Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Mussorgsky: Boris Godunov – Barcelona/Weigle

UK release date: 3 July 2006

Boris Gudonov

Boris Gudonov

Though it was issued only recently, this DVD of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov was recorded during (only) one performance in the Gran Teatre del Liceu of Barcelona in 2004. So watching the DVD replaces attendance at that particular performance. I hasten to add that it is a very good performance, well worth seeing.

There are great many versions of Boris Godunov. Mussorgsky was persuaded to re-write his original 1869 composition; later his friend Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov prepared another version. Mikhail Ippolitov-Ivanov orchestrated the St Basil’s Cathedral scene and Shostakovich added another version to the canon. I am pleased to report that this DVD contains a performance of the original 1869 composition.

Willy Decker‘s production updates Mussorgsky’s libretto which is based on Alexander Pushkin’s historical tragedy Boris Godunov. Pushkin’s drama deals with late 16th- and early 17th-century Russian history. Evidently Decker’s staging transfers the action to the 20th century; presumably to pre-1917, as Russia finished with tsars by 1917. But, as far as I can make out from the Spanish programme notes of the 2004 Barcelona performance, Decker considers the opera more a psychological than a historical drama. The importance of icons, so crucial in religion and in monarchic history, remains, but the emphasis shifts to the psychology of the passive sinner and of the people who shape the events.

One of the icons in this production is a giant chair, representing the throne. Owing to its size it is difficult to move, it is difficult to climb on, but it also separates the person elevated to it from other people. Tsar Boris looks regal but also lonely when perched on it. His son Fyodor is terrified when he climbs on it after Boris’ death. This giant chair is often moved around by the crowds, presumably suggesting that history is shaped by the masses.

The other important icon is the crown. It makes its appearance right at the beginning (long before the coronation scene) and it maintains its visible symbol of power throughout the opera. It is touched, admired and shifted round by persons who are fascinated and motivated by it.

The murdered Tsarevich Dmitri is not a character composed by Mussorgsky but he often appears very briefly usually as a fragment of imagination – in Boris’ mad scene in various productions of the opera. Decker attaches importance to this innocent child: we see him, as a real person, at the beginning of the opera. He is semi-nude with a shaven head and he appears to be fascinated with the crown with which he seems to engage in a silent dialogue. Just when he tries to put the crown on his head, three assassins murder him while Boris looks on, somewhat frightened, from a distance. The child stays on stage, facing down, until he is carried away by Shuisky (most probably the instigator for the murder) at the end of the orchestral introduction.

The Simpleton, in the third act, resembles the murdered tsarevich. He, too, is semi-nude and his head is shaven. At the curtain calls the murdered child and the Simpleton appear together, hand-in-hand. They are the only innocent characters in Willy Decker’s production.

Shuisky is the most important individual instigator of events. Though he does not sing in the first 20 minutes of the opera, Decker places him at the forefront right from the murder of the child. We see him engaged with the crown and manipulating people and events all way through the production.

Boris is a passive sinner who in spite of his best attempts cannot be a good father to his children and to his people on account of his sin. Decker’s psychological study is fascinating.

Matti Salminen delivers a magnificent performance as the troubled Boris. He is literally larger than life (he seemed to tower over the rest of the cast) and he deals both with the vocal and dramatic demands admirably.

Philip Langridge is probably the most menacing Shuisky I have ever seen. He suggests manipulation, scheming, and betrayal with his silent movements. When singing (and Shuisky actually does not sing as much as his importance would suggest), Langridge manages to suggest some of the character’s traits even vocally.

Unusually for Boris productions, the part of Boris’ son Fyodor is sung by counter-tenor Brian Asawa. Though Mussorgsky may have intended the part for a mezzo-soprano, I admit being overjoyed by this casting. It is just nice to see a man playing the part of a man. Asawa sings and acts beautifully.

All the soloists are of a high standard but mention must be made of Alex Grigoriev‘s extra-ordinary Simpleton, Eric Halfvarson‘s noble Pimen and Anatoly Kotcherga‘s somewhat camp but highly entertaining Varlaam.

Though they sing well, at times it feels as if the chorus lacked musical direction. Conductor Sebastian Weigle, apparently a Barenboim protégé, does not get in the way of the music but Russian phrasing and rhythm (so important in this folk-music laden opera) do not seem to be in his blood.

I watched this DVD during the same week that I saw the Bolshoi Opera’s production at the Royal Opera House. The comparison is inevitable. While the Bolshoi produced beautiful historical sets and costumes, the Barcelona production was in modern dress and sparse with scenery (even to the extent of denying us an inn for the inn scene). The Bolshoi singers stood (literally) and delivered Rimsky-Korsakov’s grand version in concert-style. In Barcelona the priority was the drama, making rather a lot of demands on the singers.

Which performance did I prefer? Both. On one hand I witnessed a time-honoured, historical performance with all the native nuances of the Russian language and Russian folk music. On the other hand I watched some extra-ordinary performances probing the psychology of historical characters. Mussorgsky’s great masterpiece allows scope for the Bolshoi’s, Barcelona’s, and many other interpretations.

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