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Mikhail Kazakov as Boris Godunov [Photo © Karen Almond, Dallas Opera]
13 Apr 2011

Dallas Boris a monument to Tarkovsky

In those dark days before VCR and DVD, knowledgeable film buffs craved the return of Solaris and Stalker to a local art house screen.

Modest Mussorgsky: Boris Godunov

Boris Godunov: Mikhail Kazakov; Marina: Elena Bocharova; The Pretender: Yevgeny Akimov; Pimen: Vitaly Efanov; Varlaam: Mikhail Kolelishvili; Rangoni: Sergei Leiferkus; Shuysky: David Cangelosi; Xenia: Oxana Shilova; Shchelkalov: Andrei Spekhov; The Hostess: Meredith Arwady; A Simpleton: Keith Jameson; Missail: Steven Haal; Fyodor: Rebecca Jo Loeb; A Nurse: Susan Nicely; Nikitich, a police officer: Mark McCrory; Mityukha: Stefan Szkafarowsky; Boyar-in-attendance: Aaron Blake; Khrushchov: Dan Crowell. Conductor: Graeme Jenkins. Original Production: Andrei Tarkovsky. Stage Director: Stephen Lawless. Production Designer: Nicolas Dvigubsky. Lighting Designer: Robert Bryan. Choreographer: Nicola Bowie. Chorus Master: Alexander Rom. Assistant Director: Matthew Ferraro. Children's Chorus Master: Melinda Cotten. Dallas Opera; Winspear Opera House, April 9, 2011.

Above: Mikhail Kazakov as Boris Godunov

Photos © Karen Almond, Dallas Opera


The films — Solaris, allegedly a reaction to Kubrick’s 2001, and Stalker, a major meditation in science fiction — were the work of Andrei Tarkovsky, then widely celebrated as the greatest genius of Russian film since Eisenstein.

BG_18.gifElena Bocharova as Marina Mnishek

Today, alas, Tarkovsky seems largely forgotten despite a further pair of masterpieces made after his defection from the then-still Soviet Union: Nostalghia [sic], made in Italy in 1983, and Sacrifice, in Sweden, in 1986, the year of his death. (For the latter he had the help of several Ingmar Bergman regulars.)

It was also in 1983 that Tarkovsky directed Boris Godunov at Covent Garden, and Dallas Opera is to be praised — and thanked — for bringing this production to its Winspear Opera House to conclude its current season. Stephen Lawless, who recreated the London staging in Dallas, had been Tarkovsky’s assistant at Covent Garden. His essay in the Dallas program is a tribute — both fitting and moving — to this late master. (Tarkovsky, by the way, had been the choice of Claudio Abbado who conducted the British Boris.)

Lawless speaks of this Boris as the product of “a unique apostolic succession of Russian artists,” pointing out that while Tarkovsky was influenced by Eisenstein, Eisenstein, in turn, was inspired by the epic sweep of Boris. Mussorgsky, of course, turned for his libretto to Pushkin, the father of Russian literature who had defined the Russian language.

BG_05.gifVitaly Efanov as the monk/historian Pimen and Evgeny Akimov as Grigory

This revival of Tarkovsky’s Boris might well have run aground on so much scholarship, but — happily — it did not, thanks largely to Lawless’ understanding — and appreciation — of the heritage of which he became a part in his work with this production. For it, designer Nicholas Dvigubsky has built a single set focused on a huge arch at the rear of the stage. All action flows through it. Still a work in progress, it arises out of the debris of earlier projects.

In the Coronation Scene a bell is suspended from the arch; at other times a huge ball swings ominously behind it. The people, the helpless victims of history, reside largely in darkness before the arch. A profound expression of his views, the set magnificently complements the counterpoint of the personal and political at the heart of Tarkovsky’s concept.

Born in 1932, he experienced the worst of history: the terror and deprivation of the Stalin years, the sufferings of the Great Fatherland War — as the Russians called it — and the Orwellian machinations of the post-war era. (Small wonder that — once permitted to work in the West — the director chose not to return home, even though it meant separation from his only child for his remaining years.) His Boris is both a loving father and — no matter how he got there — a leader who would be just. But — as Bert Brecht said — “the conditions just aren’t right.” Surrounded by petty ambition on all sides, he can only fail.

BG_07.gifMeredith Arwady as the cheeky Hostess of the Inn shares a lighter moment with Mikhail Kolelishvili as Varlaam, a vagabond monk.

One might wish that the production — “Boris” is presented largely as Mussorgsky intended- ended with the agonized death of the tsar, but that would leave him a sympathetic — even tragic — hero. Thus the lengthy final scene with the people — defeated again in their hopes — gather around the Simpleton — a “holy fool” in Russian — who removes his hood to stare at a shining apparition of a better world high on the stage. Tarkovsky’s view of the hopelessness of history make this a shattering — and uncomfortably contemporary — experience.

This extensive description of the production — seen on many stages since it was new — in no way overlooks the musical excellence — indeed, the musical perfection — achieved in Dallas. As its conductor DO music director Graeme Jenkins has raised his orchestra to a new level of richness and technical ease, and it must be his growing international reputation that accounts for the assembly of a mostly-Russian cast without one weak link. (Most were making Dallas Opera debuts.)

BG_29.gifThe mad Tsar Boris (Mikhail Kazakov), sensing that death is imminent, prepares his son (Rebecca Jo Loeb) to assume the throne.

Mikhail Kazarov was a Boris of unusual depth and warmth. He brought grandeur to the Coronation and made his later suffering near-palpable to the audience. Tenor Yevgeny Akimov moved the growing ambition and shifting fate of pretender Dmitri beyond theatrics, while in her selfish lust for power mezzo Elena Bocharova made Lady Macbeth an amateur. Bass Vitaly Efanov’s account of Russian history from Pimen’s chronicle radiated lyric beauty, and Sergei Leiferkus — the only member of the cast previously well known in the US- was an appropriately cunning Jesuit Rangoni. In this august constellation tenor David Cangeloni acquitted himself admirably as Shuisky, Boris’ No. 1 enemy among the Boyars. For his preparation of the many and massive chorus scenes Alexander Rom would win acclaim at the Bolshoi, and Melinda Cotton had the kids of the Opera’s Children’s Chorus singing Russian as if it were Texan slang.

In sum, an extraordinary performance of a production of Boris so earth-shaking that — one hopes — it will survive many more decades in the world’s opera houses.

Wes Blomster

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