Munich’s Godunov: A Bullet to the Head

GermanyGermany M. Musorgsky, Boris Godunov: Soloists, Bavarian State Orchestra, Kent Nagano (conductor), Bavarian State Orchestra, 20.2.2012 (JFL)

Direction: Calixto Bieito
Sets: Rebecca Ringst
Costumes: Ingo Krügler
Lighting: Michael Bauer
Chorus: Sören Eckhoff
Dramaturgy: Andrea Schönhofer

Boris Godunov: Alexander Tsymbalyuk
Fyodor: Yulia Sokolik
Kseniya: Eri Nakamura
Nurse: Heike Grötzinger
Shuysky: Gerhard Siegel
Shchelkalov: Markus Eiche
Pimen: Anatoli Kotscherga
Grigoriy / False Dimitri: Sergey Skorokhodov
Varlaam: Vladimir Matorin
Yuródivïy / Holy Fool: Kevin Conners
Nikitich: Goran Jurić
Mityukha: Tareq Nazmi
Vagabond Misail: Ulrich Reß
et al.

Kevin Conners as the Holy Fool in Calixto Bieito's Boris Godunov
Picture courtesy Bavarian State Opera, © Wilfried Hösl
available at Amazon
M.Musorgsky, Boris Godunov (1869 & Rimsky Korsakov editions),
V.Gergiev, Kirov, Soloists

available at Amazon
M.Musorgsky, Boris Godunov
(1872 ‘R.K.’ Edition)
V.Gergiev, Kirov, Soloists

Calixto Bieito must be getting old: His new production at the Bavarian State Opera ofModest Musorgsky’s Boris Godunov (original version in four acts and seven scenes) doesn’t feature full frontal nudity. This third performance since the February 13th premiere didn’t even draw a single Boo! At least it holds plenty violence in store. In the wake of False Dmitri (Dmitri the Pretender a.k.a. novice Grigory) bodies pile up, shot at point blank range and strangled with a pillow case. Not all of this can be found in the libretto, but all the efforts of Bieito notwithstanding, the operatic version still remains considerably less violent than the reality of that part—the “Time of Troubles”—in Russian history.

It has been a while since I last saw a Boris: It was 2005, when Valery Gergiev conducted the Mariinsky Orchestra at the Kennedy Center; the staging (also of the unedited 1869 version) was a spruced-up traveling show—all light and foldable, a bit conventional, yet exquisite. Bieito and the State Opera lavished their considerably greater and more expensive attention on the staging, yet achieved little more.

Boris Godunov tells the story of the rise and fall of the third Russian Tsar in seven, not particularly connected pictures. It might be argued whether or not it is a duty of a production to connect that which isn’t; it might equally be argued whether Bieito doesn’t succeed in doing so, or whether he didn’t try. He badly flounders through the first act, with a tiresome “oppressed crowd scene”. Bieito at his best is an ingenious director, but, alas, hampered by his do-gooder ignorance about economics and his anarchic hyper-sensitivity to oppression by the state and clichéd ideas of capital. (Granted, he’s not the only econ-ignoramus in the opera world: Whenever menacing consumerism, evil globalization, and threatening free markets are hoisted onto the stage, I’m reminded of Mitchell & Webb’s “Lazy Writers’ Emergency Medical Treatment”.) Instead of delivering a first scene with an ultimately felt plea for Boris to become Tsar (interrupted by blips of violent ‘peace-keeping’ against mock-trouble-makers), we get ham-handed people-oppression in riot gear, with clumsy overtones of Pussy Riot, anti-austerity messages, and so erratic and pointless in its mildly sadistic aggression that it’s no longer threatening, but ludicrous.

The good news is that it gets only better from thereon. Rebecca Ringst built Bieito a ‘Machine’ for Boris which takes over from the second picture onward. It looks something like a cross of a spice harvester on Dune with a stranded barge, and it opens its many mouths of rough metal exterior to a multi-room palace on the inside. A totalitarian Kinder Egg, if you will. On the inside: Alexander Tsymbalyuk’s young and strapping Boris (in terrific, clear and resonant voice) who wonders and wanders, and instructs his little Fyodor. The latter is sung by Yulia Sokolik (an adult female), and perfectly congruously performed as a little girl. (Her inclusion as a woman added at least another female role to the two lady-cameos of this version. (Xenia, Boris’ daughter, and her nurse are the otherwise sole representatives of their gender.) Bieito’s conspiracy scene of the boyars is intimate and chilling, with the cunning Prince Shuysky plotting away like Wallace Shawn as Vizzini, in Gerhard Siegel fine tenor.

The violence and the dark set, down to Dmitri’s final murder spree, suit the bleak original version—both musically and dramatically speaking. But perhaps too well: The whole affair, without intermission, and with Kent Nagano’s often brittle touches, end up feeling more slow-going and dreary than need be. Nagano wasn’t all hardened cool, though: The softer his Bavarian State Orchestra played, the more sensitive and nuanced it got, emoting gentle empathy. (Only the horns had off night with plenty cracks.)

Vladimir Matorin skillfully indulged in the popular, populist role of Varlaam, the inebriated monk-cum-vagabond. The Innkeeper (Okka von der Damerau), now a beggarly street food vendor, gets happily molested and her little girl abused. It’s hardly a surprise when she shoots the border guards to facilitate Grigoriy/Dmitri’s escape. Anatoly Kotscherga, with soulful timbre and artless dignity, was a stand-out Pimen. Kevin Conners, the State Opera’s man for everything, did himself proud as Yuródivïy (the Holy Fool) who ends up with a bullet in the cranium, courtesy of a manipulated little girl that evidently broke bad.

Jens F. Laurson