Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov is a problem child in the operatic world. It is long (even for opera), performed in Russian, makes extensive use of a ginormous chorus, is very expensive to produce, and it exists in many different versions.
The composer himself wrote two versions. The original, from 1869, is rarely performed and was problematic from the get-go. The main objection was that there wasn’t an important female role. The completely revised version of 1872 added an act that takes place in Poland and gives a star turn to a mezzo as Marina, the seductive schemer who inspires the pretender to the throne to overthrow Boris. This latter is what The Metropolitan Opera put on the stage for its latest production that was broadcast to movie theaters in the Live from the Met HD series. There was also an additional scene from Mussorgsky’s first version.
Various other composers have taken a turn at "improving" this opera. Rimsky-Korsakov made heavy edits and added a kaleidoscope orchestration. Even Shostakovitch wrote a new edition. The common wisdom, however, is that Mussorgsky had it right in 1872, thank you very much.
The Met production has also had troubles. The famous German director/producer, Peter Stein, was hired to create sets and costumes as well as direct. But he withdrew with a flurry or rumors. Steven Wadsworth was hurriedly brought in to save the day, but he had to work with a new production that was already complete. Not an easy task.
Seeing this in the movie theater had some real advantages and some equally prominent disadvantages when compared with what must have been the experience in the opera house.
The big advantage is the ability of the camera to do close-ups of the characters. Anthony Tommasini, writing in the New York Times, said that “This production comes to life through the nuanced and affecting performances of the cast and chorus.”
We can see the face of René Pape as Boris as he completely disintegrates from the poison of his guilt. We see the faces of the chorus as they take on a great variety of roles from the angry mob to the effete nobles in the Polish scene. Tenor Andrey Popov, as the Holy Fool, is a wonder of madness to see up close. And mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Semenchuk’s portrayal of Marina, with her wild red hair, shows a glint of ambition-driven madness that probably didn’t communicate as well live.
The disadvantage of the movie experience is that this is a large and sweeping production that often fills the stage with people and overpoweringly large set pieces and props. Movie audiences never really see that. The stage picture is meant to be seen in its totality with all those hundreds of choristers portraying the mob. The small scenes, such as the one at the inn on the Lithuanian border, were meant to be seen as miniatures in the great darkness of the open stage.
Both were the same, one condensed and one expanded by the camera. When Duane Schuler’s lighting was dim, it just made the picture grainy and hard to see. In the opera house, it must have been much more atmospheric. The gigantic book and maps dwarfed the performers like one of those movies in which everyone shrinks. In the house they fit in with the towering sets.
Still, it is a magnificent production. Moidele Bickel’s costumes are traditional, while the sometimes vacant and other times immense sets by Ferdinand Wögerbauer (in his Met debut) are more conceptual, but without losing touch with reality. All of the singers are absolutely terrific, and all, except Pape, are native Russian speakers (thank the muse for supertitles).
The Dallas Opera Artistic Director Jonathan Pell was at the screening on Oct. 23, fresh from the triumphal opening night of his new season, still glowing from the success of Don Giovanni. I spoke to him at the first intermission and asked if seeing this grand production at the Met had given him cold feet, considering the Dallas Opera is staging Boris in April. “No,” he said with a smile, “all that is going through my mind as I am watching is, we can do this.”
We all look forward to seeing this masterpiece, April 1-17, 2011.
►There will be an encore of Boris Godunov at 6:30 p.m., Wednesday, Nov. 10, at the following local theaters: AMC Northpark Center 15 (Dallas), Cinemark 17 (Dallas), Galaxy Theatre (Dallas), AMC Mesquite 30, Cinemark 14 Cedar Hill, AMC Parks At Arlington 18, Vista Ridge Mall (Lewisville), Tinseltown Movies 17 (Grapevine), Cinemark West Plano, Cinemark 12 Town Center (Mansfield), Cinemark 12 Rockwall, Cinemark 24 (The Legacy, Plano), Fossil Creek (ForT Worth), AMC Palace 9 (Fort Worth), Cinemark Allen 16, Movies 14 (Burleson) and Cinemark 14 (Denton). Call your local theater ahead for tickets as these screening sometimes sell out.
►The rest of Live at the Met HD season is:
- Donizetti's Don Pasquale (1pm Nov. 13, 6:30 p.m. Dec. 1) 3 and a half hours
- Verdi's Don Carlo (12:30pm Dec. 11, 6:30pm Jan. 5) 5 hours
- Puccini's La Faniculla del West (1pm Jan. 8, 6:30pm Jan. 26) 3 and a half hours
- Adams' Nixon in China (1pm Feb. 12, 6:30pom March 2) 4 hours
- Gluck's Iphigénie en Tauride (1pm Feb. 26, 6:30pm March 16) 2 and a half hours
- Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor (1pm March 19, 6:30pm April 6) 4 hours
- Rossini's Le Comte Ory (1pm April 9, 6:30pm April 27) 3 hours
- Strauss' Capriccio (1pm April 23, 6:30pm May 11) 3 hours
- Verdi's Il Trovatore (1pm April 30, 6:30pm May 18) 3 hours
- Wagner's Die Walküre (noon May 14, 6:30pm June 1) 5 and a half hours