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Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Opera Review: Met's Cinematic Boris Provides Thrills and Kills

Rene Pape as Boris Godunov. Photo © The Metropolitan Opera
The Metropolitan Opera has crafted a formidable new production of Boris Godunov. And they did it on a tight five-week schedule, due to the untimely resignation of director Peter Stein in mid-August. Working with Russian maestro Valery Gergiev, the new director, Stephen Wadsworth has given New York a production which captures the intimacy of Boris' internal drama and the cinematic sweep of the frozen, starving people of Russia, clutching at political straws in a desperate effort to survive.


The title character is the Tsar of Russia who (for dramatic purposes) murdered the heir to the throne and ruled the country for seven years. The role is one of the pinnacles of the bass repertory, a portrait of doubt, regret, and madness that can leave the audience breathless. Mr. Pape had those qualities in last night's performance, taking the audience to the very edge of sanity and over with a compelling performance.

The German bass has the dramatic and vocal resources to actually sing the role in a way that it had not been heard in New York for many years. His performance in the Clock Scene was terrifying. However, he drew the audience's compassion in the fourth act when Boris goes mad and dies, surrounded by his children and drowning in his own guilt.

This production features fine performances from the opera's supporting basses: Mikhail Petrenko as Pimen and Vladimir Ognovenko as Varlaam. The latter has some of the best music in the opera to sing, including the Song of Kazan and his confrontation with Grigory (Aleksandrs Antonenko) now calling himself Dmitri and pretending to be the (supposedly) murdered tsarevitch. Mr. Antonenko's Pretender was the one disappointment: he has a harsh, sharp tenor voice and was wobbly in his big Act III duet with the Princess Marina.

From the opening bars, the Metropolitan Opera chorus dominated the action, portraying the frozen, starving, suffering people of Russia in the Time of Troubles. Faced with callous acts of police brutality and pushed back and beaten down, the chorus dominates the opera. They also sang wonderfully, with crisp, precise diction and shattering power. Stage-hands hid within the chorus, moving scenery and furniture around the broad, cobble-stoned stage. This allowed for quick scene changed with the curtain up, giving the effect of a cinematic jump-cut without dropping the curtain between scenes.

Written for the 1875 revision, the "Polish" Act of Boris stops the plot dead, but brings a female lead to the grim political proceedings. In the hands of fiery mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Semenchuk, the Princess Marina is the coldest character in this opera's frozen world. Ms. Semenchuk portrayed the princess as a brazen dominatrix, brow-beating Dmitri and lashing out at her white-clad servants. She was aptly paired with bass-baritone Evgeny Nikitin as Rangoni, the Jesuit priest who is scheming to use Marina and the Pretender to convert Russia to Catholocism. Ms. Vishnekaya and Mr. Nikitin turned up the heat in their scenes together, making the confrontation between their characters into a twisted love duet.

Following the death of Boris, Mr. Wadsworth used the Kromy Forest scene to display Russia in a state of suffering and chaos. The stage became a killing ground, with choristers wielding knives and ropes, killing police officers, nobles, Jesuits, and each other in an orgy of rage and violence. The rabble was quelled by the apperance of Marina and her advisor Rangoni on horseback, with the Pretender, "Dmitri" being significantly forced to walk. Finally, the Holy Fool (played by character tenor Andrey Popov) commented on the action with a sad little song. This act is often an afterthought. Here, it provided astute political commentary and a chilling way to end this grandest of Russian operas.
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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.