A Night in the Mind of Boris

Boris Godunov

an opera by Modest Mussorgsky, directed by Stephen Wadsworth
at the Metropolitan Opera, New York City, October 11, 2010–March 17, 2011
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Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera
Andrey Popov as the Holy Fool, René Pape as Boris Godunov, and Oleg Balashov as Prince Shuisky in Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov at the Metropolitan Opera, New York City, October 2010

The Met’s new staging of Boris Godunov had a troubled or at least unsettled birth. Stephen Wadsworth was given a mere five weeks in which to prepare the production after Peter Stein decided to withdraw as director. Since sets, costumes, and some quite singular props had already been designed, the opera must be assumed to be a hybrid of two different directors’ visions. Perhaps as a result of these circumstances, it is not a production where every detail falls neatly into tableau-like place, but it does coalesce often enough into powerfully illuminating moments.

A Boris too ornately well-planned—too caught up in monumentalism and pageantry—is not necessarily to be preferred to a Boris jittery with a sense of fragility and incipient collapse. A certain contradictoriness is built into the work, which is both epic and chamber opera, brutal and plaintive in equal measure, and which embodies in the underlying folkloric strains of much of its music a kind of occulted joyousness entirely at odds with the debacle it chronicles.

But with regard to this opera any theatrical trappings are finally only supplementary to music that is itself the staging for the words. Played and sung (by René Pape as Boris and a company of mostly Russian singers) as it was under the sure direction of Valery Gergiev, Boris established itself with all appropriate urgency. Gergiev made the most of the stark attenuation and percussive harshness of certain orchestral passages; some of the cello playing was positively barbaric. The chorus—which dominates so much of the opera’s action—in its shifting moods of piety, mockery, confusion, despair, and rebellion did not congeal into an undifferentiated block but remained an unpredictable mass of individuals. (I regretted only that the staging seemed in the early scenes to hem them in, confining them to lateral movements that thinned out the impact of their presence.)

When Gergiev recorded Boris for Philips in 1998, he chose to present in integral form two different versions of the opera: the original Boris of 1869 (a free adaptation of seven scenes from Pushkin’s twenty-three-scene chronicle play) and the altered and significantly expanded version of 1872. The first Boris, not staged in Mussorgsky’s lifetime, is centered more on the tsar himself, focusing relentlessly on his guilt over having ordered the murder of the young tsarevich Dmitri as a means to power, and ending abruptly with his death; the monk Grigory, who as the Pretender Dmitri will go on to overthrow Boris’s dynasty, is seen no more after his early escape across the border into Lithuania.

For the second version, which premiered (in truncated form) in 1874, the composer added the third, or Polish, act in which the Pretender woos and wins a Polish noblewoman (there to provide a principal …

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