Mussorgsky, Boris Godunov

I have now tried my seventh different venue for an opera in Moscow: the Galina Vishnyevskaya Opera Center, named for its director, the legendary Galina Vishnyevskaya, perhaps one of the greatest dramatic sopranos of all time and the widow of the dissident cellist Mstislav Rostropovich.  The center is one of Russia’s foremost training grounds for opera singers.

Inside the building sits a charming miniature theater, designed to look like a full-size opera house (complete with four levels of seating) but with only about 250 total seats.  Vishnyevskaya herself adorned the royal box, and the audience gave her an applause when she took her seat before the opera began and a standing ovation after the final curtain call.  The orchestra pit has been built directly underneath the stage, with only a small amount sticking out so that the cast can see the conductor.  The acoustics in the hall allow for the orchestra to be heard well without overwhelming the signers in the close quarters.  The stage is not large, but conducive to a suggestive staging.

On the program was something billed as Boris Godunov by Mussorgsky.  Unfortunately, the version they chose to stage was the so-called “original” version, which is to say Mussorgsky’s rejected sketch version, which was rejected for good reason and dug up again about 15 years ago as a curiosity, after which it has, quite peculiarly and undeservedly, become part of the international repertory.  While there is a healthy debate about which performing version of Boris is best (and there are several alternative versions), I can see no argument at all to favor this one.

That said, if someone is going to perform this version, than it might as well be the Vishnyevskaya Center.  So, while I normally avoid this version, I decided tonight would be worth attending, and the Vishnyevskaya Center did not let me down.

This rejected version lacks drama – the only character with any development is Boris.  Since the other characters are so thin, this also impacts the developed character of Boris, because he has no context to operate in.  As could be expected from an opera center led by Vishyevskaya, the cast put a large emphasis on dramatic interpretation, and so the intelligent acting went a certain way towards filling in the weakness of this early sketch.  The stage direction also provided intelligence, with small touches of masterful detail (Shuisky sneaking onto Boris’ throne, Fyodor moving his nanny’s feet out of the way so he could expand the map of the Russian Empire across the floor, Boris getting progressively greyer hair as the opera went on), and dramatic lighting.

In this production, the Boris, Aleksey Tikhomirov, was a massive human being – even when he knelt, he was taller than other cast members, and he had to keep ducking to get under parts of the scenery.  His voice resonated accordingly, and had a warm quality that was most sympathetic when he was with his children.  The small confines of the auditorium meant he did not have to project much during the more dramatic scenes, so he could concentrate on singing-acting.  Presumably, with his size, he can project in a large theater when he needs to.

The other characters simply are not sufficiently developed in this version of the opera.  The cast made a good go of it though.  The best scene, in this respect, came in the Inn, where Anna Fatyeyeva made a rousing innkeeper and Yevgyeny Plekhanov a jovial and debauched Varlaam.

The pit orchestra was ragged, but reasonably good for what is not a regular orchestra.  I do not know where those musicians come from, whether they are professionals or not, and what their status is with the Vishnyevskaya Center, which does not have a regular performance schedule.  The Lithuanian conductor Gintaras Rinkevičius, whom I have heard give dramatic readings elsewhere before, certainly came through this evening as well, with good pacing and balance.

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