By Becky Sprecher
The Met Hi-Def Broadcast Series opens its 2021-22 season on Saturday, Oct. 9 with Modest Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov. It is the only opera Mussorgsky ever completed and one of the most famous in the Russian repertory.
Based on the play by Alexander Pushkin, it begins in 1598 after the death of Ivan the Terrible’s elder son, Fyodor. Boris has been acting as regent because Fyodor was sickly, weak-minded and not capable of governing. But for some reason he is now reluctant to formally accept the throne, although the nobles (boyars) and the council (the Duma) are pressuring him to do so.
At the end of the Prologue, gongs and bells clanging in ominous tones signal that, although Boris has finally agreed to become Czar, he has big problems. There is famine in the land and the Time of Troubles (the unstable period between the Ryurik and Romanov Dynasties) has begun.
Rumors of a Pretender to the throne in Poland and an uprising in Lithuania complicate matters. Furthermore, Boris has a terrible secret: he made sure that he would become Czar after Fyodor’s death by murdering Ivan’s younger son, the child prince Dimitri, and it’s eating him alive.
While history tells us that Boris Godunov was indeed Czar during this time, there is no actual evidence that he murdered little Dimitri. But Pushkin, influenced by Shakespeare’s histories (chiefly Macbeth), leaves no doubt about Boris’ guilt for dramatic purposes.
The role of Boris is written for a singer we don’t get to see take center stage very often, the bass. Usually relegated to playing aging grandfathers, high priests or senior advisors, the bass appears at critical moments, makes his pronouncements then steps back to let the tenor have the limelight (and the girl). But this is a voice with extraordinary power and presence, and opera lovers should not miss this rare opportunity to hear it in a leading role.
We’re in for a treat in this production because we’ll get to see the renowned René Pape reprise his 2010 Met performance as Boris. A singer who charges into every scene, he practically grabs us by the throat as he works through Godunov’s personal struggles. The opera is Wagnerian in that regard, a psychiatric patient singing in monologue to a silent and seemingly unjudgmental listener (the audience), all the while egged on by the orchestra.
With 200 singers and more than 600 costumes, this is a big opera. While the Met has a large stage, which can more than accommodate a crowd scene, the challenge lies in staging the crucial private ones. Ferdinand Wögerbauers’s minimalist settings display shimmering golden grandness where appropriate, but he and director Stephen Wadsworth are also able to present the personal scenes in an intimate way.
Watch for the Clock Scene toward the end of Act II, where a paranoid and delusional Boris imagines that he is visited by the murdered Dimitri and muses about the pitfalls of ill-gained power. He sings standing alone near the throne, the symbol of power he so deeply coveted.
In Act III, there’s a deliciously venal scene featuring the ambitious Princess Marina Mnishek and the Pretender, Grigori. And in Act IV, Scene I, the chickens come home to roost for Boris, as we see a powerful man sing of regret and remorse in the presence of his children. When Boris takes his last breath, gongs and bells echo once again the tragedy which had been foretold in the Prologue.
In Scene II of Act IV, the Pretender Grigori (now calling himself Czar Dimitri) has marched into Russia with his troops, launching an insurgency. People are starving and order has broken down, but nevertheless, they hail Dimitri.
As the opera ends, a Simpleton remains at center stage. Sometimes known as “Holy Fools,” they are the Russian version of Eastern Orthodox religious ascetics who are quite sane and pious but may act intentionally foolish in order to deliver prophecies or disguise their piety. In this case, the Simpleton warns of tumultuous times ahead.
There was controversy about the order of these last two scenes. Many thought the opera should end with the death of Boris, causing subsequent composers like Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Dimitri Shostakovich to do some tinkering. But Mussorgsky did not choose this option because it would make the opera about Boris rather than the tragic plight of the Russian people under the rule of cruel tyrants.
Whether or not this works dramatically will no doubt be the subject of your après performance cocktails, as we are going to see the composer’s original 1869 version. Boris Godunov will run straight through for two hours and 30 minutes, so be ready. After a year of dark theaters all over the world, have we not learned that we can’t take such pleasures for granted? Get your tickets, mask up and be there.