In 1983, the Royal Opera House Covent Garden mounted a brilliant production of Mussorgsky’s “Boris Godunov” conceived by the Russian cinema director, Andrei Tarkovsky, with sets by French-born painter Nicolas Dvigubsky and extraordinary innovations in lighting by British lighting designer Robert Bryan.
Tarkovsky, devoutly Christian, and deeply disaffected by the Soviet state which discouraged much of his cinematic vision, found in London a willingness to mount his ideas. “Boris” was his first and only operatic production, and the first of only two with sets by Dvigubsky. Both artists were dead within a few years of their collaboration.
Shattering all the performance traditions that had grown up around “Boris”, the British basso Robert Lloyd created Tarkovsky’s vivid conception of a pyschologically tortured Tsar Boris Godunov, attempting to rule by force over a disintegrating society, even as his own legitimacy as tsar was being challenged by the Pretender Dmitri’s insurrection.
Dvigubsky created a unit set that resonated externally the chaotic conflicts in Boris’ mind, as Tarkovsky staged a Russian state in the process of partially rebuilding itself after a period of decline, Such “green shoots” would be destroyed by the societal anarchy that would engulf Russia in the years preceding and following Boris’ death.
[Below: Nicolas Dvigubsky’s unit set for “Boris Godunov”; edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of the Dallas Opera.]
The Dallas Opera, which has many ties with the the London operatic community, secured the production from Covent Garden. Conducting the opera is Dallas Opera’s British Music Director, Graeme Jenkins, who followed Tarkovsky’s use of Mussorgsky’s version of his opera (rather than the alternative versions by Rimsky-Korsakov and Shostakovich). The 1872 revised version, containing the Polish and Kromy Forest scenes was used, to which was added the “Saint Basil’s” scene – in which the Simpleton (Keith Jameson) calls Boris “Tsar Herod” – from the original 1869 version.
The recreation of Tarkovsky’s conceptualization was the responsibility of British stage director Stephen Lawless, whose staging of Donizetti’s three “Tudor Cycle” operas for Dallas Opera was completed in Fall 2010. The production incorporates Bryan’s imaginative lighting design (in Dallas, recreated by American lighting designer Michael McNamara). One of the production’s most memorable features is a darkened stage during the opera’s prelude in which lights move about, that we come to see are the adults and children of the chorus moving into place for the opera’s opening scene.
Swift scene changes move the action from one part of the unit set to another. With no pause to disrupt the flow of action, simply changing some of the furnishings and props (e.g., a long table and some chairs are brought in to become the scene at the inn), a different geographical location is indicated.
The end of the Cold War has abolished most of the restrictions on Russian artists performing in the West. Thus, Dallas Opera secured the services of a mostly Russian cast, joined by several American artists. The title role was sung by basso Mikhail Kazakov, in a deeply affecting portrait of the tsar.
Kazakov’s Boris, affectionate towards his son and daughter, haunted by the circumstances of his accession to power, superstitious, is correctly paranoid about the motives of Prince Shuiski (David Cangelosi) and the boyars. Ultimately (in Tarkovsky’s conception), he suffers a terrifying and undignified death, with Shiuski and the boyars abandoning him and his young son, as Boris, with his dying breath, tries to secure Fyodor’s succession.
[Below: Mikhail Kazakov is Tsar Boris Godunov; edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of the Dallas Opera.]
The monk Grigori, who becomes the Pretender Dmitri, was played fervently by Russian tenor Yevgeny Akimov. San Francisco Opera audiences will remember him as Don Antonio, the love interest of Anna Netrebko’s Louisa, whose love affair is encouraged by Larissa Diadkova’s Duenna in the scintillating 1998 production of Prokofiev’s “Betrothal in a Monastery”.
Pimen, the chronicler-monk who inadvertently plants the idea in Grigori’s head of assuming the identity of the murdered tsarevich Dmitri, legitimate heir to the Russian throne, was played, with appropriate gravitas, by the Kazakh basso Vitaly Efanov.
[Below: Pimen (Vitaly Efanov, left) reveals the circumstances of the tsarevich’s death in Ugrich to the monk Grigori (Veygeny Akimov); edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of the Dallas Opera.]
The Comic Relief
Even in the most oppressive societies, there are some opportunities for, if not lightheartedness, at least some humor. The Hostess of the Inn (American mezzo contralto Meredith Arwady) joyfully sang her folksong about a duck.
Then, delighted to have business from the scoundrels Varlaam (Mikhail Kolelishvili) and Missail (Steven Haal) – even if they were non-paying beggar monks – she joined them in some choreographed drinking and lip-smacking. Her obvious contempt for the police allowed her the opportunity for some civil obedience by alerting the fugitive, Grigori (Yevgeny Akimov), to local footpaths leading to the Lithuanian border and escape from the police.
[Below: The Inn’s Hostess (Meredith Arwady, left) shows her appreciation for the visit of the monk Varlaam (Mikhail Kolelishvili); edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of the Dallas Opera.]
The bell, the pendulum and the giant map
There were three particularly distinctive features among the props. The first was a bell that represents the authority of the church (see top photograph). In the same part of the stage, for the “clock scene”, a large pendulum would swing.
The most vivid “mid-stage” prop was a giant cloth map that represented the inner rooms in which Boris’ children Fyodor (Rebecca Jo Loeb) and Xenia (Oxana Shilova), lived. It was on this map that Xenia grieved at the death of her betrothed husband and Fyodor consoled her.
[Below: the Tsarevich Fyodor (Rebecca Jo Loeb, left) comforts his grieving sister Xenia (Oxana Shilova, right); edited image, based on a Karen Almond photoraph, courtesy of the Dallas Opera.]
It was on this map that the Nurse (Susan Nicely) sang yet another Russian folksong, and Boris interacted with his children and delighted in Fyodor’s knowledge of Russian geography.
It was on this map, also, that Shiusky stood transfixed, as if realizing for the first time how large the Tsar’s realm really was. In this production, we see the evolution of Shiuski’s ambitions towards the throne. The boyar, now certain that Boris’ mental state suggests a shortened reign, is here convincingly portrayed by the excellent operatic actor, David Cangelosi (see my interview at Opera, Drama and the Character Tenor: An Interview with David Cangelosi).
[Below: Prince Shiuski (David Cangelosi, front right) begins to consider the possibility of succeeding Boris Godunov (Mikhail Kazakov, background) as Tsar; edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of the Dallas Opera.]
The Polish Scene
Of the Russian members of the cast, perhaps the best known in the United States is baritone Sergei Leiferkus, who delivered a chilling portrait of the scheming Catholic priest Rangoni, who supports Dmitri’s claim to the Russian throne and the idea of Marina being his tsarina, in exchange for Roman Catholic influence in a Russian Orthodox land.
At the final curtain call, he, in character, accepted the boos that now American audiences affectionately give whomever they regard as the most sinister of the evening’s villains, then flashed a charming grin.
[Below: Sergei Leiferkus is the Catholic Priest Rangoni; edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of the Dallas Opera.]
Russian mezzo Elena Bocharova portrayed Marina, who sings or is otherwise the center of attention for some of Mussorgsky’s most lyrical music. A San Francisco Opera Adler Fellow in 1999-2000, she had appeared in eight comprimario roles that season, including the memorable 2000 production of Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Tsar’s Bride” with Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Anna Netrebko, Nikolai Gassiev and Olga Borodina. Here, her star power was evident, particularly with Akimov’s Grigori/Dmitri in what passes for a “love duet” for Russian opera’s most duplicitous power couple.
[Below: the Pretender Dmitri (Yevgeny Akimov, front left) agrees to link his movement with the interests of Marina (Elena Bocharova); edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of the Dallas Opera.]
Other unforgettable portraits included a searing portrait by Keith Jameson of the Simpleton, who in this production has both the opportunity to call Boris “Tsar Herod” to his face and to have the opera’s last word at the end of the Kromy Forest scene. But in this version, the Simpleton is the center of a mass of persons who have collected in Kromy, as two captured Jesuit priests are hanged at opera’s end.
“Boris Godunov” is one of the grandest of assignments for an opera chorus (now rarely performed in any language other than its original Russian). Ukrainian Chorus Master Alexander Rom and American Assistant Director Matthew Ferraro deserve recognition for the large adult chorus and American children’s chorus master Melinda Cotten for the large contingent of child choristers.
Like many contemporary productions, the choristers had complex stage business, including rapid entrances and exits, and massing of the choristers, in addition to the vocal and linguistic challenges.
[Below: the opportunist monk Missail (Steven Haal, front row, far right) joins forces with the mobs in the Kromy Forest; edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of the Dallas Opera.]
Tarkovsky found in Mussorgsky’s quasi-historical opera (the historiography of the turn of the 17th century Russia is clouded by the needs of the dynasties of later times to justify their own legitimacy) relevant to the Soviet Union’s relationship to its dissenters.
In 2011, even as the Dallas performance was taking place, there was no one in doubt that totalitarian societies obsessively intolerant of dissent were facing uprisings that challenged their legitimacy. The Tarkovsky production is a sophisticated, intensely introspective look at the human condition in a particular place just over a half a millenium ago for which parallels still exist.
In an economic era, when even the shorter 1869 version of the opera seems daunting, the complexity and expense of mounting this production in the greatly expanded 1872 version suggests that those who can, should travel to Dallas to see one of its remaining performances, rather than assuming that the production will travel to their local opera company. For those who wish to see the genius of Mussorgsky triumphantly realized, with the extraordinary acoustics of Dallas’ new Winspear Opera House, it should prove worth their effort.
[For my reviews of two productions of the original 1860 “Boris Godunov”, see: Furlanetto’s, San Diego Opera’s, Compelling 1869 Version of “Boris Godunov” – January 30, 2007 and Ramey at S. F. Opera in Fascinating 1869 “Boris” Production – November 2, 2008.]