Review

A Good Enough Boris

Photo: The Metropolitan Opera, www.metopera.org.

The Metropolitan Opera got off to a shaky start after eighteen months of pandemic-induced closure. Piling up massive financial losses in the absence of performances, about one-tenth of the orchestra left. What remained, along with the company’s other unionized employees, ended up in protracted contract negotiations that were settled only in the weeks before the season opened. Even then, the sheer volume of work required the cancellation of the entire planned run of one opera, Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride, as well as other performances.

After last year’s race riots, opening night was given over to a planned new production—accelerated to respond to recent events—of the Met’s first opera by a black composer, Terence Blanchard’s Fire Shut Up in My Bones, a “jazz opera” adaptation of the journalist Charles Blow’s memoir of childhood sexual abuse.

The second night of the season, meanwhile, which many Met patrons regarded as the “real” first night, was Modest Mussorgsky’s searching opera of the insecurities of power, Boris Godunov. Its source, a play by Russia’s national poet Alexander Pushkin that was banned from performance for forty years due to a prohibition on depicting tsars on the stage, tells of the historical Tsar Boris Godunov, a high-ranking boyar who took the reins of power after Russia’s original ruling house had died out in 1598. The circumstances were suspicious. Rumor long held that Boris had contrived the murder of the young legitimate heir, Prince Dimitri, the grandson of Ivan the Terrible.

After seven years on the throne, he was duly overthrown by a pretender who masqueraded as the murdered boy and won the backing of a hostile Poland and enough Russian rebels briefly to make himself tsar. Most historians have absolved Boris of the crime—some even argue that he was a competent ruler—but the story is simply too good to be driven out of the national imagination. Indeed, the pretender phenomenon echoed downward even to our own living memory. For better or worse, Boris Godunov remains Russia’s quintessential national opera, and its version of history remains widely believed.

Scheduled for only six performances (September 28-October 17), the Met chose, as a cost-cutting measure, to reduce Stephen Wadsworth’s opulent 2010 production of the opera’s longest version, of 1874, to Mussorgsky’s original seven-scene version of 1869 (elements of the 1869 score nevertheless made it into Wadsworth’s effort). European houses and scholarly purists favor this original score, which is currently found in repertoires in London, Paris, Berlin, and St. Petersburg.

The reasons for this curatorial exercise arise from a desire for authenticity rather than the Met’s unique budgetary considerations. Artistically, it strikes me as a mistake. Mussorgsky’s original version was rejected for lack of a love interest—the historical affair between Dmitri and the Polish princess Marina Mniszek depicted in the opera’s so-called “Polish Act”—but it also lacked any sense of the pretender’s triumph, which is explored in later versions in a scene of peasant rebellion. There are also differences in the music and libretto, which tend to be more introspective without really serving the work.

Here, the change was especially disappointing since Wadsworth’s production was at its passionate and violent best in the scenes that had been created for the revised version. What is left is a barebones retelling in sparse sets that drags on for over two hours with no intermission. The crushing scenes for the title character remain more or less intact, and perhaps rather more human. When the production premiered, the German bass René Pape was justifiably hailed for his powerful, sturdy performance. But eleven years on, as he approaches sixty, his voice is paler and even a bit wan. He only really came alive in the final scene—Boris’s death, in which he realizes that there is no forgiveness for him. It took the memory of Pape’s earlier performances to carry me through.

A younger supporting cast seemed better chosen and did well despite Sebastian Weigle’s languid conducting, which made the opera’s shorter version seem somehow longer than the embellished revision, and the Met’s chorus, which sounded out of practice. The real stand out was the Estonian bass Ain Anger, who sang the role of Pimen, a monk chronicling the troubled history of his country who has both the gravitas and the vocal range to confront Boris with the consequences of his crime.

Anger has sung the title role with considerable success in Europe and should be on the Met’s radar for future casting in it here. He sang with a splendid, steady legato that captured the scenes in which he appeared. Meanwhile, Ryan Speedo Green was another standout in the bass range, singing the comic relief role of Varlaam in a scene revealing the pretender’s escape amid police incompetence and clerical corruption. The tenor David Butt Philip made a fine impression in the latter role. Maxim Paster’s Prince Shuisky, a courtier who in history later connived his own way to Russia’s throne, was suitably slippery. Tenor Miles Mykkanen captured a uniquely Russian type, the Holy Fool, whose insanity was popularly understood to be a sign of divine grace that allowed him to speak truth to power without fear of reprisal. His moralizing of Boris’s misdeeds struck a powerful chord in a performance that did not rise to the best interpretations of this haunting opera.

Paul du Quenoy is president of the Palm Beach Freedom Institute. He holds a Ph.D. in history from Georgetown University.

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