The Met’s new production of Boris Godunov by Modest Mussorgsky, broadcast in HD and playing at a theater near you!

October 25, 2010 at 7:24 pm (Music, opera, Russophilia)

Rene Pape as Boris Godunov


Watching Boris Godunov is akin to seeing the Russian people bare their collective soul. And make no mistake about it: that soul is in torment. And that torment is personified by Boris himself.  Tsar and absolute ruler he may be, but he can find no peace in this life. The reason: he is responsible for the death of Dmitri, Tsar Ivan the Terrible’s youngest son and the rightful heir to the throne. Boris’s conscience will not let him forget or forgive this sin.

Thus the coronation scene, one of opera’s great set pieces, with its opulent setting and costumes, its swelling choral singing, the mighty orchestration, the tolling of the Kremlin bells – it’s all for show. Boris sets about playing the role of benevolent despot, but he is doomed from the outset. The only question is, how long will it take to destroy him – and who or what will be the agent of that destruction?

Boris Godunov was an actual historical personage; he seized power in 1598 and ruled Russia until his death in 1605. He was part of the Rurik dynasty.  Only a few short years after Boris’s demise, the Romanoffs, supplanted the Ruriks and ascended the throne of Russia. (Click here to see the genealogy of both dynasties.) Boris Godunov began his career at court serving under Ivan the Terrible. Indeed, he was present when Ivan killed his eldest son, the crown prince, also named Ivan. Throughout  the opera I kept seeing in my mind’s eye Ilya Repin’s portrayal of that horrifying event:

For his source material for the opera, Mussorgsky used the play written by Alexander Pushkin.

Boris Godunov is a complex, ambitious work of art. The cast is large, the chorus is huge – I believe I heard there were 140 voices! During the intermission, you saw the ranks of costumes that seemed to go on forever. At any rate – I can’t say enough about the Met’s superb production. This opera calls for spectacle on a grand scale, and that’s what we saw. Individual singers were superb – one powerhouse voice after another. As Grigory the Pretender, Alexandr Antonenko was terrific. He may not be a great actor – at least, not yet – but he has an incredibly impressive vocal apparatus. And I’d also like to single out Andrey Popov as the Holy Fool. Popov’s singing was wonderful and his performance, equally so. He was the scary, wild-eyed man of God in the flesh.


Alexandr Antonenko as Grregory the Pretender, with the equally spectacular Ekaterina Semenchuk as Marina


Andrey Popov as the Holy Fool, whose piteous lamentations predict all too accurately Russia's dire future

Finally, there was Rene Pape. Over the years, a number of bass baritones made history with definitive performances of Boris Godunov. Pape (pronounced “poppuh”) will now surely be named be among them. In an interview between acts, Pape acknowledged that as almost the sole non-Russian principal cast member – he hails from Dresden, Germany – he had to work to perfect  his “Russianness.”  I hope that this production will ultimately become available on DVD, so that all can witness how completely he succeeded in this task! Meanwhile – have a listen:

From the CTPost of Bridgeport, Connecticut:

A big man with a big voice and a big personality, Pape delivers the sort of visceral operatic experience one does not often get these days. But Boris is not just big, he is complex: he must also be a loving father to his children and the reflective, concerned father to his people. Pape gives us a multidimensional character whose musings and troubles linger with us long after the performance has ended. Bravo!

Boris’s death was incredibly moving. Here is that scene, in a different staging, sung by great Finnish bass Martti Talvela:

Here is the music from the coronation scene. The still photographs convey the majesty of the  setting. This was a production of the Mariinsky Theatre (formerly  the Kirov, but before that, the Mariinsky!) The conductor is the great (and seemingly ubiquitous) Valery Gergiev , who also conducts the new Met production:

As with Das Rheingold, the theater was packed on Saturday, giving me hope for my fellow “culture vultures.” And what could be more endearingly wonderful than the fact  that Boris Godunov has pride of place in an article entitled, “What’s fun in Des Moines.” (This kind of thing  reminds me once again why I love this country so much!)


Modest Mussorgsky: 1839 - 1881, by Ilya Repin

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