The Season’s First Outing of Mussorgsky’s Opera in Its Original Version

By Richard Sasanow for Broadway World

The Lady or the Tiger? In this case, both are Mussorgsky’s BORIS GODUNOV–just different versions of it. Which is the preferred one? (Or, more properly, “the preferred one of several,” including one that the composer’s friend, Rimsky Korsakov, fiddled with after his death.)

The original version was supposedly rejected by the Imperial Theatre because it didn’t have a major female character. (He wrote two female parts for Boris’s children, both fairly minor, with one a pants role. Plus there’s a vaguely comic role of the innkeeper.) Then, the complexity of the score, using an unfamiliar idiom, may also have played a role. Finally, it’s also been conjectured that it had to do with censorship, according to director Wadsworth, because the Holy Fool calls the czar a murderer.

That’s the one we saw this week on the second night of the Met’s season, in seven scenes running under 2-1/2 hours without an intermission.

The one most often seen has all kinds of “extras”–characters (Marina), scenes (“the Polish scene”) and the scene at St. Basil’s in Red Square (which was in and out), music-and subtractions (music). That one runs over four hours, with two intermissions.

While I have fond memories of the long version at the Met (particularly the Boris of the late Finnish singer Martti Talvela) in the production that preceded this current one, this shorter version, in Stephen Wadsworth’s production, works quite well. And the performance, led by the fabulous bass Rene Pape as Boris, with a marvelous supporting cast and stellar work from the Met chorus and orchestra under Sebastian Weigle, was very fine indeed, thrusting the story forward.

(Of course, even if the story weren’t so bleak in itself, the backstory of the production was even grimmer, with the original director quitting late in the game and Wadsworth coming in on his white horse to save the day.)

As the seven scenes followed quickly one after another without an intermission, the production seemed pretty cinematic in style (as had FIRE SHUT UP IN MY BONES the previous night) with simply drawn scenery by Ferdinand Wogerbauer to Duane Schuler’s direct lighting approach and costumes by Moidele Bickel. And while the production didn’t exactly fly by, it flowed elegantly as a piece, from Boris’s retreat to the Novodevichy Monastery at the start to the czar’s death in Scene VII. Unsurprisingly, the opera lives and dies by that final scene, no matter how good the rest of the evening and Pape didn’t disappoint.

There was no scenery chewing to be seen as Pape approached his death, just a powerful, dramatic reading of the troubled leader, passing his throne to his young son (the skilled mezzo Megan Marino–who I’d recently seen as Carmen–doing a good job in an underwritten role). Pape excelled in every stage of his portrayal, always making the ruler’s conflicting thoughts clear to the audience. Musically, it’s one of the highlights of the opera, which is not long on arias.

As I’ve already implied, this is no one-man show. High on my list of favorites was the bass-baritone Ryan Speedo Green, in a marvelously sung, wonderfully acted portrayal of the drunken monk Varlaam, without calling on a bag of tricks to put the role across. (He had more to do here than he had in his standout performance in the smallish role on opening night as Uncle Paul in FIRE SHUT UP IN MY BONES.) He’s a singing actor who seems better every time I see him.

Other Met regulars who were outstanding in their roles included tenor Miles Mykkanen in the showy role as the Holy Fool who taunts Boris, mezzo Tichina Vaughn as a zesty innkeeper, and mezzo Eve Gigliotti, who brought extra life to the role of the nurse.

The evening had a number of Met debuts, all notable. Bass Ain Anger as the monk Pimen, who is waiting to write the final chapter of his history of Russia, which will not treat Boris well; tenors David Butt Philip was a bright-toned Grigory, one of he false pretenders to the throne, while Maxim Paster showed a larger voice as the sardonic Prince Shuisky. Bass-baritone Aleksey Bogdanov was notable as the nobleman Shcelkalov.

This latest revival of BORIS–the first in a decade–was a great opportunity to have a look at where Mussorgsky started before the piece became a grand opera. It’s well worth your time.

There are five more performances of BORIS through October 17. For more information about tickets and the opera itself, see the Met’s website.

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