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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
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 soprano role otherwise lacking), aided by the conniving of a helpful Jesuit, and the chaotic final Kromy Forest episode with its scenes of bloody mob vengeance as the Pretender advances into Russia.

For the Met, Gergiev has fused the two versions, including the major additions of the latter while restoring a number of passages and one entire scene from the earlier. It would be easier to criticize this procedure on the grounds of respect for Mussorgsky’s intentions if those intentions were not so hard to determine and if the results of this mixing and matching were not so satisfying. One unintended result is that the piercing lament of the Holy Fool is sung twice, in the St. Basil’s scene and again at the very end; but it is hard to quarrel with this, since Boris’s encounter with the Holy Fool outside the cathedral, in which the tsar’s plea for the Fool’s prayer is rejected, here becomes perhaps the most powerful moment in the opera. A stricter textual approach would also have had to forgo the monk Pimen’s long recollection of the tsarevitch’s murder and its violent aftermath from the 1869 version, which establishes so firmly from the outset the history of bloodshed at the root of all that follows.

As far as staging went, inevitably some moments seem more thoroughly worked over than others. The Inn Scene in which the Pretender escapes over the border is unnecessarily cluttered, with the itinerant monk Varlaam’s marvelous ballad of the fall of Kazan getting a bit lost in some awkward drunken byplay, and the Fountain Scene, that self-interested parody of a love scene between the Pretender and the Polish countess, appears (in the absence of a fountain) to be unfolding within the unlit dining room of a Marriott closed for the season. But narrative lines are in the main laid out with clarity and vigor.

Physically the production is a mix of abstract and literal—literal enough to encompass a couple of live horses in the last act. The sets emphasize flatness and stylization, with rudimentary façades dropping down to stand for cathedral or inn; they seem pieces out of some gigantic toy theater, as if to emphasize the necessarily miniaturized scale of the crowd scenes. The spareness of the sets contrasts with dense and detailed costuming that revels in medieval intricacy and brocaded opulence. A further jarring contrast of scale is introduced by two supersized props. The illuminated chronicle of Russian history—lying open on the stage and as tall as a man—that we first see the monk Pimen inscribing in the Chudov Monastery scene will later serve the Holy Fool as a blanket to wrap himself in; it will also be carelessly trodden at various moments by Boris and other members of the ruling elite. Sprawling at the other side of the stage is an equally gigantic map on which Boris’s son studies the extent of the Russian empire. Russia as geographic space and Russia as secret history: between them they frame the spectacle.

The action takes place on a horizontal plane—the sole elevated point being Boris’s throne. Boris and his subjects are shown at close quarters; only a rope (and the presence of whip-wielding soldiers to enforce crowd control) separates the tsar from the mob as he exits from St. Basil’s. With no upper and lower levels to indicate rank, clothing has a crucial part in differentiating power relationships. The costumes make visible in only slightly simplified form the strata of a densely hierarchical society, with peasant rags visibly cowed by the heavy and imposing Byzantine lineaments of noble and ecclesiastical vestments.

The inextricable fusion of politics and religion already evident in the liturgical accents of so much of the music becomes even more oppressively evident in the proliferation of icons and crucifixes, and in the ritual nature of everything that happens near the summit of power. The farther we get from that summit, the more things devolve, whether into offhanded jubilance or unrestrained brutality.

The third path in this costuming scheme—the escape route from worldly hierarchies—would be the white robes worn by the procession of pilgrims in the first scene; by Pimen as he works in his cell on his secret chronicle of Boris’s crime, and again as he dismays Boris with the account of a miracle that betrays the tsar’s guilt; and by the dying Boris himself as he strips off his royal robe to reveal the plain white costume beneath it. This face-off between Pimen and Boris that precipitates the latter’s death (Mussorgsky has here crammed together two separate scenes from Pushkin) is both extraordinarily powerful and an indication of how closely the opera’s dramaturgy approximates the quality of a rite fulfilled.

Pimen, breaking into the council of the boyars white-robed and without accoutrements, enacts the eruption of truth into a ceremonial society poisoned by corruption: truth here being, precisely, a tale of blindness healed and sight restored by the murdered tsarevitch. Ordinary time comes to a halt to allow the monk to tell his long story of the murdered boy’s appearance in a dream and the transformation of his grave into a site of miracle-working. The opposition of truth-telling prophet and wicked king could not be more biblical; we might be witnessing the meeting of Samuel and Saul; and Pimen and Boris are both thoroughly aware of this. The peculiar Mussorgskyan power is to make us feel that the opera is not the representation of such an eruption but the eruption itself, taking place in music.

The confrontation, earlier in the opera, of Boris and the Fool imparts a similar aura of biblical typology, and it is here that the production came into sharpest focus. It is a scene that takes place at the edge of power, where ordinary roles of dominance and submission are reversed. The Fool weeps after being robbed of his last kopeck by a band of children; he begs Boris to kill them as he killed the tsarevich. When Prince Shuisky orders the Fool arrested, Boris intervenes and instead asks for a prayer, but this is more than the Fool is prepared to give. The tsar and the holy simpleton were jammed up against each other at the side of the stage—an intimacy momentarily breaching all hierarchical distinctions—surrounded by boyars whose hats made them look like Pharisees in a Rembrandt etching. Here the biblical parallel is made explicit as the Fool sings, “I can’t pray for King Herod,” raising the question of whether we are in Russia or the Holy Land or whether there is any difference. Histories reenact themselves and are never done. Boris Godunov is an opera haunted by everything that happened before it began and even more by everything that will happen after it ends, unspeakable crime at one end and unimaginable dissolution and defeat at the other.

So much of it consists of accounts of things not shown on stage: Pimen telling Grigori about the murder of the tsarevitch and the revelation of Boris as the murderer, Prince Shuisky telling Boris his own version of the tsarevitch’s death, the crowd being told in the first scene about Boris’s refusal of the crown and later about the anathematizing of Grigori, Pimen telling Boris the story of the miracles worked at the tsarevitch’s grave, the Fool foretelling the future history of Russia—not to mention the stories told in interpolated songs and ballads: Varlaam’s recollection of the fall of Kazan, the innkeeper’s song about the drake, the nurse’s song about the gnat, the nonsense song Boris’s son sings with his nurse.

We are made to feel that each of these scenes, oddly disconnected although somehow all part of the same history, goes on forever in its own separate musical eternity. Its characters—each fully inhabited, the center of the world if only for a moment—fulfill their parts in a larger pattern of which they can have only the most partial intuition. The two chief personages, Boris and the Pretender, never even meet, although the Pretender addresses him from his cell (“Borís, Borís”) as if he knew him. The Polish scenes function as an opera within an opera, with its own separate cast and style, an alternate geopolitical reality in which the Catholic West plots across the border to take advantage of Russia’s weakness with the aid of a pliable accomplice.

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