Boris Godunov is one of the richest operas ever written. Like Russian black bread, it is heavy and dark, something to really chew on. Just as the great Russian novels require some tenacity and endurance to read, so does Boris ask a lot of its listeners. But the rewards are substantial – great music, historic scope, personal drama and glorious singing. Part of the power of this Boris Godunov is due to the restoration of much of its original score. For that we owe thanks to Sarah Caldwell who back in 1965 rediscovered it. But I am getting ahead of myself.
Running five hours from welcome to final curtain call, I wouldn’t think of missing it. It is not only great opera, but superb history, and spectacle too. And at five hours you get your money’s worth: the tale is brimming with emotions, delusions and paranoia as all good operas tend to be.
Summary: Boris Godunov is the second telecast of the expanded season of The Met: Live in HD series which starts again on October 23 at noon and finishes five hours later. In the Berkshires, it can be seen at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center in Great Barrington, the Beacon Cinema complex in Pittsfield, and at the Clark Art Museum (phone only) in Williamstown. Full details of the season schedule and pricing differences can be found in our earlier article. .
Though they have both gone on to their rewards, in 1965, the Boston Opera Group’s larger-than-life Sarah Caldwell was running rings around The Met’s Rudolph Bing as she staged Boris Godunov in its original version, just as Mussorgsky wrote it. Up until that time just about every opera company was using the truncated orchestration put together by the great Rimsky-Korsakov. Of course, Mussorgsky himself had written two versions, the first being rejected by the Imperial Theatres of St. Petersburg, and the revised version of 1872 which finally was performed in 1874.
Both Shostakovich and Rimsky-Korsakov created editions of their own to correct what they perceived as failures of Mussorgsky in composing the opera. Which brings us back to Rudolph Bing and Sarah Caldwell, and the upcoming Met Live in HD Telecast. (Scenes from the production’s dress rehearsal in the slideshow below are by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)
45 years ago the Metropolitan Opera was preoccupied with its upcoming move to Lincoln Center from 39th Street. This required, they said, the sale of the land under the Opera House, and the ultimate demolition of their garment district edifice in 1965-1966. They had simply outgrown it, and had no room for storage. Sets for the evening’s performance were piled on the sidewalks during the matinee, where rain and snow could wreak havoc on them. The house could not fit all the people who wanted to buy tickets. When Rise Stevens sang Carmen, there was not a ticket to be had,
Rudolph Bing and The Met were distracted by both these issues , and by real estate, the prospect of enlarged seating and revenues at Lincoln Center, and were trapped in a very conservative repertoire of traditional operas performed in a non-threatening way. The only time Bing and his Board rocked the boat was making the move to their new house. How things have changed under Peter Gelb.
Caldwell, meanwhile, was a crafty and creative opera impresario who yearned to return operas to the ideals the composers had in mind. In the case of Boris Godunov, she found the challenge of restoring Mussorgsky’s original music to be exciting. Already spending months in East Berlin at the Komische Oper to absorb its innovative stagings, she made a train trip to St.Petersburg where she spent days tracking down the original scores for Boris Godunov.
I was involved with the Boston Opera Group at the time and met with the great lady shortly after her return. “I found the original score hidden away in a library, had it copied, and snuck it out hidden under my dress,” she explained rather blithely, “and the individual parts are now being copied now for each player. However, I need a thousand dollars to pay for the parts or the opera won’t go on.” Ah, Sarah, business as usual. Maybe I can get some of the program advertisers to pay up early.
She was excited because the score is stark and often simple, and while opulent there is a heaviness, both musical and dramatic, that prevails. She told me not expect a frothy chorus or a sparkly soprano aria, but that there were a few scenes she would stage to bring the audience back from the depths of typical Russian gloom.
While in the Soviet Union, she had also managed to meet with and convince the great basso, Boris Christoff, to come to America, to Boston, to sing the role of Godunov for the first time exactly as Mussorgsky had written it. This was the music and staging that even the Russians had never seen.
As it turns out, The Met’s telecast will use many of the original materials she rediscovered as well, though which of the many versions and scenes (there are seven as I recall) is only partially specified below. Likely it will be a hybrid, though a great improvement over the ersatz Boris Godunov’s that have plagued his work over the decades. And without Boston’s Sarah, The Met would not have access to the originals.
Meanwhile in Boston, the 1965 premiere of the authentic Boris Godunov ran into problems.
Shortly before rehearsals were to begin, word came that Christoff was indisposed and unable to appear. George London was quickly recruited and the opera went on the stage at the Back Bay Theatre which was one of the many temporary homes of the Boston Opera Group.
The differences were instantly apparent: Mussorgsky’s original music was more primal, heartfelt and far more dramatic. The only thing that bothered me was the restoration of what seemed an endless monologue – in Russian – which was written in what seemed a monotone as Boris’ history is explained. Perhaps rapturous to a native speaking Russian, but here even Caldwell’s staging failed to keep the audience rapt.
Finally, in 1966, as the old Metropolitan Opera House was coming down, Caldwell at last welcomed Boris Christoff to Boston, and her dream production was fully realized. Even that endless monologue seemed lifted up as the experienced master of Mussorgsky gave it a heartfelt reading. And it would be nine years before The Met even attempted the real deal.
Perhaps it is time for a little more background about the opera itself. Boris Godunov is adapted from a play by Alexander Pushkin which follows the extraordinary reign of the 16th-century tsar, and is widely regarded as Mussorgsky’s operatic masterpiece. It has long been in the Met’s repertoire, though in various iterations. Ihe role of Boris has been played at the Met by such legendary basses as Fyodor Chaliapin, Ezio Pinza, and George London.
This new production has been on the drawing board for some years, and has had a rocky history, cursed by having its first director quit mid-stream. Director Stephen Wadsworth took over the half finished production, stepping in last summer when Peter Stein left because of a temper tantrum over possible visa-related difficulties. By the time Wadsworth took over, he was locked into Stein’s concepts and had to make them work. First reviews of the opening night earlier this week seem to indicate that he succeeded for the most part with the staging, though the set itself is sort of grey, massive and minimalist. The costumes are often eye-popping as you can see from our slide show.
The Met’s new production is primarily based on the 1875 version of the opera but will incorporate some music from the composer’s original 1869 score, notably in Boris’s Act II monologue in the Kremlin, and the entire St. Basil scene which opens Act IV. The 1874 revision is the basis for the ending of Act III, scene 2 (the end of the “Polish” act). Mussorgsky’s original orchestrations will be used.
If you think that Wagner’s three-hour singspiel (albeit Wagnerian) Das Rheingold tested your fanny, wait till you get to sit through four and a half hours of Boris. However, there will an intermission or two to break up the vigil.
About The Met’s Boris Godunov Live in HD
The Metropolitan Opera will premiere a new production of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov on October 11, starring René Pape as Boris and conducted by Valery Gergiev. Pape, who has performed the title role to great acclaim in his native Germany, will make his American role debut under the baton of Gergiev, widely recognized as the world’s leading conductor of Russian opera. Stephen Wadsworth, who won praise for his productions of Rodelinda and Iphigénie en Tauride in recent seasons, will direct the Met’s first new production of the opera since 1974.
The title role of Boris Godunov is a touchstone role for operatic basses, a tour de force for an artist who can command the powerful vocal and dramatic skills needed to portray the guilt-ridden tsar. René Pape has built a reputation as a consummate singing-actor in a variety of roles at the Met, including Wagner’s King Marke in Tristan und Isolde and Gurnemanz in Parsifal, Leporello in Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Méphistophélès in Gounod’s Faust, and King Philip in Verdi’s Don Carlo, and his American debut in the role of Boris is highly anticipated. The Financial Times called Pape “the consummate Boris” after he debuted the role in Berlin, and The New Yorker’s Alex Ross wrote, “Pape’s voice remains one of the most remarkable in opera: it is anchored on low notes of rocklike solidity and blazes brilliantly as it goes above middle C. These are qualities that make for a great Boris.”
The new production will also feature a number of leading singers performing Boris Godunov for the first time at the Met. The cast includes Latvian tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko, who made a notable debut opposite Renée Fleming in the 2009 revival of Rusalka, as Grigory/The Pretender Dimitry; and Russian mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Semenchuk, who has drawn praise for her Met performances in War and Peace, The Queen of Spades, and Eugene Onegin, as Princess Marina.
Other notable Russian singers making their Met role debuts in this production are bass-baritone Evgeny Nikitin as Rangoni, bass Mikhail Petrenko as Pimen, and tenor Oleg Balashov as Shuisky. Bass Vladimir Ognovenko will reprise his portrayal of Varlaam, which he first performed with the Met in a 1997 run of performances conducted by Gergiev. Many of the Met cast members have performed Boris Godunov with Gergiev at St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theater, where he is artistic director and where the opera had its 1874 premiere.
The production’s creative team includes Academy Award-nominated costume designer Moidele Bickel, prominent European set designer Ferdinand Wögerbauer, and choreographer Apostolia Tsolaki, all of whom are making their Met debuts. Lighting design is by Duane Schuler, whose many credits at the Met include the recent new productions of The First Emperor, Thaïs, and La Rondine. Steve Rankin is the fight choreographer.
The production is underwritten by Karen and Kevin Kennedy, Mr. and Mrs. Howard Solomon, and Mr. and Mrs. Wilmer J. Thomas, Jr.