The Bolshoi Opera’s production of Boris Godunov, in place since 1948, is a luxurious feast for the ears and eyes but it is less satisfactory for the dramatic senses.
The sets and costumes are so beautiful and sumptuous that I feel I have to mention them as a priority consideration.
During the first act we could have been forgiven for thinking that we had all travelled back in time and that we ourselves were in the courtyard of the Novodevichi Monastery in 1598 (scene 1), in front of the Cathedral of the Assumption in the Kremlin (scene 2), in a cell in the Chudov Monastery in 1603 (scene 3) and then in a homely inn (scene 4).
During the second act we visited the Tsar’s private apartment in the Kremlin, in the third act we stood at the square in front of St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow in 1605, while in the fourth act we visited the Granovitaya Chamber in the Kremlin. I am persuaded to believe that the garden of Governor Mnishek at Sandomir, Poland in 1604 may have looked like the sets show in the third act (scene 1). The sets and costumes alone made it worth seeing this production.
Conductor Alexander Vedernikov took slow enough tempos to allow the music to sweep majestically whenever appropriate. But he also allowed the dance elements (in particular in the folksong-like melodies) to shine through with good rhythm and humour. In the Polish scene Vedernikov’s sharply dotted Polish three/four rhythms were exemplary.
Chorus and orchestra were magnificent. When I noticed that the top note of the final orchestral chord was slightly flat I realised that the orchestra played in tune all way through. This should be the norm but in reality it is quite an achievement from any orchestra. The chorus gave us not only enormous volume but also magical soft passages. The short and small ensemble of six chorus ladies singing to the boyars in the fourth act was breathtakingly beautiful.
We were spoiled by wonderful singers and singing. Russia seems to be inexhaustible in rich and focused voices. From among the men I must specifically praise Vladimir Matorin (Boris), Alexander Naumenko (Pimen), Maxim Paster (Shuisky) and Valery Gilmanov (Varlaam). With his sensitive phrasing, Paster’s reciting the Ulrich death scene was spine-chilling. Roman Muravitsky (The Impostor) seems to have had a cold: this assumption of mine was confirmed by his coughing in the inn scene.
Of the main male characters only The Simpleton (Mikhail Gubsky) seemed less than outstanding: he constantly underestimated (in pitch and in tone quality) his high notes.
The ladies also spoiled us with their singing: Elena Manistina (Marina), Elena Novak (Fyodor), Oksana Lomova (Xenia), Irina Dolzhenko (Innkeeper) and Evgenia Segenyuk (Nurse) were all outstanding: just one of these singers in an opera company would be a treat but such a high number of excellent singers is almost unbelievable.
Yet the production, though time-honoured and time-honouring, ignores the dramatic content. While elsewhere too many opera directors sacrifice music for stage business, here the opposite is true. We did not have an opera performance; we had a wonderful concert performance in beautiful sets and costumes. Whenever they sang, chorus and all soloists faced the audience (and mostly at the front of the stage). The protagonists did not engage with each other, they engaged with the audience. Acting their characters seemed to have been left to the individual singers; some were more successful than the others but I have never seen such a healthy Boris suddenly die. The Simpleton’s scene with the young boys is usually too harrowing for me to watch: not here, as the boys couldn’t have been any tamer indeed, they lay on the floor face-down during the Simpleton’s song.
After several scenes there were immediate curtain calls, thus negating our belief in the characters. We had wonderful singers performing their set pieces but we did not have the dramatic flow. The curtains came down a touch too soon several times: the audience was already clapping enthusiastically while the orchestra was still playing.
The wonderful sets on stage came with a price: not only is the opera performed with three intervals but we also have to wait patiently during scene changes while seated in the dark auditorium. The performance took almost five hours (not three and half hours as indicated on the cast list): this was disproportionate to the length of content. But that content was full of musical and visual magic.