Italy Mussorgsky, Boris Godunov (1869): Orchestra and Chorus of La Scala Opera, Treble Voice Chorus of La Scala Academia / Riccardo Chailly (conductor). La Scala, Milan, 7.12.2022. (GT)
Director – Kasper Holten
Set designer – Es Devlin
Costume designer – Ida Marie Ellekilde
Lighting designer – Jonas Bǿgh
Video Artist – Luke Halls
Boris Godunov – Ildar Abdrazakov
Pimen – Ain Anger
Grigory – Dmitry Golovnin
Fyodor – Lilly Jørstad
Xenia – Anna Denisova
Nurse – Agnieszka Rehlis
Prince Shuisky – Norbert Ernst
Schelkalov – Alexey Markov
Varlaam – Stanislav Trofimov
Misail – Alexander Kravets
Innkeeper -Maria Barakova
Simpleton – Yaroslav Abayomi
Navitech – Oleg Budaratskiy
Mityukha – Roman Astakhov
Boyar in Attendance – Vassily Solodky
Pushkin’s play based on Tsar Boris Godunov is among the pearls of Russian literature, and Mussorgsky’s genius elevates it to one of the masterworks of Russian and world opera. Since its 1873 premiere it has been cloaked in controversy with a narrative as relative today as it was in the times of the Romanovs. In musical terms, there are debates because of the most popularly staged (yet flawed) Rimsky-Korsakov orchestration of 1872, which was re-orchestrated by Shostakovich, and also arranged in a completion by David Lloyd-Jones. More recently, the original orchestration by Mussorgsky of 1869 has become more common. The last occasion I saw this opera was at the Mariinsky Opera four years ago in the joint production with Covent Garden by Andrey Tarkovsky (1982). That is a fine production but is faulty with the compromised values of the staging, and the weakness of the sets.
A far more successful effort was at the Kiev State Opera in 1994 which embraced all the glorious aspects of Rimsky-Korsakov’s score and was blessed with effective direction and singers worthy of any stage. Pushkin’s play is a rich page in Russian and world literature and is provocative in dealing with eternal questions of political power and its abuse. While Pushkin used the texts of Nikolay Karamzin’s History of the Russian State in dealing with the ‘Times of Troubles’ in the sixteenth century, the play is appropriate to many times in Russian history – and like Shakespeare, examines the corruption of despots and the enslavement of their peoples. I was able to gain deeper understanding when I attended a production of Pushkin’s eponymous play at the St Petersburg Drama Theatre which revealed it as an astonishingly dramatic work equal to any of the Bard’s tragedies.
Kasper Holten’s production is based on the original score of 1869, with its natural orchestral language and the recitatives absent from the Rimsky-Korsakov version of 1872. The latter – with its three additional scenes – has another main character, and features Marina’s boudoir, the Fountain scene and the Kromy scene. The opening scene in this new La Scala production has a backdrop of a map of sixteenth-century Russia, and there is a draping scroll telling the story of Russia in Karamzin’s hand projected onto the stage.
In the Prologue, at the Novodevichy Monastery, the crowd scene has Schelkalov calling the people to rise against the Tsar, and it is impressively handled, as is the following magnificent glory of Boris’s coronation. This is effected by a door opening in the scroll which reveals the Kremlin Palace from which Russian priests and the Tsar’s entourage emerge as, eventually, does Boris. This is most spectacular, both musically and visually, with glorious choral singing from left and right wings. It is clear that Ildar Abdrazakov (Boris) is a superb singing-actor with a warm lyrical voice. As he sings, the ghost of the murdered Dmitry appears behind him in a blood-stained shirt, and this terrible spectre continues to haunt Boris by staring into the faces of Fyodor and Xenia. There is a tremendously effective moment when Boris returns to enter the Kremlin – he suddenly turns to meet the deathly stare of Dmitry. The scene closes magnificently with the tolling of bells.
In the first act’s cell scene, the priest Pimen narrates Boris’s killing of the child Dmitry and this inspires Grigory the Imposter to claim the Tsar’s throne. Without any interruption, we move to the border of Lithuania, and rather than a modest inn, we are at the fence patrolled by forbiddingly black uniformed border guards. The Imposter appears and meets the Innkeeper and Varlaam and his friends, and in the unfolding scene, there is great singing by Maria Barakova’s Innkeeper, and Grigory finally makes his exit rather absurdly by abseiling up the scroll to enter Lithuania.
Act II opens in Boris’s apartment in the Kremlin with a bed, a couch and desk. Xenia, Fyodor, and the Nurse are attired in nineteenth-century dress. Boris sings of his plight mixed with a lust for power and rages at the ungrateful people. All of the deceptiveness and double-dealing of Shuisky is portrayed by the acting and singing of Norbert Ernst. However, Boris is mindful of his betrayal and tries to kill Shuisky. Boris looks on in horror when an image of Dmitry’s death appears on the scroll, and his spectre appears before him again.
For Act III at St Basil’s Cathedral, the people bring corpses on stage and place them before Boris, as he watches in horror, now in torment, Boris discovers the murdered bodies of Fyodor and Xenia, and the ghost of Dmitry now has the crown. In a terrifying scene the dead arise and sing a lament, while the Simpleton sings a terrible prediction of Russia’s terrible fate, ‘Our future, give us bread!’ The people surround Boris, who collapses in horror.
Act IV opens in the Faceted Palace, with Boris on his bed with the boyars in attendance to judge his plight; in the background we see Shuisky meeting the Imposter and kissing his hand, and the prisoner Varlaam arrives with the guards. Pimen tells the seated boyars of Boris’s crimes, and they slowly leave, giving up on the Tsar. Boris’s final monologue is magnificent for its superb acting and singing: Abdrazakov’s broad range and melodic voice together with his eyes and movements revealing all the emotions of his character. As Boris collapses to the floor, Fyodor and Xenia now appear in bloody dresses, as Grigory the Imposter appears above the scroll. The final scene closes with the Imposter staring at the frightened Fyodor and Xenia in a terrible portrayal of their future torments.
It was a tremendous production with outstanding performances from all the principal characters, however, most of all its star was Ildar Abdrazakov, who has a beautifully mellow deep bass lacking the blackness normally associated with Slavic voices, but here his singing – combined with subtle acting – was wholly in character with Boris’s difficult and complex personality. In an excellent ensemble, there were finely crafted interpretations from the outstanding dark bass of Ain Anger’s Pimen and the Innkeeper of Maria Barakova, as well as strong performances from Dmitry Golovnin’s Grigory, Norbert Ernst’s Shuisky and Anna Denisova’s Xenia.
The production is excellent, in particularly, the mix of colours contrasting between the reds and blacks of passion and death with the bright colours of gold and green portraying wealth and nature. This was shown vividly by Luke Halls’s video in projecting Karamzin’s scripts on the giant scroll and the backdrops of Russia in the sixteenth century. Ida Marie Ellekilde’s costumes were colourful and suited to each changing scene and action. Es Devlin’s scenery was restricted to the minimum allowing the drama and music to be at the centre of the tragedy.
Throughout Riccardo Chailly and his orchestra were superb in bringing out all the beauty of Mussorgsky’s score and the best of La Scala. The chorus were terrific in their acting and singing suggesting they are surely one of the finest operatic choruses in the world. In all, this is a magnificent production in which there is no weakness and portrays all the dark tragedy of the composer’s masterpiece which is more than relevant to our own times as it was in sixteenth-century Russia.