Mussorgsky, Boris Godunov

Mussorgksy’s opera Boris Godunov exists in many versions, most with an inherent logic and which one production or another might legitimately favor for different reasons.  One version of the opera, however, should never be performed, except possibly as a curiosity: the original version, which was rejected by everyone including the composer himself for its complete lack of drama.  While the figure of Boris Godunov himself goes through a character development, everyone else is a stick figure, and this even makes it difficult for Boris to interact.

I know the many versions of this opera well.  I have also seen this original version staged twice myself – once in Geneva in 2003 (that failed) and once in Moscow in 2011 (at the Vishnyevskaya Opera Center, which used it as a venue to display a particularly exceptional student in the title role rather than as a fully-staged developed version, and the Center’s emphasis on acting meant the supporting characters got the little details right).

Yet, in an era of financial crisis, it beggars belief why the Staatsoper would hire a director who chose to stage Mussorgsky’s original version, as they did in 2012 with director Yannis Kokkos.  The music remains wonderful, but Kokkos gave us nothing and the evening ended unfulfilled.  Born in Greece, Kokkos has worked his entire career in France, which may explain the utter lack of drama (a good Greek word, but clearly the French influence has rubbed off).

Costumes were contemporary (or maybe 1990s) Russian, which combined with the intentially dark lighting meant I had unpleasant flashbacks of walking the streets of Moscow, city of 18 million miserable wretches, during my time working for the Russians.  The sets had no discernable logic, mixing semi-abstract iconography (to represent the churches) with geometric colored shapes (representing nothing in particular), and an assortment of odd furniture (and a ladder) that looked like the Staatsoper ran out of money before they completed the staging (or Kokkos entrusted the money to the mafiosi who run the Bolshoi and they absconded with it).  Some of the scenes contained an enormous statue with its back to the audience, which looked like it could have been Lenin.  And Kokkos also installed subterranean cisterns (or something), so that characters could sometimes make their entrances from steps emerging in the middle of the stage.  At one point, so did a bloodied child, representing the murdered Dmitri Ivanovich walking the earth again (I suppose if Kokkos selected the only version of this opera that lacks drama, he had to invent some of his own).

Ferruccio Furlanetto strove mightily to portray the title role under these circumstances.  His voice began, like his reign, hopeful and almost sweet, and became more nuanced as his character slowly decayed.  Norbert Ernst as Shuisky contrived and plotted his way through the evening – the real evil character in this opera, who sets up Boris for mental ruin (did Kokkos give him a Lenin goatee for a reason, or does Ernst normally wear his facial hair that way?).  Pavel Kolgatin as the holy fool also shone in his small but critical role.  The rest of the cast just struggled to make something dramatic of this version and senseless staging.  Kurt Rydl especially disappointed as Pimen – a mainstay of the Staatsoper, he displayed his customary full lower bass, but missed every note in the upper half of his register, rasping instead of singing.

In the pit, the German conductor Michael Güttler also failed to inject drama.  He did nothing to augment the thin scoring of this early version, and he never managed to get the chorus (apparently imported from Slovakia, according to the program) to sing in time with the orchestra.  He did flail his arms a lot, so I suppose that was dramatic.

Meanwhile, the Staatsoper appeared in a hurry to get the whole production over with: an early start time (6:30 p.m. on a weeknight!?!?) combined with zero intermissions ensured we finished long before 9:00.  They must have sensed that they wasted their money on this production.  A better idea: since the Staatsoper has been digging out old successful stagings from their warehouse, maybe it is time to cancel the rest of this run and find some old Boris sets in storage from an intelligent director, and then stage any one of the possible versions of this opera except the correctly-rejected original version.

On the other hand, the music was beautiful if I ignored everything else.  For that, it was worth buying a ticket.

Galina Vishnyevskaya Opera Center

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.

Gelikon Opera, Arbat Theater

Mussorgsky, Boris Godunov

Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov in the rarely-heard arrangement by Schostakowitsch.

Basically, Schostakowitsch augmented the woodwinds and brass, and “corrected” Mussorgsky’s raw harmonies. Unlike the more-performed Rimsky-Korsakov version, however, Schostakowitsch actually assumed Mussorgsky knew what he wanted and simply lacked the skills to accomplish it (whereas Rimsky and others assumed Mussorgsky did not even know what he wanted, and so made more radical changes). I am a fan of Mussorgsky’s raw harmonies and simple orchestrations, though, so prefer the original orchestration. But it was worth getting to hear this version.

The performance was by the Gelikon Opera, one of Moscow’s four full-time opera houses. The Gelikon Theater, however, is being renovated, and so the opera is forced to borrow stages this year. Boris was staged in a small theater, probably normally used for intimate plays. The auditorium had about ten rows total, meaning the orchestra pit took up nearly half the room. The advantage was that I really did get to hear all the nuances of Schostakowitsch’s instrumentation.

The stage was tiny, so the director can be forgiven for not trying to stage the opera so much as suggest it. To maximize the space, he set up a set of metal bleachers, and the action took place on and underneath these bleachers. However, the director cannot be forgiven for changing the plot. I am not talking about which scenes were included or omitted (always an issue with this opera), as there is no “correct” version. I’m talking about what he actually did stage. Most appalling was his decision to cast Grigory and the Simpleton as the same character (not just the same tenor, but actually the same character) – this was silly beyond belief, especially in the scenes where Grigory is the Pretender Dmitry but dressed in rags and acting clueless. Made absolutely no sense, and was so risible as to distract from the quality of the performance. It also made no sense that in this version the Rangoni and Marina are lovers. Boris’ children were made to be about ten or more years older than they really were for no good reason, perhaps so that Fyodor can be portrayed as power-hungry (something not believable if he were a small child). And Boris was completely unsympathetic. Cuts were made (not introduced by Schostakowitsch) where necessary to support these plot changes.

However, from a musical perspective, the performance was great. A very talented cast. I think their voices would have held their own in a normal theater (particularly Anatoly Ponomarev as Shuisky), and as it was they still had to project over a full-sized orchestra (with augmented winds) in a small room.

I’ll go back to Mussorgsky’s original orchestration now, but it’s sort of like hearing Mahler’s re-orchestrations of Beethoven. Good curiosity and thoughtfully done

Bolshoi Opera, Bolshoi New Stage

Mussorgsky, Boris Godunov

Figure my first major opera in Moscow should be Mussorgsky‘s Boris Godunov at the Bolshoi.

The Bolshoi Theater is being reconstructed (it was supposed to be finished already, but corruption intervened, and they had to rip out the badly-reconstructed theater and start over, so now it won’t be done until late 2011 if then), so the performance was on the New Bolshoi Stage next door.  I’m told the Bolshoi is not what it once was and there are better opera companies in Moscow, which I will need to explore.  And while tonight was not actually that special, at least now it’s official.