Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

Will Don Quichotte Be the Last Production at San Diego Opera?

This quotation from Cervantes was displayed before the opening of the opera’s final scene:

“The greatest madness a man can commit in this life is to let himself die, just like that, without anybody killing him or any other hands ending his life except those of melancholy.”

Gound Faust - Calleja and Terfel, Royal Opera House London

Gounod's Faust makes a much welcomed return to the Royal Opera House. With each new cast, the dynamic changes as the balance between singers shifts and brings out new insights. In that sense, every revival is an opportunity to revisit from new perspectives. This time Bryn Terfel sang Méphistophélès, with Joseph Calleja as Faust - stars whose allure certainly helped fill the hall to capacity. And the audience enjoyed a very good show.

Syracuse Opera’s Porgy and Bess
Got Plenty O’ Plenty

The company ends its 2013-14 season on a high note with a staged performance of Gershwin’s theatrical masterpiece

A New Rusalka in Chicago

Lyric Opera of Chicago’s new production of Antonin Dvorak’s Rusalka is visually impressive and fulfills all possible expectations musically with unquestioned excitement.

Karlsruhe’s Mixed Blessing Ballo

The reliable Badisches Staatstheater has assembled plenty of talent for its new Un Ballo in Maschera.

Louise Alder, Wigmore Hall

This varied, demanding programme indisputably marked soprano Louise Alder as a name to watch.

Luke Bedford: Through His Teeth, Linbury, Royal Opera House

Can this be the best British opera in years? Luke Bedford’s Through His Teeth at the Royal Opera House’s Linbury Theatre is exceptional. Drop everything and go.

Powder Her Face, ENO

As one descends the steel steps into the cavernous bunker of Ambika P3, one seems about to enter rather insalubrious realms — just right one might imagine, then, for an opera which delves into the depths of the seedier side of celebrity life.

Iphigénie Fascinates in the Pfalz

Kaiserslautern’s Pfalztheater has produced a tantalizing realization of Gluck’s Iphigénie en Aulide, characterized by intriguing staging, appealing designs, and best of all, superlative musical standards.

ROH presents Cavalli’s L’Ormindo at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, London

Never thought I’d say it but......

Harrison Birtwistle, Elliott Carter, Wigmore Hall, London

Celebrating the 80th birthday of one of the UK's greatest composers (if not the greatest), this concert was an intriguing, and not always stimulating, mix. Birtwistle with Carter makes sense, but Birtwistle with Adams does not - or at least only within the remit of the concert series. The concert was actually entitled “Nash Inventions: American and British Masterworks, including an 80th Birthday Tribute to Sir Harrison Birtwistle” and was the final concert in the “Inventions” series.

Requiem for a Lost Opera Company

On Wednesday, March 19, 2014, General Director Ian Campbell of San Diego Opera announced that the company would go out of business at the end of this season. The next day the company performed their long-planned Verdi Requiem with a stellar cast including soprano Krassimira Stoyanova, mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe, tenor Piotr Beczala, and bass Ferruccio Furlanetto.

The Met’s Werther a tasty mix of singing, staging, acting and orchestral splendor

Visual elements in Richard Eyre’s striking production offset Massenet’s melodic shortcomings

Chicago’s New Barber of Seville

New productions of repertoire staples such as Gioachino Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia bear much anticipation for both performers and staging.

Lucia in LA: A Performance to Remember

On March 15, 2014, Los Angeles Opera presented Elkhanah Pulitzer’s production of the opera, which she set in 1885 when women were beginning to be recognized as persons separate from their fathers, brothers and husbands. At that time many European countries were beginning to allow women to own property, obtain higher education, and choose their husbands.

San Diego Opera Presents an All Star Ballo in Maschera

On March 11, 2014, San Diego Opera presented Verdi’s A Masked Ball in a traditional production by Leslie Koenig. Metropolitan Opera star tenor Piotr Beczala was Gustav III, the king of Sweden, and Krassimira Stoyanova gave an insightful portrayal of Amelia, his troubled but innocent love interest.

Anne Schwanewilms, Wigmore Hall

From the moment she walked, resplendent in red, onto the Wigmore Hall platform, Anne Schwanewilms radiated a captivating presence — one that kept the audience enthralled throughout this magnificent programme of Romantic song.

Die Frau ohne Schatten, Royal Opera

Magnificent! Following the first night of this new production of Die Frau ohne Schatten, I quipped that I could forgive an opera house anything for musical performance at this level, whether orchestral, vocal, or, in this case, both.

La Fille du regiment, Royal Opera

Donizetti’s opera comique La Fille du regiment returned to the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, for its third revival.

Schoenberg and company

With Schoenberg, I tend to take every opportunity I can — at least since my first visit to the Salzburg Festival, when understandably I chose to see Figaro over Boulez conducting Moses und Aron, though I have rued the loss ever since.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

René Pape as Boris Godunov [Photo by Ken Howard courtesy of The Metropolitan Opera]
24 Oct 2010

Boris Godunov, Metropolitan Opera

The last curtain call at the opera usually goes to the title character, the star of the work just performed. At the end of the Met’s new Boris Godunov, the calls begin with a solo call for the title character, René Pape as Boris, and conclude with one for the Metropolitan Opera Chorus all by themselves.

Modest Petrovich Musorgsky: Boris Godunov

Boris: René Pape; Marina: Ekaterina Semenchuk; Xenia: Jennifer Zetlan; Innkeeper: Olga Savova; Feodor: Jonathan Makepeace; Grigory/Dmitri: Aleksandrs Antonenko; Holy Fool: Andrey Popov; Nikitich: Valerian Ruminski; Prince Shuisky: Oleg Balashov; Pimen: Mikhail Petrenko; Varlaam: Vladimir Ognovenko; Rangoni: Evgeny Nikitin. Production by Stephen Wadsworth. Chorus and orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera, conducted by Valery Gergiev. Performance of October 18.

Above: René Pape as Boris Godunov

All photos by Ken Howard courtesy of The Metropolitan Opera

 

There were standing ovations for both Pape and Chorus. Both deserved it. So did most of the rest of the singers, the orchestra, and Maestro Gergiev. It was a night of glorious music-making, a glorious score brilliantly done by, and in the original orchestration to boot. (But the original orchestration has been in use at the Met since 1974.)

And yet—I cannot call it an entirely successful presentation of this opera.

Mussorgsky’s sprawling tragedy has two protagonists: The haunted tsar is one— he only appears in three or four scenes (depending which version is used) but he stamps his personality on the grand opera canvas. The other? the Russian people, who hail Boris as a symbol of hope, then revile him as the “Tsar Herod” whose crimes have brought the anger of heaven down on Russia. Boris ultimately goes mad and dies, but much worse is in store for Russia in the eight years that will follow the final curtain: plagues, famines, massacres, wars, usurpers: three of the opera’s many lesser characters will ascend the throne and come to bad ends, two foreign invasions and occupations of Moscow—and only then, when they’ve given up all hope, the Romanovs will take over. (You can find out all about this in Dvorak’s Dmitri and Glinka’s A Life for the Tsar. I don’t think anyone’s ever composed an opera about slimy Prince Shuisky, who became Vassili IV.)

Boris has been called the Russian Macbeth. He’s an ambitious man, full of excellent intentions, who commits a serious crime in order to take power in his troubled country—only to be haunted to madness by the horror of his deed. No one knows if the real Boris slew the heir to his brother-in-law’s throne, and in Pushkin’s play, the source of the opera’s libretto, Boris himself isn’t sure. But of his ambition, of his scheming route to the coronation in the opera’s prologue, we are left in no doubt. This makes his uneasiness at the appearance of a pretender to the dead boy’s identity, his gradual descent into madness torn between insecurity and hope for heavenly forgiveness (if the boy was not slain), the tragic foreground of a plot that ranges across seven years of disaster and a great geographic space as well. Boris’s death in the penultimate scene (which Chaliapin and others placed at the opera’s conclusion for reasons of drama and egomania) is his personal tragedy; Mussorgsky’s final scene shows the rebellious peasants welcoming the pretender as they avenge their brutal circumstances on anyone available.

That finale has never been staged so graphically: captured boyars have their throats slit, Catholic priests are lynched, women taunt and spit in the faces of spies and bullies, and the Polish forces move slowly, inexorably on Moscow. Singing magnificently, the Met Chorus works its dramatic chops in a tableau of barbarism.

BORIS_Ognovenko_and_Antonen.gifVladimir Ognovenko as Varlaam and Aleksandrs Antonenko as Grigory

The new production was straightforward and inoffensive—but makes one sigh for the glitter of Ming Cho Lee’s onion domes and marble fountains in the last Met Boris. In certain important points Stephen Wadsworth’s direction seemed not so much spare as actively wrongheaded. Symbolic of the whole puzzling occasion was the row of enormous church bells that descends from the roof of the stage at the end of the Coronation Scene, just as the sound of those pealing bells with their rejoicing that we already suspect is ill omened, explodes from the orchestra—but the visible bells do not move. Bells that do not move make no sound. Why show them? Why contradict the music so blatantly? Why give us scenery and ignore it? Couldn’t they have been made to move, even if they did not sound? Or, to save money, couldn’t they have not appeared at all, only sounded?

Wadsworth had a mere five weeks to put an interpretation together after Peter Stein withdrew, but though he boasts of forty years acquaintance with the opera, he seems to have misunderstood it on a basic level. This Boris is not the titanic figure we have come to expect, the vehicle who made Chaliapin and George London and Martti Talvela into stage legends. This Boris is nervous, wishy-washy, thrust into power he has not sought—which gives us a hollow place at the center of the drama. During the pious speech at the coronation, when most Borises utter hollow protestations to God while grasping the crown, Pape seems actively uncomfortable to be handling it at all. Then why does he have it? Why did he have the police badger the peasants to demand he take it? Plenty of other boyars would like it. Too, he enters with his young children, who appear and sing (in play and opera) only in the contrasting domestic scene in the Kremlin. As a result of their appearance here (which I attribute in part to Wadsworth running out of ideas and a stage space that can only be called claustrophobic—and it’s supposed to be Red Square, for God’s sake!), since we never see the children grow any older, the story’s duration is necessarily telescoped from seven years to a few weeks, which hardly seems time enough for the Russians to be starved into rebellion. The story Pape and Wadsworth give us is not a tragedy, or a legend on monumental scale—it is a minor domestic matter.

This makes a mockery, too, of the enormous Book of History (I’m guessing; some of its pages also bear music notation) that occupies an enormous place on the floor of the stage, so that Pimen can write in it, Gregory/Dmitri look over his shoulder, Marina can sneer at it, the Holy Fool try to warm himself in it as if among parchment blankets, and all the Russian masses trample over it uncaring. Feodor Godunov’s map, too, is scattered about the floor. (This is one of Pushkin’s nods to historical trivia: the first map ever made of Russia was drawn by the 15-year-old tsarevich. In Ming Cho Lee’s Kremlin, it was reproduced on the wall.) The focus here is on human beings just like us—but they aren’t much like Pushkin’s human beings, and Mussorgsky was composing for those.

BORIS_Petrenko_and_Pape_437.gifMikhail Petrenko as Pimen and René Pape (background) as Boris

Despite this wrongheaded straitjacket of an interpretation, Pape holds our ears and eyes throughout the evening. He is a superb actor and singer whose Russian was impressively idiomatic, but who moves in this production only from depressed to severely depressed, not from grandeur and triumph to dust, ashes and madness. I’d love to see Pape in a more plausible interpretation of the character.

Chaliapin’s vision of ghostly Dmitri used to terrify everyone who saw it, but I remember a shudder ran through the audience when the Holy Fool called Martti Talvela “Tsar Herod” and he responded with a galvanic shock. In this production, though Andrey Popov’s singing and acting are all one could desire in a Fool, the arrangement of the stage, with all action shoved to the front by featureless walls, does not permit the proper effect to be made. This is Boris Godunov intimate—and ignores the fact that this is a grand opera, demanding all the flourishes and scenic spectacles of the nineteenth century’s mightiest form.

There is no ballet to speak of in the Polish scenes in this production, either. The Polish scenes are set musically as well as dramatically in another world from Muscovy: Western, Roman Catholic, enlightened, unRussian, all the things Mussorgsky (and the Russian in the street) were raised to loathe. The Polish-Lithuanian republic was the largest state in Europe in 1605, and they made use of Dmitri to bring Muscovy into the Polish and Roman orbit. Neither Dmitri nor the Poles have ever been forgiven for their perfidy— to this day, Grishka Otrepev (Dmitri) is solemnly cursed in the Anathema liturgy of the Russian Orthodox Church.

In this production we know the Poles are in a different world from the Russians because the Russians wear costumes in color, roughly of the proper period (c.1600), but the Poles are dressed c. 1800, and all of them wear white except Marina and Father Rangoni, who wear black, the latter with sinister purple gloves: the Jesuit as vampire. To stress that he is evil, as if Mussorgsky had not made that quite clear enough with his snaky music, sturdy Evgeny Nikitin also has his slimy hands all over Marina’s body. (For the first thirty years the opera was performed in New York—which has a huge Catholic population, after all—the role of Rangoni was simply omitted so as not to give offense.) The operagoer in the street, the Met seems to assume, has forgotten the Jesuit’s legendary gift for intrigue, so they have replaced it with the new popular myth of the Catholic priest as constant lecher. (I’m not criticizing; I think it’s interesting to track the evolution of legend.)

BORIS_Popov_Pape_and_Balash.gifAndrey Popov as the Holy Fool, René Pape as Boris and Oleg Balashov as Shuisky

Among the enormous and memorable cast, I especially enjoyed Mikhail Petrenko’s Pimen during his appearance before the tsar, Vladimir Ognovenko’s mellifluously blustering Varlaam, Jennifer Zetlan and Jonathan Makepeace as the tsar’s children (though I’d have liked them better had they only appeared in scenes where Mussorgsky calls for them), Valerian Ruminski’s effective Nikitich and Ekaterina Semenchuk’s Marina. Semenchuk, in particular, the superb Olga of the Met’s last Onegin, has a very beautiful and very Slavic lower register and makes a striking figure (in black against the Polish white). Aleksandrs Antonenko has a “Russian bleat” to his tenor that is not attractive as sheer sound but which he uses effectively to indicate the torture of conflicting passions (revenge, ambition, lust): an exciting if not a moving performance. Oleg Balashov, who plays Prince Shuisky, a great character role, has a pretty voice but sings without projecting the plot or the personality; I wish he and Andrey Popov’s sublime Holy Fool could have switched roles, but what’s a Boris without an excellent Fool?

All the production’s visible miscues can be ignored when a cast like this, a chorus like this, an orchestra like this are led by a conductor who can calculate Mussorgsky’s defiantly barbaric nuances as stunningly as this. It’s a great show, and while Gergiev is conducting it, and a singing actor like Pape, however oddly directed, holding the Kremlin against all comers, Boris is not to be missed.

John Yohalem

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):