The Mariinsky’s Boris Godunov Hits Its Mark

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Modest Musorgsky, March 21, 1839 – March 28, 1881

The number of performances of Boris Godunov produced the biggest change in the Mariinsky Festival’s schedule since it was first announced in the summer of 2005. At first, there were to be only two. Then last winter Gergiev added a third, and for whatever reason, he decided the Festival would undertake a fourth.

Coming after Wagner’s Ring and three Shostakovich evening concerts, surely the musical burden of four performances of Boris fell on the shoulders of the Kirov Orchestra, and it would not be farfetched to presume that a sense of fatigue could possibly settle in.

Not surprisingly, Gergiev and his forces, being the workhorses they are, seemed to find the necessary energy to give each performance of Boris an intense and moving rendition . No doubt, they were aided by mounting Modest Musorgsky’s 1869 version, which calls for seven scenes in one two-hour-and-twenty minute performance.

This production of Musorgsky’s original version, which premiered in St. Petersburg, in 2002, has travelled to England and France before making its American debut in Costa Mesa, CA.

The biggest advantage of having four performances for the Festival’s audiences was the opportunity to hear two distinct interpretations of Boris Godunov, a ruler, who, in Puskin’s drama and Musorgsky’s opera, was responsible for the murder of the nine-year old Tsarevich Dimitry.

Both the voices of Nikolay Putilin and Vladimir Ognovenko fit comfortably within the vocal range Musorgsky composed for his protagonist. Putilin’s burnished baritone was able to negotiate Boris’ sorrowful, reflective moments, and Ognovenko’s bass easily sculpted the Tsar’s fearful recollection of his many tormented moments. But these seasoned performers brought so much more to their interpretations.

Putilin, physically bulkier of the two, nonetheless was able to move around the stage with a natural but regal persona. In Scene Five, however, in Boris’ monologue, set in the Tsar’s apartments in the Moscow Kremlin, the baritone vividly contrasted his public stature as divine ruler with his search to relieve his private torment by begging God to have pity on his soul, adding another dimension to his solid portrayal. And Ognovenko presented an older Boris, one whose body as well as his spirt was slowly eaten up over the years by his constant mental suffering, so that by the time of the last scene arrived, Ognovenko’s Boris yearned for death.

Since Musorgsky’s original version concentrates mostly on Boris’ journey, starting with his coronation and ending with his demise, both performers had the luxury of filling out their characterizations with all the emotional sides the composer vigorously captured in Russian opera’s most important historical figure.

Because Boris represents the emotional core of Russian Opera and has been at the center of the Russian repertoire for such a long time, the Mariinsky and Gergiev had a much easier time casting the work than they did with Wagner’s Ring. Alexander Morozov’s Pimen the monk was aptly noble in voice, but Gennady Bezzubenkov’s Pimen projected a fuller resonance. As Dimitry, the Pretender to Russia’s throne, Maxim Aksenov’s tenor displayed a secure, focused sound, but Oleg Balashov offered a more vigorous characterization. Mikhail Petrenko’s itinerant monk, Varlaam expanded the character’s sottish ramblings with physical humor, while Bezzubenkov’s accomplished Varlaam’s comic turns through vocal means.

Underlying the political strife that permeates Boris Godunov was Musorgsky’s understanding of the heartbreak and relentless suffering that the Russian people have withstood due to their leaders. Two shining examples that spoke of this in the opera were Yevgeny Akimov’s Simpleton who beautifully outlined his dire poverty while exercising his right to speak freely about the Tsar’s assassination of the young Dmitry and the chorus’ powerful declamation in portraying the wretched daily lives of the people.

Again, set designer, George Tsypin, finds himself in the middle of a storm of controversy. This time it’s over his production concept of Boris Godunov which took a shellacking from critics in London and Paris when it appeared in 2005. Both Rupert Christiansen, in the arts.telegraph on line and George Hall for The Guardian objected strenuously to Tsypin’s production. Christiansen dismissed any idea of salvation for Tsypin’s production by stating,…”the conductor Valery Gergiev and the set designer George Tsypin…have cobbled together an apology for a production…Tsypin provides lots of minimalist blackness and opaque glass structures…drawn from 1960’s science fiction. There’s no sense of the soul of Mother Russia.” Hall, likewise shared Christiansen’s words of condemnation. “The souvenir programme credits Valery Gergiev and designer George Tsypin for the ’stage conception,’ which implies that the Kirov’s artistic supremo and chief conductor holds responsibility for the visual as well as the musical side of the show. If so, he should have left it to…others.”

Stephen Mudge, writing for Opera News On Line in Paris, even alluded to some possible medical malpractice on Tsypin’s part while invoking Christiansen’s science fiction theme. “For Boris, much of the fault could be laid at the door of designer, George Tsypin. Poor Boris was given a personal gilded cage for the coronation that cropped up again toward the end of the opera. This was not to correct some unannounced orthopedic problem but an all too obvious symbol for the character’s trapped isolation. As for the rest, the hideous colors and very plastic-looking set elements, all evoked the set of a low-budget science fiction movie more than Imperial Russia.”

By the time the production arrived at the Mariinsky Festival in Orange County, the American critics put forth a kinder, gentler approach to Tsypin’s transgressions. In fact, Chrisite Grimstad comments in Concerto seemed almost ecstatic compared to Christensen, Hall and Mudge’s diatribes. She noted, “Far from the traditional , the talented George Tsypin modernized Boris Godunov to a minimalist, yet inventive production by rising and falling elaborately textured columms…and disturbingly mutated onion domes. By reducing the elaborateness of sets Tsypin enabled the audience to fully absord the emotions of the characters with the aid of powerful orchestral interludes.” And Timothy Mangan, in the Orange County Register and Mark Swed in The Los Angeles Times were not far behind in their critiques. Mangan said, “The production was a bit of a puzzler, though in its essentials it served the opera well enough. In the coronation scene, Boris appears in a jeweled, robe-shaped cage on wheels. Trapped, I guess. The massive columns of the palace, and other furniture, are decorated in a sea motif- shells, barnacles, starfish.” Perhaps Swed said it best about Tsypin’s production for the audiences at the Festival, “He has taken Musorgsky at his most naturalistic and made him fantastical, creating an aquatic Boris.”

But Tsypin’s Boris fared better than his production of Wagner’s Ring. This time, abetted by Gergiev’s insightful orchestral reading of Musorgsky’s dramatic text combined with the casts’ natural aptitude for emotional exactness, Mariinsky’s remarkable artistry was propelled into a shining reality.

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