The Dallas Opera took another giant step towards the ranks of the top opera houses in the world on Friday evening with the opening of Modest Mussorgsky’s epic opera Boris Godunov. The production, by the film director Andrei Tarkovsky, has toured all of the big houses, starting out at Covent Garden in London. It is doubtful that, in its travels to houses such as those in Vienna and Venice, it received better treatment than in the able hands of the Dallas Opera.
Part of this success is that Stephen Lawless, who was the assistant director when the production was first mounted, directed the revival here. Another part is that Dallas Opera’s Music Director Graeme Jenkins, who is obviously on a first name basis with every note of the score, conducts. In this chorus-heavy opera, Jenkins is ably served by chorus master Alexander Rom. Thus, the two sides of the creative team, music and drama, are both inhabited by artists who are deeply immersed in the score─and it shows. Add to this a distinguished international cast, and it is little wonder that everything came together in so spectacular a manner on Friday.
Tarkovsky’s production is a little bewildering, although the program notes by Lawless are of some assistance. The unit set is a crumbling courtyard. The set confines the action within its cramped diorama as history marches in and out of this confined and crowded world through a heroic archway in the center. The drably clothed chorus, when they are not crawling on their knees with outstretched hands, is frequently lying around in piles of humanity like so much discarded laundry. The contrast with the spectacularly clothed boyars, potentates and the rainbow hued nobles of Polish court could not be more striking. Some of Tarkovsky’s familiar objects, such as a gigantic pendulum and bell, also appear in the archway, dwarfing the protagonists. Other of his trademarks, such as statues that come to life and move around, adds to the surreal nature of the atmosphere much like Salvador Dali’s melted watches.
You always wonder which Boris you will see when attending a production since there are differing versions of the score in circulation. Artistic Director Jonathan Pell wisely chose to go with the critical edition by Michael Rot, which is on its way to becoming the contemporary standard. This edition adds in almost all of the music that Mussorgsky wrote for the opera after its premiere. The scene at the Polish court is an example of an addition made by the composer that raises the opera to the level of a masterpiece. It contains some of the most beautiful and affecting music in the score, as well as the only female lead. The final scene in the Kromny Forest, on the other hand, always seems anticlimactical and tacked-on after the deeply affecting death of Boris, where the opera used to end.
Vocally, it is hard to imagine a stronger cast. In an odd way, reading down the cast list brought the recent production of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess to mind in that there are so many company debuts. Of course, this is because both operas require a cast of specialists in the various roles but one hopes to see these singers return.
The lower voices shine in any production of Boris. Bass Mikhail Kazakov, in the title role, is mesmerizing and mezzo soprano Elena Bocharova is radiant as the scheming Marina. Evgeny Akimov brings a bright and focused tenor voice to the role of Dmitri, although it takes some squinting to believe he is as young as the libretto claims. Vitally Efanov makes a stately Pimen, the monk who chronicles all of the intrigues. Sergei Leiferkus is a great villain as the evil monk Rangoni. His eerily lit skull-like face is a fitting exclamation point.
As the two vagrant monks, Steven Haal as Missail and Mikhail Kolelishvili as Varlaam, are both impressive and bring some welcome comic relief to the oppressively dark mood that permeates the opera. Kolelishvil is especially noteworthy as he possesses a jaw-droppingly glorious bass voice; perhaps the best pipes on the stage all evening. David Cangelosi (Shuisky) and Andrei Spekhov (Schelkalov) are also terrific.
Rebecca Jo Loeb in the pants role of Fyodor, Boris' son, is ideal both vocally and in her impersonation of a young male. Oxana Shilova has a tight and constricted soprano voice but was believable as Boris’ daughter Xenia. Susan Nicely makes a bright spot in the gloom as the Nurse as does Meredith Arwady as a cheerily bodacious Hostess. Keith Jameson is appropriately pathetic as the Simpleton and his repeated descending two-note lament becomes one of the take-away signatures of despair in this production.
Boris is often mentioned as one of those big operas with lots of pageantry. While this is certainly true of a couple of the scenes, it is in the intimate interaction between two characters that the opera is at its most gripping. The pageantry is all there in this production, with waving banners and flashing oversized axes, but you will find yourself holding your breath as these historic events unfold as a series of intense win or lose encounters between powerful and opposing individuals.