Crawling Out of Bed for René Pape—Saturday’s Spectacular Met Opera Live in HD performance of Boris Godunov
It takes dedication to make it to a 9 a.m. opera in a blustery rain storm; when that performance is 4.5 hours long and tackles a complex historical theme, it discourages all but the die-hard. Count me among the dedicated and the lucky. I was one of 217 other Sonoma County opera devotees who turned up early Saturday morning at Santa Rosa’s Jackson Theatre for the Metrpolitan Opera’s “Live in HD” simulcast of “Boris Godunov,” the most riveting performance of its season so far. Whether you like the opera or not, the performance itself was one of near perfection—singers, chorus, orchestra, conductor and director came together in a perfect fit. And with director Stephen Wadsworth’s late entry to the new production, just 5 weeks before it opened, that is a fete. With an opera of this complexity, I really appreciated the riveting close-ups and back stage interviews that accompany the HD Live transmissions. The chance to literally crawl out of bed and into my car in yoga pants and to the theatre without the typical drama around what to wear makes it all about the music too.
The Met’s new production is based on Mussorgsky’s final (and fullest) version of the opera. It features German celeb bass René Pape in his Met debut in this role and a host of Russian and Slavic Eco-stars—Ekaterina Semenchuk (Marina), Aleksandrs Antonenko (Dimitri), Oleg Balashov (Prince Shuisky), Evgeny Nikitin (Rangoni), Mikhail Petrenko (Pimen), Andrey Popov (Holy fool), and Vladimir Ognovenko (Varlaam)—who all worked together like clockwork to keep the drama high in this epic story of the tormented unravelling of 16th Century Russian tsar, Boris Godunov. The opera really involves three embedded stories, the most important of which is Boris’ complete disintegration brought on by the psychological burden of the guilt he carries for murdering the rightful heir apparent, Dimitri, the young son of the late Tsar, Ivan the Terrible. The second story is that of succession—the grab for the throne that carries the drama through 4 acts. An ambitious young monk named Grigori realizes that he’s the same age as the murdered young heir apparent Dimitri would have been and he schemes to take over Russia himself while pretending to be the late czar’s son. As Grigori and his army march on Moscow, Boris is forced to battle the inner demons unlocked by his guilt. These chip away at his faculties, leaving him physically drained and demented, a short step from his death which occurs in the final act. The third story is that of the immiserated and fickle-willed Russian people themselves who are beset by religious and political separatism and poverty. As Director Stephen Wadsworth explains “In a bigger sense, the opera is about history repeating itself—in the beginning the people resent a leader who took power through deceit and violence, and in the end they celebrate a new leader who does the same. And they themselves celebrate with violence. It’s frightening.”
I love the opera because it explores just what is “Russianness,” and does the quality come from its peasants or its nobility, from Europe or from Asia? In real life, part of how the actual Boris Godunov meets his end is that he is not himself in the Romanov line. Instead, he was the orphan of a boyar (a citizen whose rank was just under than of the ruling class) who grew up in the household of Ivan the Terrible and became a very powerful regent who instituted the system of serfdom and helped secure Russia’s borders. When Tsar Ivan killed his son and successor Ivan, another of his sons, preferably from his current wife Anaztasia Romanova, had to take the crown. Fyodor, who was married to Boris’ sister Irina, was chosen but he had mental problems and proved an unfit Tsar. Throughout Fyodor’s reign, the Russian government was contested between his brother-in-law, Boris Godunov, and his Romanov cousins. When Fyodor died childless, the 700-year-old line of Moscow Ruriks came to an end. The Assembly of the Land elected Boris tsar in 1599, though Ivan the Terrible had another son, Dimitri, who to some seemed the true heir to the throne. Dmitri was born to one of Ivan’s earlier wives who preceded Anastasia Romanova. When Dimitri died of a throat-cutting at age 10, it was speculated that Boris was behind it. Modern historians tend to dismiss this but Boris Godunov has carried the stigma ever since and the story motivated Pushkin to write the play on which Mussorgsky based his opera. Once tsar, Godunov sought swift revenge on the Romanovs–all the family and its relatives were deported to remote corners of the Russian North and Urals, where many met starvation or were imprisoned. Like in opera, the Romanovs’ fortunes would again dramatically reverse with the fall of the Godunov dynasty in 1605.
The press hype around bass René Pape, set designer Stephen Wadsworth, and conductor Valery Gergiev has been phenomenal but well-deserved. Pape was born for this role and anchors the drama throughout despite his appearance in just a few scenes. With his Eurasian looks, dark expressive eyes, and long unkempt mane–which grew more tangled as the performance progressed– Pape looks as if he came right from very line of Tatars bent on breaking tsarist Russia. Pape’s plush bass gives Samuel Ramey, whose majestic 2003 performance as Boris at the the San Francisco Opera was the talk of the town, a run. Pape’s repertoire includes a spade of crumbling authority figures with huge issues–King Marke in Tristan und Isolde, Méphistophélès in Faust, Gurnemanz in Parsifal, and King Philip in Don Carlo–and these at the Met alone. What is brilliant about this performance is that Pape doesn’t overact the part. In fact, he downplays the physical drama, and through stunning vocal delivery gives us a Boris who is battling intense inner demons but remains vulnerable and tender.
Because of Director Stephen Wadsworth’s last minute entry to the production, it’s hard to know what exactly he is responsible for and what he accepted from his predecessor Peter Stein, who left in a reputed protest over an immigration issue.
The stage design is sparse but spectacular. Central to the drama from the very beginning and visible downstage in every scene is a huge (about 6 x9 feet) and beautiful book of Russian history, being penned at the Chudov monastery by Pimen (Mikhail Petrenko), an old monk who knows or thinks he knows the history surrounding Boris. I was completely smitten with Petrenko after his emotive Act 2 solo which he express both intense rage and compassion. When Pimen tells his young novice Grigori (Latvian tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko) that power hungry Boris murdered Ivan’s successor and son, Dimitri, so that he could become tsar, Grigori (the same age as Dimitri would have been) is motivated to take justice into his own hands by pretending to be Dimitri. From that point on, the book’s centrality is emphasized by many of the main characters actually standing and performing on it. In one scene, The Holy Fool, played splendidly by Andrey Popov, wraps himself in a page of this book, illustrating how a part of Russia’s history will be forgotten and lost and that the drama that is unfolding on stage reflects history being written before our very eyes. The book motif is even carried through in the scene at the Polish court with the large maps that foretell the future expansion of Marina’s empire.
According to the program notes, this new production is based on Mussorgsky’s final and fullest 1872 version of the opera with the 1869 version guiding the beginning of the final act and Boris’ monologue in the Act II Kremlin scene. The main thing about this long version is that it includes the Polish court scene in Act III, which I appreciated but some consider a lengthy distraction from the main story of Boris. Balarus mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Semenchuk in her debut as the conniving Polish vixen Marina was fantastic. Her voice was rich and, with her fiery wavy long red hair and ample curves, she played the aging princess to the hilt. It was very credible that power-thirsty Marina is aching to become tsarina and is trying to steer her lover
Grigori towards the throne. The bizarre sensual relationship between Marina and her Jesuit confessor, Rangoni (baritone Evgeny Nikitin), who extols her to support the Catholic cause, was so over the top that it became farcical. What irony too, that I came across with such disdain for Marina and pretender Grigori/Dimitri while Boris, just as much the conniving murderer, pulled at my heart strings.
Valery Gergiev, using the original orchestration, did an awesome job of drawing out the very best musically from all of the performers from the main characters to those in the glorious chorus. The chorus, stand-in for the fickle Russian people, had a major part in the opera— they initially hail Boris as symbol of hope and later revile him as a Herod who has brought the wrath of heaven down on them. The chorus was especially effective when they were pleading for bread and later, when total anarchy occurs.
The HD experience can be a blessing and curse. Its biggest plus is that the camera precision is so fine that we can see things that can’t be seen even from the very best seats at the Met. It became very clear, for example, that large portions of Ekaterina Semenchuk’s face had been rendered immobile by Botox which may not have been visible to those at the opera house but produced some humorous close-ups of the outermost regions of her eyebrows moving expressively. On the other hand, we are captive to the cameraman’s framing and Saturday’s filming included a big blunder. We never got to see the actual grand and triumphant court entrance on horseback by Marina and Grigori, which was so disappointing since our appetites had been whetted during the second intermission when we got to watch these magnificent white horses being led through the corridors of the opera house as they readied for that symbolic entrance. What the HD audience saw instead—the horses as a static tableau, after the entrance had been made. Ahheemmnn. What is so wonderful about the HD performances though is the additional commentary that we are privy to at intermission. Saturday’s hostess was Patricia Racette. She lacks the verve of Rene Flemming, but she conducted informative interviews with Pape, Semenchuk, Popov, and chorus members. She didn’t ask Wadsworth what he inherited from Stein and what he did to imprint his signature on the performance.
The Metropolitan Opera’s HD live broadcasting is now in its fifth season. The opera series of 12 live transmissions is sponsored in Sonoma County by the Sonoma County Jewish Community Center by arrangement with Rialto Cinemas. There are two Sonoma County transmissions for each opera—a Saturday morning performance that is a live simulcast as the opera is performed in New York at the Metropolitan Opera House and a Wednesday evening encore performance.