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The Hollow Crown

New York
The Metropolitan Opera
10/11/2010 -  and October 15, 18, 23, 25, 30*, 2010, March 9, 12, 17, 2011
Modest Mussorgsky: Boris Godunov
René Pape (Boris Godunov), Oleg Balashov (Shuisky), Aleksandrs Antonenko (Grigory/The Pretender Dimitry), Mikhail Petrenko (Pimen), Ekaterina Semenchuk (Marina), Evgeny Nikitin (Rangoni), Vladimir Ognovenko (Varlaam), Andrey Popov (Holy Fool),Valerian Ruminski (Nikitich), Barbara Dever (Hostess at the Inn), Jennifer Zetlan (Xenia), Jonathan A. Makepeace (Feodor), Alexey Markov(Shchelkalov), Larisa Shevchenko (Nurse), Mikhail Svetlov (Mitiukha), Gennady Bezzubenkov (Police Officer), Mark Schowalter (Chernikovsky), Andrew Oakden (Lavitsky), Dennis Petersen (Khrushchov)
Metropolitan Opera Chorus, Donald Palumbo (Chorus Master), Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Pavel Smelkov (Conductor)
Stephen Wadsworth (Production), Ferdinand Wögerbauer (Set Design), Moidele Bickel (Costume Design), Duane Schuler (Lighting Design), Apostolia Tsolaki (Choreography)

R. Pape (© Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)

“For God's sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings;
How some have been deposed; some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed;
Some poison'd by their wives: some sleeping kill'd;
All murder'd: for within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court.”
(Shakespeare, Richard II)

Richard II was one of Shakespeare’s history plays. It chronicles the fall of a king, at the hands of his usurper Henry Bolingbroke. But Richard, who was more of a poet than a ruler, was really destroyed by his own weakness. In a sense his end was self induced. Boris Godunov, Tsar of all Russia, lived in the 16th century. Legend has it that he came to power after he murdered the young Tsarevich Dimitri. Boris, as we know him through Pushkin’s play and then Mussorgsky’s opera, certainly believes that he killed Dimitri. While his usurper, the monk Grigory, does snatch power at the opera’s end, he does so only after Boris dies, a victim of his overwhelming guilt and resultant mental disintegration. In a sense, Boris is a suicide.

This production, only the third of this opera in the Met’s 127 year history, was conceived by the noted German director, Peter Stein, whose conception was essentially finished when, three months before the première, he suddenly withdrew. Stephen Wadsworth replaced him one month before technical rehearsals began. So it seems more appropriate to speak of Stein’s conception than Wadsworth’s, although the latter surely made a substantial contribution as the director. Stein’s central metaphor is the book of history, here a huge tome in which the monk and scribe Pimen chronicles the events. In one scene, René Pape as Boris actually wraps the pages around himself and becomes a captive of history or at least of historical forces.

I can imagine that many people will dislike the staging and criticize it as too plain and even boring. Boris in 2 D instead of HD perhaps? While I can understand such objections, I think the staging, wedded to Stein’s basic concept, is wonderfully imaginative and visually rich. The vast Met stage is relatively bare with the space for the action pushed forward, compressed, and thus virtually drained of depth. The sets are radically simple and largely two dimensional– really just a series of flats and drop-down panels. The tableaux created by Stein and his brilliant and imaginative costume designer, Moidele Bickel, emerge as illustrations from the book of history; they are freeze-frame images (or friezes) which evoke, through their carefully composed structure, actual paintings. While the history we see and hear is emphatically Russian, the tableaux – at least to me – are reminiscent of the works of artists far removed in time and space from the Russian context.

Perhaps the most clearly derived painterly inspiration appears in the scene outside the inn, where we first meet Varlaam. When the panel drops down and the singers take their places, we find ourselves looking at a fair approximation of a Dutch genre painting by Jan Steen. I will mention just two more examples: The opening scene, in which armed men in bright red coats hold back the crowds, seems to me to be an evocation of an early Renaissance painting, with its flat composition, bright colors, and repetitive poses. The closing scene, features a large angry crowd in a claustrophobic space, erupting with rage, violence and murder. The taut dynamism and dramatic lighting remind me of Caravaggio. From a visual point of view, Boris must play brilliantly in HD.

There were only two characters on stage who are in a sense outside of history – Pimen the transcriber, and the Holy Fool, who functions as a sort of oracle and conscience. The marvelous lighting of these two characters in their various scenes emphasizes their otherness. But it is with the more worldly characters that Wadsworth makes his strongest contribution to the production. Clearly, he helped the singers actualize themselves as psychologically complex beings. Boris, especially, emerges as a highly sympathetic character – a loving father and a flawed man confronting the inner demons which gradually take hold and literally destroy him. Wadsworth’s work with Marina, her evil advisor, Rangoni, and the False Dimitri illuminates their characters and their motivation.

With any production of Boris, much more than is the case with other operas, what we see and hear is a matter of choice. Mussorgsky wrote two versions, one in 1869 and the other five years later. In the second, he added the so-called Polish act, in part to placate critics who complained that his opera had no important female character. Adding to the menus of choices is the existence of the late 19th century orchestration by Rimsky-Korsakov, who despite his being Russian, transformed Mussorgsky’s orchestration into one that was thought to be more pleasing to western ears. The Met’s 1974 production made use of Mussorgsky’s own orchestration, as does this one.

The new Met Boris is quite long, incorporating as it does virtually everything Mussorgsky wrote for the opera, It all made for a long evening (or in my case, afternoon), running just over four hours with two intermissions. With his later additions, there is more attention to the character and motivation of the False Dimtri, and rather less to Boris who, given the amount of time during which he is not even on stage, becomes more of a pawn of historical forces than the tragic centerpiece of the opera.

Mussorgsky’s score, brilliantly conducted by Pavel Smelkov, is harmonically rich, with its strong modal character and the pervasive influence of the accents of the Russian language and of indigenous folk music. The beautifully sung choral prayers and lamentations are clearly reminiscent of music of the Russian Orthodox Church. The score has an almost chamber music delicacy and the Met orchestra, with particular kudos to the woodwinds, beautifully illuminates the textural lines. The Met chorus of 120 members was magnificent musically and dramatically. In their varying incarnations – as a pilgrims’ chorus and a vengeful, murderous mob -- they were equally persuasive; their dynamic and dramatic range was exemplary.

The soloists also performed to a very high standard. René Pape was a terrifyingly vulnerable Boris in the grip of his demons as he lurched about the stage. Soon after he assumed power, he sat on the throne – which faced left and not the audience – but only barely. He was perched on the edge of the seat, a telling manifestation of his reluctance to rule. Throughout, Pape was deeply in character as he unraveled psychologically before our eyes and ears. While he seemed to lack the ruthlessness of a Tsar, he did plumb the nuances of Boris’s interior life. Most touching were his scenes with his children, beautifully portrayed by Jennifer Zetlan as Xenia and Jonathan Makepeace as the young Tsar to be, Feodor. The death scene in which both children crawled across the floor to lie beside the lifeless body of their father was wrenching. Pape sang with his customary beauty of tone and fine legato, phrasing, and diction.

For vocal beauty, top honors go to Mikhail Petrenko who was a marvelous Pimen, the wise monk who chronicled all that unfolded before him. He has a gorgeous deep, dark rolling bass, He also has excellent technique and fine dramatic skills. This is the third role I have seen him assume in New York and he is superb in everything he does. I look forward, one day, to hearing him as Boris.

Aleksandrs Antonenko has a fine tenor voice with power and beauty of tone, but he was not dramatically convincing as the False Dimtri. Ekaterina Semenchuk’s dark, dusky mezzo was splendid as the perfidious and scheming Marina. There were so many excellent bass voices on the Met stage; Vladimir Ognovenko as Varlaam and Alexey Markov as Shchelkalov deserve special mention. Andrey Popov’s Simpleton was a beautifully sung rather otherworldly presence. Barbara Dever, substituting for Olga Savova, gave a fine performance as the Hostess of the Inn.

Moidele Bickel’s costumes were inventive and, except for the white puffy creations of the Polish act, just marvelous. The opulence of the fabrics played beautifully against the starkness of the set. The lighting of Duane Schuler added immeasurably to the dramatic impact, most notably, in the scenes with Boris on his throne and the aforementioned illuminations of Pimen and the Holy Fool.

Arlene Judith Klotzko



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