Following Southern California’s first-ever full four-opera week (October 6, 7, 9 and 11) of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen in a stunning, musically sensational treat (see William’s reviews), Russia’s famed Kirov Opera from Saint Petersburg (used to be Leningrad) presented their spectacular original version of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godounov. Many who had attended the Kirov “Ring” – including myself – thought the Kirov had saved the best for last.
This was a smashing, non-stop, no intermissions (i.e., bladder-buster) production with lavish, highly imaginative sets by the same design team who did the “Ring”, under Valery Gergiev’s baton. Gergiev was clearly not exhausted, nor in the least shaky, despite having conducted the “Ring”, three Shostakovich symphonies, and more — all in nine days. The Kirov Opera, Ballet and Orchestra celebrated the opening of Orange County’s magnificent new Renee and Henry Segerstrom Hall, which proudly took its place in stature with L. A.’s dazzling new Disney Hall and San Francisco’s Davies Hall, across the street from San Francisco Opera’s home.
The Kirov Opera’s home is in the opulently gilded, very European style Mariinsky Theatre in the old city. (If you are in Saint Petersburg, don’t miss a performance there. There are concerts nearly every night. Caveat: the wooden chairs in the orchestra have uncushioned straight backs.) This Boris was a co-production with Milan’s Teatro alla Scala, and was designed by Georgy Tsypin, who did the “Ring” sets as well. The Kirov’s own all-Russian orchestra and all-Russian cast presented Boris. I found no one in the orchestra who could speak English, German nor French, save for a really few words. Nyet!
Extremely dramatic lighting and Tsypin’s powerful sets provided the visual tone – such as the Boyars in golden robes with towering headgear. Protected by black Boyar-form armor behind which they would take the stage, and from which they would step around into view, they would sound like a truly Wagnerian Goetterdaemmerung-style chorus at the right moments.
As noted, this was the original Mussorgsky version of Boris, based on Aleksandr Pushkin’s historical drama. Rimsky-Korsakov and Shostakovich later re-orchestrated Boris, versions of which are usually seen now (and shortly will be seen in an extravagant production by the San Diego Opera this winter, featuring Italy’s fabulous basso Ferruccio Furlanetto as Boris, who just starred in L. A. Opera’s marvelous Don Carlo as King Phillip II). In fact, the subsequent Rimsky-Korsakov and Shostakovich versions deviate from the original only slightly, but Mussorgsky’s original musical score has a gutsy, very basic, rough-edged firmness rich with Russia’s folk and liturgical music.
Kirov Opera’s Boris was Nickolay Putilin, no newcomer to the role, and spectacularly fabulous. As Tsar he arrives on stage inside a gilded birdcage-like, rolling structure. At the coronation scene, terrific bells of the Kremlin and gut-resounding kettle-drums closed that dramatic scene as the totally-in-gray, tattered, motley crowd wearily watches as yet another Tsar ascends the throne.
The usually boisterous drinking scene with Varlaam, Missail and the Constable was done with sensational acting and singing. The scheming young novice monk Grigory, who looked astonishingly like Matt Damon, makes his escape after he is identified by the others — dimly, through their drunken stupors — as the runaway novice. His scheme? To present himself as Dimitri, the rightful heir to the Russian crown (who had been murdered by Boris), so that he, Grigory the Pretender, could overthrow Boris and become Tsar Dimitri.
Highly original visual highlights were the great stylized onion domes of Moscow’s churches descending from above, looking like marvelous huge Christmas ornaments upside down. But the non-stop production reached its crescendo as the murder-guilt-crazed Boris pleads with the so-called Simpleton (actually the very soul of Holy Mother Russia) to pray for him. With overwhelmingly emotional, tearful singing the Simpleton tells Boris “I cannot pray for Tsar Herod”.
This was truly world class opera on Orange County soil where beans grew barely 20 years ago.