Boris Godunov, unstrung by guilt, dies before the final scene of Modest Mussorgsky’s depressing opera about the mad 16th-century Russian czar.
That leaves time for his evil successor and his ambitious wife to make their impressive entrance through a blood-thirsty mob on a pair of white steeds, promising a rosy future which they have no intention of making good.
There’s also time to almost forget the German bass Rene Pape, singing the role at the Metropolitan Opera for the first time, in a striking new production conducted by Valery Gergiev.
Complicating matters, the original director, Peter Stein, abdicated in July, offended by an insufficiently respectful encounter with our immigration services which kept him waiting. Stephen Wadsworth took over the staging at the last minute, using sets, costumes and lighting commissioned by Stein, whose strategy of emphasizing character over elaborate scenery is nonetheless everywhere in evidence here.
That strategy doesn’t serve Pape especially well. A big-voiced bass whose instrument may be too beautiful and whose acting lacks much psychological heft, Pape is a more restrained Boris than Met audiences are used to hearing.
When he sings, “My soul is troubled,” you may think he’s wondering whether he turned off the kitchen faucet before leaving for work. It’s not quite the same as night terrors brought on by the memory of the kid he murdered to ensure his ascendancy to the throne.
If we’re going to spend nearly 4½ hours with Boris, we expect to be rattled by his fall from grace. There’s plenty of rattling going on in this production, but it’s not emanating from the top. That crazed mob, 120-strong on the Met stage, undulates like a single organism, simmering with inchoate anger that may put you in mind of a Tea Party rally where Glenn Beck is speaking. They’re unsettling, as are the other crowd scenes, organized with a rare attention to what the whole stage picture looks like from our perspective.
So is the scene in which the Polish princess Marina plays sexual hardball with the creepy cleric Rangoni, who encourages her to use any means necessary, including fornication, to marry the pretender to the throne Grigory and convert Russia to Catholicism. The flame-haired mezzo Ekaterina Semenchuk makes Marina as nasty a piece of work as possible, a perfect match for the bass-baritone Evgeny Nikitin’s smarmish Rangoni.
Aleksandrs Antonenko’s cunning Grigory/Dimitry, Andrey Popov’s chillingly childlike Fool, and Jonathan A. Makepeace’s poignant turn as Boris’s adoring son, Fyodor, were all outstanding.
Set designer Ferdinand Woegerbauer suggests the Kremlin with a few golden panels and a throne on a raised pyramidal platform; other scenes are similarly spare and effective. Most striking is the use of an oversize book, meant to suggest a Russian history inevitably repeating itself, in whose pages the characters sometimes quite literally wrap themselves.
The spare conception seems downright shabby in the Poland scene, when Marina is surrounded by a gaggle of white-gowned ladies-in-waiting topped with silly white plumes by way of Dr. Seuss. What ought to be an elegant garden offers hard park benches and chairs that would not be out of place in a Gdansk backyard.
Still, Duane Schuler’s subtle lighting imbues the simple-seeming design with great visual texture, as does costume designer Moidele Bickel, dressing the court in shimmering gold and black; the peasantry in muted, earthy hues.
Even with some ravishing folksy melodies from Mussorgsky, “Boris” can be a bit of a slog, but it was much less so under Gergiev’s fleet, restrained conducting. The opening-night audience had no hesitation raining applause on everyone involved.
“Boris Godunov” continues in repertory at the Metropolitan Opera, New York, through March 12, 2011. Information: http://www.metoperafamily.org.
(Jeremy Gerard is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)