, and Brian Asawa's amazingly effective Fyodor (Boris's adolescent son). Tenor Pär Lindskog makes an impressive contribution as the Pretender who claims to be Dmitri.
The production uses Mussorgsky's first version, with no intermission. Conductor Sebastian Weigle revels in the raw power of the composer's scoring, sometimes letting it ride over the singers.
Decker takes the work seriously, as a story that resonates with a contemporary audience, and that may be the greatest tribute that can be paid to Mussorgsky's masterwork. Visually entrancing and nobly sung, this Boris Godunov also ranks as one of the best of 2006. And those who want more of Matti Salminen after viewing this DVD are urged to view his devastating work in Einojuhani Rautavaara's Rasputin, also available on DVD.