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Classical 101

Metropolitan Opera's 'Boris Godunov'

If you read my report about the Metropolitan Opera's HD transmission of its new production of Richard Wagner's Das Rheingold (The Rhine Gold), you might have detected more than a hint of nervousness in it: Good voices, but where was the acting, I wondered in pixels. Nice pipes don't cut it; we want serious drama, too. I am happy to report that, despite Das Rheingold's dramatic deficiencies, drama is still alive and well at the Met in its brand-new production of Modest Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov. At least, it seemed pretty darn good from Row 12 of the Easton Town Center 30 in Columbus, Ohio, where I viewed the live HD transmission of the production last Saturday. The German bass René Pape will almost certainly go down in history as one of the world's great Borises, and he was surrounded by a cadré of other great singer/actors. All this great drama in an opera that, dramatically speaking, typically gets off to a slow start. Much of Act I of Boris seems to loll along, riding the wave of rich and brilliant music that is Mussorgsky's score. According to that score, Act I is to open on the chorus of Russians in the courtyard of the monastery to which Boris, having left the throne of Russia, has retreated. Then we are to see Boris' Coronation Scene, which although some of the most brilliant (and motivically important) music in the opera, tends to bog down beneath the weight of Boris' ponderous anxiety. But in the Metropolitan Opera's production, we are first introduced, not to the chorus, but to the Holy Fool, the mendicant moralist portrayed by Andrey Popov, who, in a stunning pantomime, set the dramatic tone of the opera. Through his gestures, his tremors, his moments of eerie fixation on the cross, and his ecstatic seizures Popov embodies the Holy Fool, the drama's symbol of God-breathed truth without uttering a single word.

HD review

When the monastery courtyard does fill with the chorus of Russians, in Peter Stein/Stephen Wadsworth's production we are confronted, not with a mindless mob, but instead, with a crowd of infinite dramatic subtlety. Tight camera shots enabled those of us viewing the HD transmission to truly see individuals on stage. But those same tight shots failed to give us a picture of the overall crowd scene. And, as exquisite as the chorus' subtleties are in this production, how these subtleties coalesce into a greater whole -- the tableau -- is, in my view, more dramatically important. But tight camera shots were a boon when it came to feeling the depth of conflict that plagued René Pape's Boris. The press has called Pape's Boris "riveting," "superb" and "impassioned." I got the sense that, in getting to know his character (this is Pape's third production in this role), Pape got in touch with the frustration, paranoia and despair that ultimately kills his character. With the camera's help, subtleties in Pape's gestures and facial expressions exposed nuances in Boris' conflicted soul that, however good the acting, may or may not have had the same effect when viewed from the nosebleed section at Lincoln Center. The gentle smile and delicate tilting of the head as Boris watched his children romp around together in Act II were gestural nuances that, on camera, came across with tremendous dramatic strength. In those gestures we saw that Pape's Boris is a man who cannot contain his love for his children, which causes us to doubt that he killed, or abetted the killing of Tsarevich? Pape's Boris, captured so subtly through the camera, throws us further into doubt about what ultimately drives him mad: not a guilty conscience, but the innuendo of the crowd. What results is nothing less than an existentialist Boris. I should not neglect to mention mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Semenchuk's Marina and bass-baritone Evgeny Nikitin's Rangoni. Both singers were focused on conveying their conceptions of their characters, even if, both characters, as drawn in the libretto, are less three-dimensional than we might like.

The over-sized book

But, perhaps, the most interesting character in this drama is the over-sized book that first appears in Act I when the monk Pimen tells us he is writing it, and remains near the front of the stage through the rest of the opera. Some reviews have panned or misinterpreted the book and what it symbolizes. Not a constant "reminder of the power of reason and intellectual thought," as one writer deemed it, the book, as Pimen tells us in Act I, is a symbol of history, and history is not just a record of what happened in the past; it's also, more subversively, a record of how the writers of history viewed those events. Voltaire put it better, if not more cynically: "History consists of an accumulated series of imaginative inventions." When viewed as a symbol of both events and human interpretation of them, the ever-present book in the Met's Boris Godunov anchors the production for us in a profound quest for truth. Are the rumors really true? Did Boris really kill the young Tsarevitch? Even if Pimen claimed so in his large book of history, before passing his pen to Grigory/Dmitri to finish the story as the pretender who claims Boris' throne, that does not necessarily make the story true. And when the Holy Fool -- the symbol of divine truth and Russian Orthodox authority -- claims that heaven does not accept prayers for murderers of children, our desire for the truth is only reignited. In the realm of this opera's dramatic events, when Marina, triumphant in sealing her allegiance with Grigory/Dmitri, the pretender, and Rangoni, the symbol of Catholic Church power, stands on a map of the Russian empire spread over the book, the symbolism is clear: The interpretation of this coup will join the interpretations of other events in the great book of history. The book plays the same role, though, with greater poignancy when Boris' young son lies about with his playthings. In doing so, the Tsarevitch innocently enough predicts his own future -- a future that comes to him sooner than the boy might have imagined. And in the end, it is the book of history -- what people do and what other people say about it -- that creates, through our understanding of it the world as we know it, all its physical and emotional color. While it still might not be truth, that, my friends, is drama.