This performance of Boris Godunov by Modest Musorgsky with the libretto by the composer based freely on a tragedy of the same name by Alexander Pushkin was staged by Yuri Alexandrov by the St Petersburg Opera at the Orpheum Theater, Phoenix, AZ, on November 3, 2001
On November 3rd 2001, the Saint-Petersburg Opera bussed into Phoenix, Arizona, on the last stop of its Southwest tour which took the company first to Los Angeles, then to Santa Barbara. The company’s appearance, sponsored by the 2001-2002 Southwest Arts and Center Group, was certainly an atypical venture for this arts council. What the audience saw that evening in the beautifully refurbished Orpheum The ater with its gilded bas-relief ceilings and large scenic side murals typi cal of the 1920s was a memorable performance of Modest Mus orgsky’s original 1869 version of Boris Godunov, billed in the program as a “Folk Drama in two Acts”.. based on the “tragedy of A. Pushkin, in the first author’s edition. ”
What came together that night at the Orpheum was an interesting evening of firsts: a Russian opera company most likely making its only tour of the Southwest; a chance for opera goers to see this version of Musorgsky’s opera; and, finally, the only version in which all seven scenes of the opera cover Boris’ life only from the exultation of his coronation to the anguish of his death.
One reason to see Mussorgsky’s 1869 version of the opera is the fact that the composer used Alexander Pushkin’s drama as his main literary source while writing his own libretto. Unfortunately for the composer, this version was never performed during his lifetime. According to Stan ley Sadie, it may be that “owing to the `predominance of politics’ and the absence of romance, Boris Godunov had been pronounced unfit for (con ventional) operatic treatment by Alexander Serov, the chief musical pun dit of the day…” (In this early version, Musorgsky had not yet created the two scenes with the Polish Marina and the Jesuit Rangoni, two plot tens against Boris who appear in the 1874 version of the opera.)
After seeing this performance, I came to realize what an unusual version it is. Musorgsky pared down Pushkin’s play to a length suit able for a musical setting, concentrating only on Boris’s character. This gave continuity to the events in the opera and allowed bass Edem Umerov as Boris plenty of room to develop his character. Younger than most singers who take on this role, Umerov’s youthful bearing seemed to age as the tragedy progressed from one scene to the next. By the time Umerov reached Boris’ final moments of madness he was able, through the full round tones he used to delineate the text, to get the audience to share in his despair. Under Yuri Alexandrov’s well-paced and com pelling direction, Umerov’s poignant characterization grew from fearful self-deception to fateful acceptance of his own death.
Two examples will suffice to show how Alexandrov’s direction and Umerov’s characterization worked together to heighten the intensity culled from Pushkin’s drama and expressed so well by the composer in his music and libretto. One comes in the opening scene of Act Two as Prince Vasilii Shuisky informs Boris of the Pretender’s growing support to claim the throne of Russia. The other occurs in the opera’s final scene when Boris, now hallucinating over his involvement in the death of the Tsarevich Dmitrii, descends into the agonies of mental illness.
Alexandrov takes an unusual approach to the Shuisky/Boris con frontation. Throughout most of the scene, he has Pavel Derkach, por traying Shuisky, and Umerov face the audience with Umerov standing behind and to the right of Derkach so that both men’s faces and body movements are seen full face. The audience sees all the hatred and con descending attitude in Shuisky’s character and the trepidation and rage boiling within Umerov’s Boris. The scene culminates with Boris throw ing Shuisky to the ground in rabid frustration and Shuisky getting up and running out, all the while threatening to ruin Boris. This scene is reminiscent of two of Verdi’s great operatic moments: Otello’s anger and frustration with lago as the latter plants the seed of jealousy that will lead to Otello’s ruin, and King Philip’s bitterness at the Grand In quisitor’s power to rob Philip of his authority as king in Don Carlos.
In the final scene of the opera, Alexandrov works against conven tion. He dresses Boris in white robes and surrounds him with a beatific light with a white panel in the background. While Boris sings through the hellish torment of his guilt over his complicity in the death of the Tsasrevich and his regrets over his failure as a father to his two children, Alexandrov brings him onto the road to forgiveness and redemption and allows him to die standing up. Here, Umerov’s bulk seems to take over the stage as the audience views his transformation from an evildoer to a saved soul.