Boris Godunov, Über-Complete in Madrid

SpainSpain M. Musorgski, Boris Godunov: Soloists, Orchestra and Chorus Teatro Real, Hartmut Haenchen (conductor), Teatro Real, Madrid, 3.10.2012 (JMI)

New Production

Direction: Johan Simons
Sets & Lighting: Jan Versweyveld
Costumes: Wojciech Dziedzic


Boris Godunov: Günther Groissböck
Hermit Pimen: Dimitri Ulyanov
Prince Shuysky: Stefan Margita
Pretender Grigoriy: Michael König
Marina: Julia Gertseva
Jesuit Rangoni: Evgeny Nikitin
Vagabond Varlaam: Anatoli Kotscherga
Shchelkalov: Yuri Nechaev
Fyodor: Alexandra Kadurina
Xenia: Alina Yarovaya
Nurse: Margarita Nekrasova
Vagabond Misail: John Easterlin
The Innkeeper: Pilar Vázquez
The Yuródivïy (Holy Fool): Andrei Popov

Picture courtesy Teatro Real, © Javier del Real

In recent years the ‘initial’ 1869 version of Musorgski’s Boris Godunov has gained lots of traction in opera houses, overtaking the 1872 version in which the opera premiered and which might more accurately be referred to as the original version, if it weren’t so confusing.

There are many reasons for or against either; what might tilt the balance is the considerably greater expenditure that the 1872 version causes. Instead of seven, it has nine scenes, two more soloists are needed, and the tenor role demands more deliberate casting. When the Teatro Real performed Musorgski’s masterpiece the last time, the initial—viz. cheaper—version.

available at Amazon
M.Musorgsky, Boris Godunov,
1869 & 1872 versions
V.Gergiev / Kirov Chorus & Orchestra
Vaneev, Galusin, Okhotnikov, Pluzhnikov, Borodina, Nikitin et al.

On this occasion Teatro Real opted for the revised 1872 version and further adding the St. Basil’s Scene that Musorgski took out when revising the opera. The result was a very complete version indeed, now with ten scenes, performed in Musorgski’s original orchestration, rather than Rimsky Korsakov’s. If I remember correctly, that’s the same hybrid-version that I saw in Paris ten years ago, when Gerard Mortier ruled at the Opéra National de Paris.

The stage for a grand night was set, but Johan Simons’ new production stood squarely in the way of triumph. There are many classifications that can be used with stage productions (realist, minimalist, symbolist), but ultimately it boils down to two kinds: good or bad. Simons’ belongs to the second of these categories.

There is one set for the entire opera, a decaying building typical of Soviet architecture. It’s neither well-suited for the crowd scenes, nor the intimate scenes which are lost in the vast space of the building. The action takes place during the last days of communism, but with costumes during Boris’ Coronation that rather respond to the times of Godunov. For the Polish Act, the building is partly hidden by a large pink curtain, leaving a large table at the center of the stage.

Johan Simons’ direction is annoying—and uninteresting when it doesn’t annoy. Two such occasions representative of the whole: While Pimen sings at the monastery, two employees are collecting the carpet, which was used for the coronation scene. During the duet of Marina and the false Dimitri, part of the choir exits the stage to change clothes for the scene of St. Basil, while the rest of them change costumes on stage, which distracts from the music Musorgski wrote. At the end of the nearly four hours one gets the impression that the drama of Boris is almost nonexistent and that the Russian people don’t become the protagonist of the opera until the very end of it end, at the scene of Kromi.

Hartmut Haenchen was back at the podium of Teatro Real, after his outstanding Lady Macbeth of Mtsenk last year (S&H review here). This time things were not as good. The first half of the opera was dull, with the exception of Pimen scene. Matters improved in the second half, after the Polish act. The three final scenes, at last, showed the conductor who so impressed me in Shostakovich’s opera. The orchestra gave a remarkable performance, having come a long way during the last two years. The choir was also excellent, especially in the latter part of the opera.

Günther Groissböck is a remarkable singer, as he has proved in the past, just not the singer required for Boris Godunov. His voice lacks power in the center and even more at the top. This opera missed the exceptional interpreter it needs. That sense of missing something was heightened by the presence of Evgeny Nikitin as Rangoni, when he is the go-to Boris when the opera is performed at the Mariinsky.

The best vocal performance of the night came from Russian bass Dmitri Ulyanov as the hermit Pimen. His voice is wide, round, attractive and well projected. Stefan Margita is one of the best performers today in these character roles, well suited for Prince Vasiliy Ivanovich Shuysky. He is an accomplished actor and his voice runs easily through the house.

Michael König as the false Dmitriy had little to offer as far as his voice is concerned. When the tessitura rises he has pitch problems and gets accident prone, much the same as last month at Barcelona’s Liceu. Marina was sung by Julia Gertseva who has a huge voice but none too attractive a timbre, a thin top register, devoid of sensuality. Evgeny Nikitin, more unctuous than threatening, was well-suited to the character of Rangoni. But this is not a role to shine in, and he didn’t. Among the secondary roles Anatoli Kotscherga stood out as an excellent Varlaam and Andrei Popov’s Fool proved that that role always incurs the favor of the audience.

José MªIrurzun