Met Opera/Smelkov: Boris Godunov

Date: October 30, 2010 (matinee)
Conductor: Pavel Smelkov
Production: Peter Stein / Stephen Wadsworth
Location: The Metropolitan Opera, New York.

For all its Tsarist grandeur and the gravity of its history, Boris Godunov is not the most accessible of operas, at least to me, and is only made less so by plenty of low-register, narrative bass singing, in the Russian language no less, and typically in a dimly lit production that would last nearly 5 hours.

This Boris production does not impart the kind of visual pomposity that one would generally expect from the opera, but it compensates with an effective communication of ideas. For example, the central metaphor of this Stein/Wadsworth production is a human-sized book of history that sits on stage-left, and is meant to reveal Pimen’s version of historical events as juxtaposed in the opera. In one scene, Tsar Boris wrapped himself in the pages of the book, as if foretelling that, for all the limitless power he had as the Tsar, he was merely an object embroiled in the workings of fate – a pawn of history held captive by history’s inevitable moving forces. As another example, the Fool, who practically serves as a narrator of conscience and an arbiter of morality, is a literary creation removed from the actual history of Boris Godunov. Stein/Wadsworth uses a spot lighting atop the character, as if to separate this literary creation from the pawns of history. As yet another example, the Tsar’s throne often faces stage left, instead of towards the audience, as if to say that the audience was observing the unfolding of history from the sidelines, framed in a way that focused not merely on the facts of history (the fight for the seat of power) but also the sentimental turmoil surrounding it (what goes on behind the scenes).

Pavel Smelkov conducted a masterly performance that held together a gigantic orchestra and a massive chorus for a better part of this matinee performance. His Russian strokes were broad and sweeping, as if to dramatize the gravity of this episode’s place in Russian history. The romantic tinge in some of the big orchestral numbers formed a nice musical counterpoint to the porcelain-like delicacy of the several Russian folk songs. Smelkov managed the great bells scene at the end of the prologue with authority and clarity, and paced his way with a slow crescendo as the chorus procession moved into the cathedral.

Boris Godunov was sung by Rene Pape, who projected a physically imposing but mentally wrecked ruler of Russia. His Boris was, in fact, so sentimental and vulnerable as to demand sympathy from the audience. His death scene at the end was a poignant display of paternal affection and a commendable piece of poised acting. Vocally, Pape delivered his low registers with secure aplomb, and discharged Boris’ extremely difficult high notes with such effortless ease that would make any bass-baritone or baritone envious. Vladimir Ognovenko’s Varlaam provided the day’s only comedic relief, as his drunken character slowly revealed the secrets of Dimitri. His singing, however, did not match his acting as his vocal buildup that would foreshadow the outing of Dimitri was more like a big truck running out of gas than a coupe dashing towards the chequered flag.

Male alto Jonathan Makepeace’s performance as Feodor was an anomaly. His voice was a work of unadulterated beauty – and his singing showed – but dramatically he seemed confused on stage and never sure where next to move. Mikhail Petrenko’s Pimen was a work of vocal wonder. As he charted the history of Russia, his sturdy bass lines provided precisely the sort of religious/regal vitality upon which the unfolding of the rest of the opera anchored. The raw earthiness and sincerity in his timbre gave context to his pious character. Ekaterina Semenchuk provided a scheming portrayal of Marina, and sang with a dark, syrupy voice and a confident top tessitura. Aleksandrs Antonenko as Dimitri/Grigory had a formidable voice with ringing top notes. Andrey Popov’s Fool started weakly but recovered to sing with much conviction and confidence.

To be sure, this production was dimly lit and was still sung in Russian, and of course, some stage work was just too simplistic (for example, I found the monastery, portrayed simply by an archway on one side of the stage, not properly described, even as the monastery bells started to ring). Yet, it was the fantastic singing and genuine acting that made the five hours of performance, despite its flaws, an enjoyable one.

Rene Pape, in Boris Godunov